Food Safety

Modernist Cuisine's 5 Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving: Keep Clean & Avoid the Danger Zone

November 16, 2012

Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The Modernist Cuisine team teaches us how to cook, defrost, and reheat safely on the big day.

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turkey defrosting

Thanksgiving: it's that time of year we're cooking at a scale we almost never do; wrangling large, strange birds that take days to defrost and hours to roast -- it's a time when, quite naturally, we're a little out of our comfort zones and we want to feed our loved ones safely and well.

So we turned to the pros -- below, we've asked the Modernist Cuisine Lab to break down their top five Thanksgiving food safety tips.

-- Nathan Myhrvold and Judy T. Oldfield

1. Avoid the danger zone
We all love chips and dip, charcuterie platters, and crudités, but leaving uncooked perishables out in the danger zone — roughly any temperature between refrigeration and cooking temperature — can be dangerous. As a general rule, food that has been in the danger zone for four hours should be thrown out.

Like many general rules of food safety, this rule doesn’t take the starting temperature or type of food into consideration. The FDA actually has several different guidelines, some of which allow for holding food up to six hours. But the details matter.

To stay on the safe side, either put out only as much as your guests will eat within four hours and replenish the food and dishes as needed, or set the serving dish within a larger bowl filled with ice to keep it cool.


2. Thaw safely
If you are cooking your food sous vide (or for a long period of time in a low-temperature oven), you can cook it directly from the frozen state. For any other method of cooking, you should defrost the food first.

Many people erroneously think that the best way to thaw frozen foods is in a bowl of warm water. Not only is this merely a tiny bit faster than using a bowl of ice water, but it is also hazardous to your health. The exterior of the food can reach danger zone temperatures well before the interior has finished thawing. The same is true of large frozen foods that are left out on the counter to thaw.

So if your Thanksgiving turkey is frozen, start thawing it in the refrigerator a few days (one day for each five pounds) before you put it in the oven. Save countertop thawing for only very fast-thawing foods that are less than four inches thick.

3. Wash your hands!
The very best thing you can do to prevent foodborne illness is to wash your hands. Scrub your hands for a full 30 seconds before you start cooking, and don’t let any runny-nosed helpers in the kitchen.

4. Keep your kitchen clean
Make sure to wash your cutting board between each use. E. coli is more likely present on the surface of fresh produce (as has been the case in the last several major scares in the U.S.) than inside whole pieces of meat (as opposed to ground), so wash your fruits and veggies with a store-bought spray or a mixture of 10 parts water to one part vinegar. The dirtiest place in the kitchen is the sink, so scrub it thoroughly, and use a cleaning solution — not just water.

5. Cool your leftovers
It is important to let leftovers cool to room temperature before putting them in the refrigerator. Hot leftovers can raise the temperature inside your refrigerator by several degrees — enough to push the refrigerated food into the danger zone and possibly cause it to spoil. Before moving leftovers into the fridge, seal them up (or put them in a smaller bowl) and then place them in a bath of ice water to cool.

We used an infrared camera to photograph the interior of a refrigerator one hour after hot leftovers were placed into it. The red coloring shows that the leftovers are still hot. More importantly, the green tinges show that they hot leftovers have raised the temperature of the surrounding food to within the danger zone, thus raising the risk of spoilage.

Photos by Ryan Matthew Smith / Modernist Cuisine, LLC

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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52 Days of Thanksgiving

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ChezHenry
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    Kristen Miglore
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    greg aytch
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.


ChezHenry November 17, 2012
Thanks for this post. So many questions here revolve around food safety. Can i freeze this? Is it ok to assemble now and cook later? etc., etc., etc. We need more of these rticles here imho.
AntoniaJames November 16, 2012
I am quite puzzled by the statement is Section 2 that a frozen turkey can be thawed in the refrigerator within "a day or two." I suppose if you have a five to ten pound turkey, that might work. Here's what's recommended at
"How long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey?
The safest way to thaw a turkey is to put it in the refrigerator at a safe temperature (40 °F) during thawing. Allow one day for each five lbs. of weight to thaw the turkey. A 20- pound turkey will take about four days to thaw. After it has thawed, it is safe for another two days."
I do hope that FOOD52 readers with larger turkeys see this comment. I suppose they can use the fallback of trying to thaw in cold water, after learning on Thanksgiving morning that their turkey is still frozen, and then eat very late in the day. Yikes. ;o)
Kristen M. November 16, 2012
You bring up a great point AJ -- I'll edit the post.
greg A. November 18, 2012
it states above in bullet point 2, '1 day per 5 lbs', which is the same as you and the government suggest, or am I missing something?