This Thanksgiving Dinner Tradition Could Actually Make You Sick

Nobody wants to get food poisoning on Thanksgiving.

Unless you're a newbie host, making your Thanksgiving guests sick is probably the last thing on your mind. Handling your turkey correctly can go a long way to stopping the spread of bacteria in your kitchen and keeping your dinner guests healthy.

But cooking your turkey thoroughly is of paramount importance, too. Undercooked poultry can cause foodborne illnesses (also called food poisoning). And even if you do fully cook your bird, danger can still lie inside, with the stuffing.

Exercise caution baking your bird this Thanksgiving — especially if it's stuffed. Here's what you need to know about the potential dangers of cooking a stuffed turkey and how to prevent them.

Midsection Of Woman Carrying Tray With Roast Turkey In Kitchen
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Why Stuffing Your Turkey Can Make You Sick

You likely already know that undercooked meat can make people ill. If meat doesn't get hot enough, bacteria like E.coli and Salmonella won't be killed off.

While outside legs and wings may cook quickly, it takes longer for meat closer to the center of the bird to fully cook. Cooking stuffing inside the center of your turkey's carcass, where it's farthest from heat, may mean it is not fully exposed to temperatures that kill bacteria either. Indeed, the stuffing may stay well below the temps needed to kill off the hazardous bacteria.

Animal-based foods including meat, eggs, and dairy, are more likely to experience rapid bacterial growth in the "danger zone," which ranges from 40 and 140 degrees F. So where does stuffing fit into this?

Stuffing recipes usually require raw eggs, which carry with them the risk of bacteria such as Salmonella. If the center of your bird and the stuffing doesn't get warm enough, then that bacteria won't die.

"There is a possibility that the stuffing in the center of a turkey, which has come in contact with the raw cavity of the bird, as well as bacteria, will not reach 165 degrees and the bacteria within won't die, even though the meat is completely cooked," says Sally Stevens, RDN. "Raw poultry harbors bacteria, specifically a nasty type known as Salmonella. We cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees because all bacteria die within 15 seconds at that temperature."

To be fair, the chance of most people developing Salmonella poisoning from stuffing is low, but children, the elderly, or people who are immunocompromised or pregnant are at a higher risk. And the last thing anyone wants on Thanksgiving is food poisoning.

Tips for Cooking a Safer Stuffed Turkey

Fortunately, the risk of developing Salmonella poisoning from undercooked stuffing is an easy ailment to avoid. First things first — if you don't have a food thermometer, you need one as you'll be dealing with exact temperatures.

You'll also need to scale your bird to determine the best temperature and cook time. If you're dead set on stuffing your bird, it's best to go with a smaller turkey.

"The larger the bird, the greater the chance of the stuffing never reaching a temperature high enough to kill the bacteria, so if you want to stuff your bird, choosing a smaller one is in your favor," Stevens says. "Maybe cook two small turkeys instead of one big one if you are feeding a crowd."

Stevens also recommends pulling the stuffing from the bird, covering with foil, and baking until it reaches 165 degrees F (you can do this while you're slicing the turkey, for example). Another trick is to cook the stuffing between breasts instead of inside the cavity.

"When the breast meat is done, remove both breasts from the carcass, cover the turkey with foil, put it back in the oven and continue to cook it until the stuffing reaches 165 degrees F. You can slice the breast meat while you're waiting," Stevens says.

The simplest solution, of course, is to prepare your stuffing separately and cook your bird without any foods inside. You can rest assured everyone will be leaving your house with leftovers, and not food poisoning.


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