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By Beth Demmings
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  • Cornell AgriTech
  • Food Science
  • Food
  • Beverages

Elizabeth Demmings is the program coordinator at the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University (IFS@CU), located at Cornell AgriTech. The IFS@CU’s motto is to cultivate food safety knowledge. Demmings helps develop and deliver food safety resources, webinars, courses and workshops that target audiences in the food industry. She also trains food safety inspectors at state and federal agencies.

When Demmings is not working, she enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and cooking. We recently asked her to share some of her favorite holiday food preparation tips.

 

What do you consider to be the single biggest mistake people make regarding food safety during the holidays?

I hate to say this one, but it is really important when it comes to food safety. Do not eat raw cookie dough!

Around the holidays I would bake cookies with my grandmother — chocolate chip were her favorite. She always warned me not to eat raw cookie dough because I could get a Salmonella infection from the raw eggs in the mixture. So I came to what seemed like the obvious conclusion: eat the cookie dough before you add in the eggs. But it turns out, even without raw eggs, cookie dough is still not safe to consume! This is because eating uncooked flour can also cause foodborne illnesses — usually due to contamination from pathogenic E. coli.

Baking raw cookie dough at the appropriate temperature for the proper length of time (known as a “kill step”) will ensure that these harmful microorganisms are destroyed and  make the cookies safe to eat. If you have a craving for raw cookie dough, there are several edible cookie dough products that are now available at food retailers. They are made with pasteurized eggs and heat-treated flour so they are safe to consume raw.

a woman in an apron stands in the kitchen making a cookie platter
Beth Demmings, program coordinator at the Cornell Institute for Food Safety, bakes holiday cookies in her home kitchen. Photo provided.

Which holiday foods have a long shelf life?

Fruit cake is what comes to mind first every time I think of a holiday food that lasts for what seems like forever. The recipe that has been passed down through my family is full of dried fruits and lots of nuts! As a kid, I was not fond of fruit cake, but the older I get, the more it seems to grow on me.

Fruit cakes do have an extended shelf life, but eventually expire. Based on recommendations from the USDA, fruit cake can be stored at room temperature in your pantry for up to one month, in the refrigerator for up to six months, and for the best quality, up to one year in your freezer.

In general, once you freeze a food item, if it stays frozen, it will be safe to consume indefinitely, but will lose quality over time.

Eggs are a staple in a lot of holiday beverages and foods. What should people be aware of and why?

I’ll say it loud and clear: avoid consuming raw eggs! Sure, eggs are the main ingredient in eggnog, but don’t start sharing eggnog made from raw eggs. Raw eggs may contain Salmonella or other harmful microorganisms that can cause foodborne illnesses if consumed. You definitely don’t want to risk getting a foodborne illness, especially during the holidays.

An alternative way to kill harmful microbes in raw eggs is to pasteurize them. Pasteurization heats liquids at a specific temperature for a set amount of time to kill harmful microbes. When you purchase eggnog from the store, the package label will indicate that it has been pasteurized. You can also purchase pasteurized eggs and pasteurized egg products at your local grocery store to use in recipes that call for uncooked or undercooked eggs, like homemade eggnog, to reduce your risks of getting a foodborne illness.

Personally, I like to use meringue powder as a substitute for raw egg whites in baked goods and icings. Other examples where you should use pasteurized eggs or pasteurized egg products include specialty cocktails that use egg whites to make them frothy, custards, and homemade salad dressings, sauces or mayonnaise.

Let’s talk holiday leftovers! What are your thoughts on how to safely repurpose these yummy foods?

My favorite holiday leftover is stuffing. Here are some key points to keeping your holiday leftovers (including stuffing) safe, according to the USDA:

  1. Be quick to put leftovers away!
    • Leftovers need to be cooled and refrigerated within 2 hours, or within 1 hour if the temperature is above 90° F.
    • Put hot foods into shallow containers so they can cool quickly. This is also convenient for making single servings for quick meals!
    • After you put leftovers into storage containers, place them directly into the refrigerator or freezer.
  2. Reheat leftovers to 165° F.
    • Always reheat your leftovers to at least 165° F. This may require stirring or flipping to heat leftovers thoroughly. (With holiday food, I like to put leftover stuffing into muffin tins and bake them).
    • If you store your leftovers in the refrigerator, consume your leftovers within 3 to 4 days after you prepared the original meal.
    • If you store your leftovers in the freezer, you can keep them indefinitely. However, the quality will deteriorate over time. I like to label my containers with what’s inside and the date it was prepared as a reference.

Header image: These cookies filled with apricot filling are a favorite in Beth Demmings’ family. They are similar to the Eastern European dessert, kolachi, which is a sweet bread or pastry filled with an apricot, nut or poppy seed filling. Photo provided.

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