Food Protection Connection: What is Hopping Around Your Easter or Passover Dinner Table?
Each Food Protection Connection article is approved for 1 hr CE (sanitation) for CDM, CFPPs and 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
Earn CE for this by purchasing a CE form in the Marketplace
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, April 2011)
What does your family traditionally eat for Easter, Passover, or spring holiday celebrations? Ham, lamb, turkey, stuffing, or beef brisket? The first food that typically comes to mind is hard boiled colored eggs. Eggs in many forms are seen on the Easter and Passover dinner plate. These traditional holiday foods are fun and memorable, but can contain hidden pathogens that will make your holiday more than a little memorable if you ingest them. When it comes to the safety of food, most people are unaware of their boundaries. How do you keep your food safe? There is more to having a safe holiday celebration than washing your hands.
In an effort to review some general food protection practices to remember during your spring celebrations, let's summarize overall food safety techniques into three basic categories: Cleanliness, Temperature, and Time.
Cleanliness is something you probably get tired of hearing about over and over again, but it is especially important when working with the most traditional of all Easter/Passover foods: eggs. When working with eggs, it is pretty easy to remember to wash your hands when you get that sticky white gel all over your fingers. It is not so easy to remember when you are handling a raw shelled egg. We often handle eggs without giving a second thought to washing our hands. Handling raw, shelled eggs contaminates hands. Any time you handle raw eggs you should wash your hands before moving to any other task to avoid cross-contamination. In addition to keeping your foods clean, remember to not cross contaminate raw foods with ready-to-eat foods. Clean up between tasks. Keep surfaces clean throughout your kitchen and wipe up often. I would even go so far as suggesting you keep a spray bottle of food grade sanitizer conveniently located so you can sanitize your counters and sink after handling raw uncooked foods.
(Temperatures provided are FDA recommended temperatures)
We all want that bright sunny day so we can wear our Easter best and have a fun-filled egg hunt outside, but those elevated temperatures could put a damper on your delicious Easter foods. Putting colored hard boiled eggs out for the hunt in the sun will elevate the temperature of the egg quickly, and allow pathogens to reproduce at a faster than normal rate. If you are a family who traditionally has real hard boiled eggs in your Easter egg hunts, below you will find some tips to keep those eggs and your kids safe.
Most of us by now know to keep “hot foods hot and cold foods cold”…but we seem to forget to keep an eye on that temperature during the hustle and bustle of a holiday celebration or the extended ceremony of the Seder plate. It starts with cooking temperatures. You have set yourself up for failure if you fail to cook your foods properly in the first place. Later we will review cooking temperatures of the most common Easter and Passover foods.
Once your foods are cooked properly, you need to consider cooling them properly or holding them hot for service. Generally, cooling needs to occur fast. You need to move from 135°F to 70°F in two hours, and then in an additional 4 hours reduce your temperature to 41°F or below. Seems easy enough? Not so. At the holidays we are usually cooking a much larger volume than normal. If you overload your traditional residential refrigerator with a bunch of hot food, after 4 hours you will still have warm food at probably an ideal temperature for pathogen growth. Don’t just let your food sit on the counter to cool however. You may need to use ice baths or separate your hot foods for cooling down into smaller, less deep containers so they will cool faster. You can also place your hot foods in small quantities directly into the freezer to get an even faster initial cool down.
The traditional Passover meal can be more challenging and proper cooling very important since foods must be prepared in advance. Foods prepared ahead of time need to cool correctly. Additionally, they need to be reheated properly. Foods that are being re-heated should reach 165°F if they are going to be hot held for any period of time before serving.
If you do not need to cool any food, then you are probably planning to serve it hot to your family and guests. Proper hot holding temperature is 135°F. Try to use hot holding units (crock pots, chafing dishes, etc.). Do not take your food off the stove or out of the oven until you are ready to serve it. Once served, you have about 2 hours for your food to remain below 135°F before you need to start thinking about getting that food cooled down or heated back up.
Note: The only way to tell if you have reached a proper temperature is to check the food with a food thermometer that has been properly calibrated.
Controlling temperatures through proper cooking and cooling as well as correct hot and cold holding will help assure that any pathogens that may have been present in the food were reduced to levels that won’t be harmful if ingested. Controlling the amount of time in the danger zone will assure that any pathogens still present after cooking or preparation will not grow to harmful levels.
