Q: Mom always cooked our Thanksgiving turkey with the stuffing inside, but I’ve heard that can be dangerous. Why?
A: Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you’re preparing to remove your favorite cake (ahem, vegan and sugarless, of course) from the oven, and the surface is flaky, golden and perfect, but when you poke it with a toothpick, it’s goopy in the middle? There’s your answer.
With oven-baked foods, the outside cooks first because it’s closer to the heat. So when you stuff the bird before baking, it’s possible to fully cook the meat of the turkey while undercooked and potentially bacteria-laden drops of turkey juice linger in the stuffing inside the cavity. The safest option is to cook the stuffing separately and, if you prefer to serve it inside the turkey, insert it after the bird is cooked.
You can also stuff the bird for flavor (with oranges, onions, garlic and herbs, for instance) and later discard that stuffing. Then you separately cook the dressing that will be eaten.
If you insist on cooking it all together but aren’t in the mood for a nice helping of Salmonella with Thanksgiving dinner, use a baking thermometer. Cook the turkey at 325 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and make sure the core of the stuffing reaches at least 165 degrees to kill bacteria.
Q: Is there a safe way to thaw frozen meat that doesn’t take forever?
A: First things first: Don’t leave the meat on the counter to thaw and don’t soak it in hot water. With those thawing methods, the meat could easily reach a “danger zone” temperature of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit—warm enough for bacteria to multiply quickly. Instead use one of these three safe methods:
1. Refrigerator. The safest but slowest way is to thaw meat in the fridge. Allow 24 hours of thaw time for every five pounds of meat. The benefit is that your item can stay in the fridge raw for a while: a day or two for seafood, ground meat or poultry, and three to five days for cuts of red meat.
2. Cold water. Place your meat in a sealed, leak-proof package. Submerge it in cold tap water and change the water every 30 minutes. It should take about an hour to thaw small packages of meat, and two to three hours for a 3- to 4-pound package. Turkeys need about half an hour of thawing time for each pound, and then you should cook the defrosted meat right away.
3. Microwave. Be aware that the microwave can start to cook parts of the meat, which puts it in the danger-zone temperature, so it must be cooked immediately after thawing.
Not loving these options? There’s a bonus method: Don’t thaw! It’s perfectly safe to cook frozen meat or poultry; just allow about 11/2 times as long as it would take to cook the thawed version. The texture will seem a little different, but some chefs actually swear by starting with, for example, a frozen steak.
Q: What’s the scoop on cutting boards? Is wood superior? What’s the best way to clean them? And do I need separate boards for vegetables and meats?
A: Wooden cutting boards may be safer than plastic, possibly because wood has a natural bacteria-killing property. Plastic is easier to sanitize than wood, though, because you can toss it in the dishwasher. With wood, use hot, soapy water; scrub thoroughly; and let it dry completely before using again. We recommend using disposable cloths (Clorox wipes are one example), not sponges, to wash your boards; toss them after one use. You can also disinfect boards by wiping with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide or spraying with white vinegar.
As for separate boards, it’s a great idea. Use one for meats that you’re careful to sanitize afterward and one for vegetables, fruits, bread and other not-so-germy foods that you wash after use but not quite as obsessively. (Yes, you can chop veggies on a sanitized board you’ve previously used for meat, but separate boards are an easier way to ensure your ingredients and your dining companions stay safe.)
Replace your cutting boards when they have a large number of deep grooves, which may be once every couple of years or more often.
Q: Is it safe to eat moldy cheese if you cut off the mold?
A: The general rule is the softer the cheese, the more dangerous it is if mold is growing on it. The issue of cheese and mold can be confusing because molds are actually used in making a lot of cheeses. Some soft cheeses such as Gorgonzola and Roquefort have visible blue and green molds that give the cheese its tangy flavor; others like brie have a “blooming” white rind that continues to grow even after you’ve stuck it in the fridge. Those types of molds are fine.
But if surface mold appears that isn’t part of the natural manufacturing process, it probably isn’t the friendly kind. For those soft cheeses, surface molds that weren’t there when you bought it (other than a potentially expanding white rind) mean it’s time to toss the whole thing.
The same goes for spreadable or gooey cheeses (cream cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese): Mold threads its roots deep into these more yielding surfaces and, unlike with hard cheeses, can sneak its way around the entire cheesy mass. Plus, if there’s mold, there’s a chance that unpleasant bacteria such as Listeria or E. coli is growing alongside it.
Be vigilant with shredded, sliced and crumbled cheeses, too, and chuck ’em entirely as soon as you spot any funky colors.
With hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan, mold has difficulty penetrating deeply, so cut 1 inch out around the mold and 1 inch deep. (Don’t just scrape it off!) Then clean your knife and cutting board well before slicing the rest of the cheese if they’ve had contact with the mold.
Oh, and don’t forget to melt it! There’s no sanitary benefit, but we all know cheese is better when it’s melty.
This article appears in the November 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.