RICHMOND, Va. — When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin tucked into their first meal on the moon, it was foil packets of roasted turkey and all the trimmings. With their special packaging, they likely were not concerned about food safety, but it should be at the top of your to-do list for the holidays. Be sure that you purchase, store, prepare and serve food safely and handle leftovers appropriately.
The holiday season requires special consideration to keep food safe. Parties, dinners and special events mean feeding large groups over extended periods of time, and that adds to the need for extra care. Here is a quick refresher course from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Avoid the Danger Zone. Harmful bacteria can grow rapidly in the danger zone between 40° F and 140° F. Try to make food shopping your last errand before going home. At the store, select frozen and refrigerated foods just before going to the checkout register, and when you get home, store them promptly and properly.
Clean thoroughly. Make sure everything that contacts food is as clean as possible. Start with clean hands because they are the most frequently used utensil in the kitchen and can spread bacteria very quickly. Clean dishes and utensils thoroughly, launder dishcloths and towels frequently and sanitize work surfaces, cutting boards and sponges with a mild bleach solution between uses.
Store safely. Plan ahead so you will have adequate storage space in the refrigerator and freezer for all perishable items. This is a good time to clean out and throw away leftovers. Keep cold foods cold – 40° Fahrenheit or less in the refrigerator and 0° Fahrenheit or less in the freezer. Keep a thermometer in each area and remember to check it often.
Cook correctly. Cooking enhances the flavor of food, but its main function is to kill disease-causing microorganisms. To do this job effectively, the internal temperature of the food must reach the recommended level as shown on an instant-read thermometer: beef – at least 150° F; pork – 160° F; poultry – 165° F. Cook ground meats until there is no pink left and the internal temperature reaches 160° F. Reheat leftovers to at least 165° F to kill bacteria that might have multiplied in the cooling process. Cook meat, poultry, fish, egg dishes and casseroles thoroughly in one operation. Do not cook partially and plan to complete the cooking process later.
Separate. Keep raw and cooked foods and their juices separate at all times. Be sure that raw meats do not drip on other foods in the grocery basket, in grocery bags or in the refrigerator. Marinate meats on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to keep juices from spilling on other foods and do not reuse the marinade. Never use the same plate or utensil for cooked food that you used to prepare or transport the raw product.
Entertain safely. Keep the two-hour rule in mind when serving a large meal, buffet or reception. Do not leave perishables at room temperature for more than two hours in cool weather or one hour when it is warmer. Offer food in small serving dishes and replace them often, using a clean dish each time. Keep the replacement food in the refrigerator or oven to maintain the proper temperature until serving. To keep hot foods hot when serving them, consider using an electric serving dish, warming tray or chafing dish. Nest dishes in bowls of ice to keep them cold.
Manage leftovers. Refrigerate leftovers as quickly as possible, discarding any that have been at room temperature for two hours or more. Divide large quantities of hot foods into smaller containers so they will cool more quickly when refrigerated. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165° F and heat gravy to a rolling boil. Use cooked dishes within three days and stuffing and gravy within two days.
Finally, when in doubt, throw it out.
–Elaine Lidholm, VDACS