The final food safety practice is time. As alluded to already, when discussing temperature controls, controlling the amount of time food is out of temperature is critical. Easter celebrations may last for several hours, but your food will not. I use the “two hour rule.” After two hours you need to begin thinking about getting foods that require temperature control cooled down to 41°F or heating them back up to 165°F. The less time potentially hazardous foods are out of the danger zone of 135°F to 41°F, the better off you will be. This would also apply to the Seder plate, which will traditionally be out for extended periods of time during the celebration. Items on the plate, such as the lamb shankbone and roasted egg, should be discarded at the end of the days’ celebration rather than eaten.
Remembering these three basic principles—cleanliness, temperature, and time—will allow you to enjoy your festive celebration accompanied by safe and delicious foods without fear of a foodborne illness. You are, however, on your own with the stomachache and sleepiness that comes from enjoying a little too much of these awesome comfort foods! With these three basic concepts in mind, let’s explore some of the most common Easter and Passover foods.
Eggs are an important part of both Easter and Passover. As a celebration of life and rebirth, we find them at the center of most celebrations. Whether eating alone, dying and hunting for them, or baking them into bread, eggs must be maintained at proper temperatures.
- Eggs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 155°F. This will assure the destruction of the most prevalent pathogen found in eggs: Salmonella.
- Raw or cooked eggs that sit out at room temperature for more than two hours should not be eaten.
- If you are going to enjoy an Easter egg hunt…
- Use only food-grade dyes to color eggs. Other dyes could be toxic if consumed.
- Keep your colored hard boiled eggs in the refrigerator. Bring them out to hide at the last minute.
- Be cautious where you are placing eggs outside. Avoid mud, excessive dirt areas, and especially those areas where pet droppings may be present.
- Once collected, refrigerate your eggs within 1 hour.
- Since they were outside in probably not the cleanest of areas, eggs should be washed before consumption.
- Avoid eating cracked eggs that were hidden outside.
- Keep all egg dishes intended for consumption—such as deviled eggs, hard boiled eggs, and egg slices—cold at 41°F or below.
- Beitzah, or roasted egg, is part of the traditional Seder plate. In most cases the roasted egg will not be consumed, as it would have been out of refrigeration for an extended time during the celebration period. However, if intended to be eaten, the roasted egg should be cooked to 155°F and served either cold, below 41°F, or hot, above 135°F.
- Easter bread or muffins with whole colored eggs are a tradition at some tables. Although this is a beautiful presentation of the egg, it could pose serious problems if kept out of refrigeration. In the case of Easter breads such as these, the eggs within the bread should reach 155°F, and after cooking the bread kept refrigerated to assure the safety of the egg.
- The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends refrigerating hard boiled eggs within 2 hours of cooking, and using them within one week.
- Don’t worry about that green tint you may see around the yolk of a hardboiled egg. That comes from overcooking the egg, but is safe to eat.
Beef and Lamb
If Jesus ate meat at the Last Supper, it probably would have been lamb since the Jewish Passover traditions call for lamb—as do many European traditions. The sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Passover Seder). Christians often referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God, thus one of the reasons the tradition of Lamb arose in that culture as well. Beef or beef roast/brisket is also a common traditional meat.
- Many beef and lamb recipes call for marinating, sometimes for a few days prior to cooking. it is critical that the meat, while marinating, be kept refrigerated at 41°F or below. The meat can be safety marinated for up to 5 days if refrigerated.
- Roast beef, lamb chops, beef brisket, and similar meats should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, even if cooked in advance.
- If your meat is ground or comminuted, it should be cooked to 155°F.
- Meats cooked ahead of time for Passover should be properly cooled and reheated for service to 165°F, if you are going to hot hold the meat for some time prior to service.
- Meats that have been thoroughly cooked and properly cooled may be served at any temperature if served immediately and not hot held prior to service.
In north Europe pigs were always important. Refrigeration was not available in early days, therefore hams—from pigs slaughtered during winter months—were salted, cured, and smoked before fresh meats would be available again in spring. Ham became the logical choice of meat as the cured hams were finished just about the time Easter came around. In the United States, ham ultimately became a traditional Easter food.
