Of all the mistakes you can make in a kitchen, this is the one that can make you feel the most stupid. And it happened to me on the Sunday before Thanksgiving:
I tossed a big package of turkey wings in a large pot, covered them with water and the usual flavorings (onions, garlic, a bay leaf or two, a handful of peppercorns, a big pinch of salt), and brought the whole shebang to a simmer. Patting myself on the back for my efficiency, I let it simmer all afternoon, making a big batch of turkey stock for gravy, moistening dressing and the inevitable leftover turkey and wild rice soup.
It smelled great, it tasted great. After supper, I turned off the heat to let the stock cool a bit, wandered off to fold laundry, and wandered back into the kitchen. Unfortunately, that last step didn’t happen until the next morning.
Yep, I left the whole pot sitting at room temperature overnight. I knew what I had to do next (besides unleash some truly rude language): I poured it all down the drain.
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Then, as you do in the modern age, I posted my lament on Facebook.
What happened next stunned me: A debate broke out that went on through more than 70 comments. Experienced cookbook authors, cooking teachers and even a chef insisted there was no reason to pour that stock down the drain.
“Bring it up to the boil. It should still be good.”
“What if you freeze it, then boil?”
“I would have boiled it to hell and back.”
Along with those came the usual “In Europe, they do that all the time” and “My grandmother left food on the table covered with a sheet and no one got sick.” One posted a five-point take-down of food safety rules. Another posted a link to an article by a respected authority that included the line “People are unnecessarily afraid of bacteria.”
By this time, I was questioning my judgment and my sanity. Had the world gone mad? Or had the food-safety rules been reversed when I wasn’t looking?
This needed further investigation. I searched sites that track foodborne illness outbreaks, including Barf Blog, which tracks outbreaks all over the world. (Never read it on your lunch break.) I found no reports of mass poisonings involving tainted turkey broth. Are those reports nonexistent – or was I missing something?
Finally, I called Ben Chapman, the food safety expert at N.C. State University. He reassured me: The rules I follow are still absolutely correct: Once the stock cooled off, it only had two hours at room temperature before it became toxic stew. It didn’t matter if the lid was on or – as one commenter suggested – if I had strained it and discarded the bones first.
The issue, he said, isn’t bacteria. It’s toxins produced by the bacteria. Bacteria are living creatures and like all living creatures, they produce things. Even if you kill them by “boiling them to hell and back,” you can’t remove the toxins their one-celled corpses produce.
So why was I not seeing reports on outbreaks associated with tainted turkey broth? It probably happens, Chapman said. But in the foodborne-illness reporting world, an “outbreak” involves multiple people who aren’t related. In other words, if you make yourself and your elderly great-aunt Ethel sick, the world may never know, unless someone dies from it.
So if you get sick a day or so after the meal and you decide you ate too much turkey, or great-aunt Ethel is too polite to mention that unpleasant bout of illness she had after she ate at your house, it’s never reported. In food-safety world, what happens at home tends to stay at home.
It’s also true that food-safety issues can be random. One person gets sick, another doesn’t.
“We live anecdote to anecdote in food science,” Chapman says. “Doing it 100 times and not getting sick doesn’t mean you won’t.”
Dinner roulette is particularly dangerous at holidays, because we’re feeding a table of people who might include a few who are really vulnerable – pregnant women, small children, people being treated with immune-surpressing drugs and good ol’ great-aunt Ethel.
So no, Facebook world. No matter how tempted you may be or how many times you’ve dodged the bullet, you can’t save broth that sat at room temperature for more than two hours.
Remember: Broth is cheap, and toxins are vicious. And Facebook commenters aren’t always right.