Handling Food Leftovers

So, you know how to cook a turkey until it is safe to eat; but what about handling the leftovers?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

turkeyEven though many Americans are eating more meals out of the home and some are turning to “meal kits” to make it pretty painless to cook dinner, we still like to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. Green bean casserole, maybe some roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed white and/or sweet potatoes (with or without marshmallows), stuffing or dressing, and gravy will share the dinner plate with the main attraction, turkey. And more likely than not, way too much food for one meal.

Whether it’s their very first or they are a poultry seasoned veteran, many cooks know that the important thing is to cook a turkey until it reaches a safe temperature—165 degrees F in the thickest part of the thigh. They would not even think twice about eating an undercooked turkey—fearful of the risk of Salmonella or other foodborne pathogen that may be lurking the raw turkey meat. Home cooks, for the most part, have learned that a food thermometer is an essential tool for ensuring that the turkey and stuffing reach the safe end cooking temperature.

But, in what seems like the blink of an eye, the Thanksgiving meal that took hours or days to prepare is enjoyed by all. The turkey is no longer stuffed. But your guests are. What do you do with the leftovers?

Despite the belief that leftovers are yucky (too often dried out during the recook), most of us love the leftovers from a turkey dinner. Keep in mind that it is important to handle the unserved turkey and all the fixings safely if you want to enjoy them for days or even weeks (if frozen) after the holiday.

Consumers generally are less aware of the risks of turkey or other perishable foods once they have been cooked. They know that proper cooking destroys the bacteria or other microorganisms often found in raw foods. Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and Campylobacter are bacteria that cause foodborne illness. And they are destroyed by proper cooking. So once the turkey (and other foods) are cooked, we assume that our worries are over. The Salmonella is gone, kaput, right?

Unfortunately, the answer can be misleading. Yes, the Salmonella is gone. But there are other bad guys stalking the cooked turkey, the gravy or even the mashed potatoes.

Once a food is cooked there is the risk that other pathogens can contaminate it. Microorganisms that can affect cooked food include Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus. All of these bacteria cause what is commonly called an intoxication or true food poisoning. Both Staphylococcus and Bacillus cereus can form toxins in a contaminated food product. The food is contaminated by the bacteria that may come from the kitchen environment, pets, soil, dirty hands, or a cook who is sick. The bacteria forms a toxin in the food and then you get sick when you eat the food. Because toxins are already present in the food, illness usually comes quickly—within 4-12 hours or so. You feel really awful for 24-48 hours with vomiting and/or diarrhea, depending on the amount of toxin in the food and characteristics of the pathogen. Generally these illnesses do not kill you—you just wish you were dead! Clostridium perfringens, on the other hand, contaminates the food and once consumed, produces a toxin in your intestines. It is still a toxin forming bacteria, and symptoms still include diarrhea. But, like the other toxin related illnesses listed here, generally, the illness is not terribly severe and you recover within 24-48 hours.

If you are a healthy person, these illnesses are generally self-limiting: once the toxin is expelled from the body, you recover. However, as with all foodborne illness, people who have compromised immune systems (because they have certain other diseases or take medications that weaken the immune system) are much more likely to suffer serious consequences.

The good news is that these illnesses are easily prevented. Handle leftovers safely and you will not have to spend Black Friday (or Saturday or Sunday, for that matter) in the restroom.

Get the remaining appetizers into the fridge before dinner is even served. After enjoying your meal, quickly work on the dinner leftovers. Cut the turkey off the bones, remove all stuffing, storing it separately. The same is true of mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole and any other cooked leftovers. Once vegetables are cut open and made into salads, they, too, are at risk for contamination. Refrigerate any cooked or cut vegetables or fruits, including salads or relish trays right after dinner as well. You want these foods to cool quickly, so place in shallow containers (no more than 3 inches deep). And, don’t forget the condiments. Butter, cranberry sauce, corn relish, while somewhat less risky, should be returned to the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Even if you get those leftovers refrigerated right after dinner, keep in mind that they won’t last forever. If you don’t think you will be able to eat them within 3-4 days, then it is best to freeze them. Place in shallow freezer containers, label with contents and date and freeze for up to 3-6 months for best quality. If not frozen, leftover cooked meats and vegetables will be safe for up to 3-4 days in a refrigerator kept at no more than 40 degrees F.

Once the food is safely tucked away for the night, it’s time to wash the dishes.

For more information about safe food preparation during the holidays, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, or foodsafety.gov, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

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