Holiday meats - not just turkey!

MIDLANDS - No doubt about it, holiday time is turkey time. Of the 266 million turkeys produced in 2006, 30 percent are served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yet numerous other meats are also traditional at holiday gatherings. Some families choose a rib roast, others a ham and some will have the butcher arrange a crown roast of lamb.  If a hunter is in the clan, that family may serve wild game such as duck, venison or pheasant. Small families may opt for a bird smaller than a turkey -such as capon, duck, goose or Cornish hen - or a small cut of meat like a pork tenderloin or veal roast. Whatever your choice, have a meat thermometer on hand to determine when the meat has reached a safe temperature as well as the preferred doneness.
USDA does not recommend cooking meat and poultry at oven temperatures lower than 325 °F because these foods could remain in the "Danger Zone" (temperatures of 40 °F to 140 °F) too long. Bacteria which may be present on these foods multiply rapidly at these temperatures. Boned and rolled meats require more cooking time per pound than bone-in cuts because it takes longer for the heat to penetrate through the solid meat.

Beef: Beef is leaner these days so roasting it to medium rare (145 °F) or medium (160 °F) keeps it tender and juicy. Beef roasts are whole muscle meat; therefore any bacteria would most likely be on the surface. For that reason, a beef roast needn't reach 160 °F in its untouched center to be safe.

Lamb: Technically, "Spring lamb" is meat from lambs slaughtered from March to the first week in October.  Today, with more protected animal husbandry conditions, enjoying "lamb" (meat from sheep about one year old) need not be confined to a particular season of the year.  Some people may view lamb as a fatty meat. However, leg and loin lamb meat has a similar fat content to lean beef and pork loin when trimmed of visible fat. The "fell" is a paper-like covering on lamb and is usually removed from steaks and chops at the retail market. Leave the fell on leg roasts to help retain shape. Cook lamb medium rare (145 °F) or medium (160 °F) and well done((170°F).

Pork: Because hogs are about 50 percent leaner than they were 25 years ago, today's pork cooks faster and can dry out when overcooked. For safety as well as tenderness and flavor, today's fresh pork should be cooked to 160 °F (medium) or to 170 °F (well-done). Pork cooked to medium doneness as measured with a meat thermometer may still be pale pink inside but will be safe. Heating to 160 °F kills foodborne bacteria, such as Salmonella, as well as parasites that cause trichinosis and toxoplasmosis.

Wild Game: To remove the "gamey" flavor, you can soak wild meat or poultry in a solution of either 1 tablespoon salt or 1 cup vinegar per quart of cold water. Use enough solution to cover the game completely and soak it overnight in the refrigerator. Discard the soaking solution before cooking. Wild game is leaner than its domestically raised counter-part. Trim any visible fat, which is where a gamey flavor can reside. Roast tender cuts of venison and game birds (if skinned) covered with oil-soaked cheesecloth or strips of bacon to prevent the meat from drying out. Set them on a rack in a shallow pan and roast in the oven at 325 °F.  Whole game birds and poultry (including turkey and chicken) should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast.

Duck and Goose: Most domestic ducks are the breed called White Peking. The term "Long Island" duck is a trade name. Domestic ducklings have a great deal of fat. While it helps them float when swimming, fat is undesirable in a cooked duck. Therefore, it is recommended to prick or score the skin of a whole duck before cooking, so that much of the fat will render out. Although domestic geese are larger than ducks, they are cooked in the same manner. Oven cooking bags are helpful for cooking these birds because they hold the fat for easy disposal and keep the oven spatter-free.

Capons and Cornish Hens: These specialty birds are chickens. Cornish hens are small broiler-fryers weighing 1 to 2 pounds. Capons are male chickens, which are surgically unsexed; weighing about 4 to 7 pounds, they have generous quantities of tender, light meat. Roast them as you would any chicken.

Leftovers: Always use clean utensils and storage containers for safe storage. Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator; avoid placing large pots of stew or gravy in the refrigerator to cool since it will likely take until the next day for this amount of food to cool. For foods like ham, lamb and brisket, carve the remaining meat off the bone and store in small shallow containers in the refrigerator and use within three to four days. For frozen storage, wrap meat in heavy foil or freezer wrap or place in a freezer container. For optimum taste, use meat within two to three months. When reheating leftovers, make sure that they have been cooked to 165 °F. Do not taste food that looks or smells strange.

For more information on cooking meat and food safety go to the Home and Garden Information Center at and check out the fact sheets:  HGIC 3560, How To Cook Turkey, HGIC 3516, Safe Handling of Wild Game Meats or HGIC 3603, Preserving Game Meats


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