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Everyday Cheapskate: Tips to avoid ‘turkey flu’ this holiday season

For years, Liz Tarditi’s mother tried to kill her family with turkey. Not intentionally, of course, but invariably sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas someone in the family developed flu-like symptoms. Mother blamed it on the weather and whatever influenza was going around, but the truth is they suffered from mild food poisoning that required weeks to fully recover.

Tarditi, a professional personal chef, says the way to avoid “the flu” and make sure the holidays are as healthy as they are happy is to practice safe food handling techniques when preparing the Thanksgiving turkey.

Conquer the bacteria. Most poultry contain small amounts of salmonella bacteria that, when ingested, can result in a variety of afflictions all the way from slight illness to death. The way to kill the salmonella in food is with heat and on surfaces with an antibacterial agent.

Make it yourself. Every kitchen needs an effective antibacterial solution. But don’t spend $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of cleaner. Make it yourself: One gallon of 70 F (cool) water plus one teaspoon of liquid bleach. Any warmer and the bleach evaporates; more bleach will harm some surfaces and fabrics. Don’t get obsessive, just measure carefully and stick with this perfect, dirt-cheap recipe that will not harm wood, paint, marble or fabric.

Sanitize liberally. Regularly sanitize all kitchen surfaces with this bleach water, particularly those that may have come in contact with raw poultry, including the inside of the refrigerator.

Proper prep. Clean out your refrigerator before you go shopping for a turkey. Make a place for a large sheet pan to catch the raw runoff drippings while it sits in the fridge. Leave the turkey wrapped and place it in the fridge on the sheet pan. Even sealed in plastic, it will drip. Let the frozen turkey thaw naturally. It will take one day per five pounds.

No thawing shortcuts. Don’t take the frozen turkey out and leave it on the counter to speed thaw. Don’t try to quick-thaw it by placing it into the oven at a low temperature, or in a sink of water. Don’t “blast” it at 500 F for three hours before company arrives. Thawing a turkey any other way than in the refrigerator on a sheet pan for several days invites trouble because it increases the chances that bacteria will make it through the cooking process alive and well.

Early thaw? No worries. Even if the turkey is thawed completely by say, Tuesday, just leave it fully wrapped in the refrigerator. It will still be excellent on Thursday.

Rethink stuffing. As a stuffed bird cooks, raw juices drip into the soft, absorbent stuffing. It may be steaming hot when you spoon it out, so you think it’s fully cooked because the bird is. It’s not. It’s nearly impossible to cook a stuffed turkey to a perfect internal temperature and also guarantee uncontaminated stuffing. Prepare your stuffing as you always have, but bake it in a separate foil-covered pan while the turkey’s roasting. After the bird is fully cooked and out of the oven, mix some of the roasting pan drippings and fat into the stuffing before you make the gravy.

Easy does it. The easiest way to roast a turkey is to set the oven to 325 F. Place the turkey in a roasting pan, season with salt and pepper and put it in uncovered. It will take about 3 hours for a 6-pound turkey; add 10-12 minutes for each additional pound, up to 6 hours total for a 25-pound bird. It’s done when it reads 165 F. Let the bird rest for 20 minutes before carving for juicier and more flavorful meat.

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