- Ham is available ready-to-eat (cooked) or fresh (uncooked). Be sure to know what type you bought.
- Ready-to-eat hams can be served cold below 41°F or heated to any temperature for immediate service.Iif the ham was packaged in a USDA plant, you can consume these ready-to-eat products right out of their packaging, however, USDA recommends they be cooked to 140°F in a 325°F oven before serving if you choose to eat them hot. If the product was re-packaged in any other location, or is leftovers, it should be heated to 165°F.
- According to USDA, ‘cook-before-eating’ hams or ‘fresh’ hams (uncooked) should be cooked to the recommended temperature of 160°F in a 325°F oven.
- Reheating of any ham should be done in a 325°F oven and should take no longer than 2 hours. Slow cooking at low temperatures can encourage bacteria growth, so an oven that is too cool could become an incubator for harmful bacteria.
For many households, some form of poultry finds its way to the table at Easter or Passover. The more dinner guests, the larger the bird, so plan ahead to allow plenty of time for adequate thawing. Nothing will ruin your holiday meal faster than to find your bird is still frozen in the middle!
- Always thaw in the refrigerator several days in advance of cooking. Approximately 1 day for every 5 lbs of bird is needed.
- When cleaning out the bird, be careful to not cross-contaminate your kitchen. Washing the surface and cavity of the bird may cause more harm than good by splattering raw poultry juice about your kitchen sink and counters. Processed birds do not need to be ‘washed’ before cooking. But with many large birds, removal of the giblets is necessary. That bonus package you find inside the birds is not, as my small children thought when they saw it for the first time, some sort of prize like you find at the bottom of a cereal box. Treat this “prize” with a little more caution! Thoroughly clean all surfaces of your kitchen that may have been exposed to splash, splatter, or contact with the bird before moving on to any other task.
- All poultry should be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F, taken at the deepest part of the thigh without hitting a bone (bones will be hotter than the meat).
I know this is a bit of a sensitive issue for some peoples’ palates. Lots of us (myself included, I must confess) think stuffing just tastes better when it comes from the bird cavity. Despite what most people think, it is virtually impossible to both cook stuffing deep within the cavity of the bird to proper temperature AND not completely overcook the meat of the bird itself. So, if you simply must cook your stuffing inside the bird, follow these tips carefully to avoid an unpleasant post-holiday surprise for your family and friends.
- Stuffing must reach 165°F for it to be safe to eat.
- If you must stuff your bird, pack it very loosely. About one hour before you anticipate the bird will be done, remove all stuffing from the cavity and place into another cooking dish. Place the now separated bird and stuffing back into the oven to complete the cooking stage of both to 165°F. When both have reached temperature, baste the stuffing with some additional turkey broth to get a nice flavored and moist stuffing.
- If this is a difficult practice, then plan to cook the stuffing separately on the stovetop or in the oven.
What to do with all of those leftovers? Everyone loves to take a bit home with them, but there are a few concerns to keep in mind at the conclusion of your celebration.
- No perishable foods (potentially hazardous foods) should be left out at room temperature or in the danger zone for more than 2 hours. That pesky but important “two-hour rule” should be followed again.
- Place leftovers in small, shallow containers and put them in the refrigerator, uncovered, until they have reached 41°F. Once cooled they can be covered. Be cautious not to overload your refrigerator.
- Some leftovers just seem to taste better after sitting for a few days, but they should all be consumed in 3-5 days or frozen for later use.
- Leftovers can be eaten at any temperature if they will be consumed immediately. If you plan to hot hold your leftovers before consuming them, they should be heated to 165°F.
All of these foods have been long-standing traditions in cultures around the world for centuries. Each has its own story, meaning, and place at the Easter or Passover meal. However, each also has its own set of special needs to make sure it is being cooked and served safely. Taking the time to plan and consider all of the food items you wish to serve at your next celebration will ensure your upcoming feast is a fun and safe occasion filled with happy hearts, souls, and—most of all—happy bellies.
by Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO
Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO is a Food Program Specialist for the PA Department of Agriculture and an Executive Board Member for the Central Atlantic States Association of Food Drug Officials (CASA). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.