Do not (I repeat) do not rinse the turkey

chow_112015-508424345I see conflicting guidance about whether or not to rinse the turkey before roasting it. So, should I or shouldn’t I?

Despite what you might read in your favorite cookbook or go-to online recipe site, food safety authorities are steadfast in their warning not to rinse off raw turkey.

This has been the recommendation for years, in fact. Unfortunately, if you search the Internet, you may find many faulty recommendations that involve rinsing and pat drying the turkey before setting it in the roasting pan. This just doesn’t make sense, and causes more problems than it solves.

The reason is twofold: First, rinsing doesn’t work. It’s true that raw poultry sold in the U.S. is often contaminated with Campylobacter, Salmonella or some other bacteria. It’s also true that poultry is the fourth most common food associated with foodborne illness, and the most common culprit behind deaths from foodborne illness in the U.S. But research by the British Food Standards Agency between 2000 and 2003 showed that rinsing off whole poultry, or beef for that matter, does not actually remove all of the bacteria from the surface of the meat.

Second, and even more important, the act of rinsing off the turkey can actually splatter some bacteria from the surface of the meat all over your sink, onto your kitchen counter and over to anything that happens to be around it — the just-washed breakfast dishes in the drainer, for example, or the cutting board where you’re about to prepare a relish tray. Some estimates say the splatter can spread up to 3 feet away. The researchers examined what happens when people rinse off raw meat, and they concluded that the only effect is that it actually increases the likelihood of contaminating your hands and nearby surfaces. And it’s likely to strike places where you’ll be preparing foods that will not be cooked or roasted in an oven for a few hours where all that bacteria will be destroyed.

What’s more, most people don’t clean up properly. According to the research, people tend to wipe down a counter or sink with a damp cloth and figure they’ve taken care of any microbiological hazard. Sure, you may be more careful than that. After the turkey is in the oven you might wash everything down with hot, soapy water, rinse it off, let it dry and then follow up with a santizing cloth or bleach solution. But it’s Thanksgiving Day — do you really have time for that? Wouldn’t you agree that it’s much easier not to rinse off the turkey in the first place?

So, if your step-by-step guide to preparing Thanksgiving dinner includes the recommendation to rinse off the turkey, please skip that step, and you can feel quite smug about the decision. But be sure to wash your hands, and do so properly — with soap, for at least 20 seconds, rinsing under warm running water, and drying with a clean cloth or paper towel. Washing your hands properly and often is the best thing you can do to prevent foodborne illness.

For more food safety guidance for the holidays and all year round, see

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, Ohio State University Extension state specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

It’s not the turkey that makes you tired

56295406Every year at Thanksgiving, my cousin claims that turkey makes you sleepy. But I thought that myth had been debunked years ago. What’s the story?

Well, don’t be too hard on your cousin. The notion that eating turkey will make you sleepy has been around for a long time. And if you look at your family members after Thanksgiving dinner, it’s likely you will see evidence that it’s true. But it’s not.

The myth started because turkey contains tryptophan. With the help of iron, riboflavin and vitamin B6, the body can convert tryptophan into niacin, also known as vitamin B3. But more to the point, the body can also use tryptophan to make serotonin, a brain chemical that helps make melatonin, a hormone that can control your sleep/wake cycles. Since turkey provides tryptophan, which makes serotonin, which makes melatonin — it makes some sense to blame the turkey when you feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner.

The thing is, turkey doesn’t contain a large amount of tryptophan. Pork and cheddar cheese contain even more, and no one complains that they put you to sleep. Other foods that contain tryptophan include eggs, fish, milk, nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, soy and tofu.

Also, when you eat turkey or any other protein-rich food, tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids to get to the brain. For a person to become drowsy from tryptophan, it needs to be taken in higher doses and on an empty stomach.

Still, it’s likely that after dinner on Turkey Day, you may see some family members nodding off in front of the television. If it’s not the tryptophan, what’s going on?

Most scientists believe that the drowsiness is caused by the heavy portions of carbohydrates in the typical Thanksgiving meal: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, rolls, cranberry sauce — and pumpkin pie to top it off. Those food items alone provide more carbohydrates — and calories — than most people eat in an average day. That kind of over-indulgence diverts the body’s blood supply to the digestive system and away from the brain and other parts of the body, and that’s what makes you feel sleepy.

If you need further proof for your cousin to believe you, check out a two-minute animated video produced last year by the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society. It explains the myth and why scientists don’t believe it.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Is your turkey thawing yet?

76766178We are hosting Thanksgiving this year, and I’ve been worried about having enough space in the refrigerator to thaw the turkey. My husband suggested thawing it in our attached garage. Good idea or bad idea?

Bad idea. Take the time to clean out the refrigerator.

Even if you shiver when you step into the garage, you simply don’t have complete control over the temperature in that space. And temperature control is what it’s all about when it comes to thawing the turkey safely. You need to keep the bird below 40 degrees, and you can’t guarantee that outside of a refrigerator.

Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is the simplest method. All you do is take the turkey, still completely wrapped, and put it in a big pan to catch any juices that might leak out during the thawing process.And, just in case, place the turkey on the bottom shelf so any stray juices don’t drip onto other foods.

Keep the bird refrigerated long enough to thaw. U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines are:

  • One to three days for 4- to 12-pound turkeys.
  • Three to four days for 12- to 16-pound turkeys.
  • Four to five days for 16- to 20-pound turkeys.
  • Five to six days for 20- to 24-pound turkeys.

Luckily, a thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for an additional one to two days before you put it in the oven, so place it in the refrigerator earlier rather than later to be sure it’s completely thawed.

Another way to safely thaw a turkey is to place it in cold water. But this method is more complex than it sounds: You have to be sure the turkey is completely submerged, and you have to replace the cold water every 30 minutes to be sure the water stays below 70 degrees F. It can take up to 12 hours to thaw a turkey using the cold water method, depending on the size of the turkey. That’s a long time to fill and drain (and fill and drain) a container with cold water.

You might think that thawing a turkey properly isn’t as important as cooking it thoroughly: After all, thorough cooking kills bacteria, right?

That’s true, but there’s a major flaw in that argument: Some foodborne pathogens produce toxins that remain in the food even after bacteria are destroyed. You simply don’t want to take the chance.

For more information on keeping your Thanksgiving dinner a safe one, check out Turkey Tips from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service at

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Linnette Goard, field specialist in Food Safety, Selection and Management for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Give thanks for great leftovers

152538549I think the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers, but last year our leftover turkey didn’t last very long, and we had to throw a lot of it away. What’s the best way to make leftovers last? 

Generally, leftovers stored in the refrigerator last only three or four days. That surprises a lot of people, who think they might be good for a week or longer.

This year, refrigerate only the turkey you think you’ll use in the next few days and store the rest in the freezer, where it should be fine for two to six months.

Here are some detailed leftover and storage tips for holiday foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:

  • Make sure perishable foods are left at room temperature for no longer than two hours before you refrigerate or freeze them. Bacteria can multiply rapidly between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, so limit the amount of time food is in that “danger zone.”
  • If the leftovers you’re storing are very hot, take steps so they’ll cool rapidly to reach the safe temperature of 40 degrees or below as quickly as possible. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Slice turkey off the bone into smaller pieces.
  • After cooling, wrap leftovers well, in airtight packaging or in sealed storage containers. Not only will it keep bacteria out, but it helps the leftovers retain moisture, whether they’re stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. It also prevents leftovers from picking up odors from other foods in the refrigerator.
  • When freezing leftovers, mark the package with a date. Although freezing temperatures of 0 degrees F or below cause microbes to become dormant, preventing the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness, keeping foods frozen for too long can affect their quality. If your home freezer has a “quick freeze” option, use it, as rapidly freezing foods prevents undesirable large ice crystals from forming. If you have a free-standing freezer in addition to your refrigerator-freezer, use it, as it likely stays colder because it’s not opened as often.
  • When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Use a food thermometer.

For more, see the website with the USDA’s Safe Food Handling Fact Sheets at Scroll down to “Leftovers and Food Safety.”

Take precautions if stuffing turkey

I have always stuffed our Thanksgiving turkey with homemade stuffing, but my daughter tells me it’s not safe. Should I stop? Would it make a difference if I used stuffing from a box?

Cooking a stuffed turkey is potentially more risky than cooking one without, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) doesn’t recommend it.

That said, if you take a few precautions, all should be fine. And whether you make your own stuffing or prepare it from a box, you need to follow the same procedures.

The FSIS offers detailed guidelines at Among its recommendations:

  • If you prepare the stuffing ahead of time, store wet and dry ingredients separately; be sure to refrigerate the wet ingredients, including any portion containing ingredients such as butter or margarine, cooked celery and onions, and broth. Combine wet and dry ingredients just before spooning the stuffing into the turkey cavity.
  • Stuff the turkey cavity loosely — don’t “stuff” it. Have leftover stuffing? Cook it in a separate casserole dish.
  • The stuffing should be moist, not dry. Heat kills bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
  • Once it’s stuffed, place the turkey in an oven set to at least 325 degrees F. Do not stuff turkeys that will be grilled, smoked, fried or microwaved.
  • When you check the turkey for doneness, also check the stuffing. Both must reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F. If the turkey is done but the stuffing isn’t, keep cooking the whole thing. The turkey meat might dry out a bit, but it’s worth being safe.
  • When it’s done, let everything rest at room temperature for 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.

The FSIS offers numerous other safety recommendations at Among them:

  • Be sure to thaw the turkey safely; in the refrigerator is best. Allow at least 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds. Large birds — 20 to 24 pounds — could take 5 to 6 days to thaw in the refrigerator. Be sure to keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place on a tray to catch any juices. If you’ve run out of time to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, see the FSIS website for other options.
  • Be sure to refrigerate leftovers promptly — perishable food should be kept at room temperature no longer than two hours. If you’re having a large family gathering, it’s easy to lose track of time, so be sure to keep an eye on the clock as dinner winds down.