By Diann Douglas
Food is always a big part of celebrating Christmas and New Year’s festivities. We prepare food for guests, take covered dishes to gatherings, present friends with our favorite prepared recipe and just eat every time people get together. A popular serving style is a buffet, where food is arranged in a serving line for people to pick and choose from a variety of dishes.
This means food is often left out for long periods of time, letting both hot and cold food reach room temperature, a place where unwanted bacteria can grow and reach unsafe levels causing food borne illness. As you prepare and serve food during holiday gatherings and meal, USDA reminds us to keep foods fresh and safe to eat.
First and foremost, keep everything clean. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for a full 20 seconds before and after handling raw food. Bacteria spread quickly with sponges, dishcloths or towels, so change them frequently. Use paper towels or freshly cleaned sponges or cloths and soap and hot water to clean food preparation surfaces.
Be sure to thoroughly cook all food to proper temperature. Beef, pork, and lamb steaks or roasts should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F and even higher for medium to well done.
Raw ground meat needs to reach 160°F and poultry must reach an internal temperature of 165°F.
When serving buffet style, keep hot food above 140° F with chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Cold foods can be kept cold by nesting dishes on larger bowls of ice and should be held at 40°F or colder. If you don’t have access to sources of heat or cold, serve food in smaller quantities and replenish from containers left on the stove or in the refrigerator.
If you have space, prepare extra serving platters ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator or in the over set at 200°F (be sure the platter is oven safe). Also keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and remember no food should sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. It is recommended you replace empty bowls rather than add fresh food to a serving dish that has been sitting out.
Another area of the buffet service we often forget about is the dessert table. Bacteria love moist dessert like cheesecakes, cream pies, cakes with whipped-cream or cream-cheese frostings. All of these foods should be kept in refrigeration until serving time.
Another holiday favorite that warrants attention is eggnog; which is often served in a large punch bowl. Because it contains eggs and dairy foods, the same rules apply; keep it cold. While commercially sold eggnog is pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria, a homemade recipe may not call for steps to heat the mixture, especially if you are using an old family recipe. If you are making homemade eggnog, be sure to use a recipe that instructs you to slowly heat the mixture to 160°F, it will kill harmful bacteria that might be present in raw eggs. After the heating process, it can then be chilled in the refrigerator before serving.
When clearing your buffet table, divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Don’t over-fill the refrigerator either; cold air must circulate to keep food at a safe temperature.
We have limited copies of USDA’s Kitchen Companion, a comprehensive booklet on safe food preparation. For you free copy, stop by the Extension office. It is a great reference during the holiday season and throughout the year. As always, for more information on keeping your holiday food, contact the Madison County Extension Office.
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