Best way to cook stuffing? Experts offer Thanksgiving safety tips

With millions of turkeys thawing and piles of stuffing waiting to be prepared, Thanksgiving is one of the riskiest times of year for food safety.

Bacteria can be lurking anywhere in crowded holiday kitchens, spread by cross contamination or undercooked food. That’s why epidemiologists see a spike in food-borne illness in November and December.

Companies such as poultry producer Butterball join government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in stepping up efforts to educate consumers about the potential dangers of the annual fall feast.

In a series of Web videos, Butterball explains how to properly thaw frozen turkeys and stuff a bird for roasting to avoid getting sick. Kraft Foods Inc. offers similar advice on its website, which is updated this time of year with tips and recipes in its Thanksgiving Center.


Holiday favorites such as whole turkeys and oyster stuffing are rarely cooked any other time of year — a recipe for lots of potential mishaps. One of the most common mistakes is defrosting frozen turkey at room temperature, a process that often leaves raw poultry in a so-called danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees.

Then there’s the tradition of cooking stuffing inside a turkey. While many swear by the method, others take a pass because food-safety experts recommend heating the stuffing to a minimum of 165 degrees — a temperature that can dry out white meat on a bird.

“Stuffing is a great environment for bacteria to grow because it’s moist and high in carbohydrate,” said Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The CDC maintains a Web page titled It’s Turkey Time: Safely Prepare Your Holiday Meal. It explains methods for safe thawing, preparation, stuffing and cooking, as well as a tip on how to test the accuracy of your meat thermometer.

Following the advice is important because the holiday season is a heightened period for outbreaks of two particularly nasty stomach bugs: Clostridium perfringens and Yersinia enterocolitica.

Pick at a turkey or some roast beef hours after it has left the oven and you’ve increased the odds of getting diarrhea and abdominal cramps induced by C. perfringens. Symptoms can come as quickly as 10 hours after eating, and can last an entire day.

Clostridium perfringens is one of those bugs that causes what we often think of as toxic food poisoning,” said Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “It’s often a result of eating food that’s left out too long.”

Y. enterocolitica is no picnic either, with symptoms that include bloody diarrhea and fever. The bug is more common in the South where chitterlings are popular during holiday get-togethers, Gould said.

Incidences of norovirus, also known as stomach flu, rise during Thanksgiving because of increased person-to-person contact.

To minimize exposure to the virus, the CDC recommends washing hands frequently, cleaning fruits, vegetables and kitchen counters meticulously and cooking food thoroughly.

Temperature, however, is at the heart of an enduring debate over how to cook stuffing.

Depending on whom you ask, the steamy side dish scooped out of a turkey carcass is either a mouthful of nostalgia or a potential ticket to the emergency room.

The pro-stuffing-the-bird camp says nothing beats the flavor of steeping the dish in the turkey’s natural juices.

Critics disagree, saying the flavor and texture of stuffing cooked on its own are superior with the aid of rich stock and butter.

“We always cook it outside,” said John Ash, a chef and author of “Culinary Birds: The Ultimate Poultry Cookbook.” “Why do something that could potentially make your friends and family sick?”

To preserve the moisture in their roasted turkey, many home chefs unwittingly undercook their stuffing, leaving diners vulnerable to food-borne illness.

An outbreak of virulent salmonella traced to Foster Farms chicken that sickened hundreds of people nationwide this year is a stark reminder of raw poultry’s inherent danger.

Whole turkeys test positive for salmonella at the same rate as whole chickens, at about 3% of carcasses sampled, according to the USDA.

When it comes to stuffing, the agency recommends never mixing wet and dry ingredients until just moments before cooking. Doing otherwise would require a longer time for it to reach 165 degrees.

The USDA and CDC also suggest never over-stuffing poultry since doing so will make it more difficult to heat all the ingredients thoroughly. To properly gauge the stuffing’s doneness, cooks should poke the center of it with a food thermometer.

The USDA maintains an extensive list of answers online to frequently asked questions from consumers about Thanksgiving meals. Some are more specific than others, and include “How do you handle leftover turducken?” and “Can you stuff a turkey that will be deep-fat fried?”

Cochran of the USDA’s food inspection service urges people with food safety questions around Thanksgiving to call the agency’s meat and poultry hot line at (888) 674-6854 or go to its online service known as Ask Karen, either by computer or mobile device.