Food safety is the most important factor in cooking. It doesn't matter how delicious or complicated your recipe is: if the food makes people sick because of improper cooking or handling, all your efforts will be wasted. You can't tell if a food is safe to eat by how it looks or tastes. Proper storage, cooking and handling are the only ways to ensure safe food.
Food Safety Information
The USDA uses four simple words to help you remember food safety rules.
They are Cook, Separate, Clean, Chill. Let's learn about each term.
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria. The safety of ground meat has been receiving lots of attention lately, and with good reason. When meat is ground, the bacteria present on the surface, usually E. coli or Salmonella, is mixed all through the ground mixture. If this ground meat is not cooked to at least 160 to 165 degrees, bacteria will not be destroyed and there's a good chance you will get sick. Ad make sure that you are using the thermometer correctly! For meat patties made from ground meat, insert the thermometer from the SIDE of the patty, not from the top, and make sure that the thermometer tip gets into the center of the meat.
The interior of solid pieces of meat like steaks and chops don't contain dangerous bacteria, so they can be cooked medium rare. Still, any beef cut should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees (medium rare). The safe temperature for poultry is 180 degrees. And solid cuts of pork should be cooked to 160 degrees. Eggs should be thoroughly cooked too. (Sorry - eggs over easy aren't good for you any more!) If you are making a meringue or other recipe that uses uncooked eggs, buy specially pasteurized eggs or use prepared meringue powder.
I just learned from a few of my professors at the University of Minnesota, why chicken can't be treated the same as red meat. Chicken must be cooked thoroughly, all the way through, with no pinkness, and an internal temperature of at least 170 degrees F. Chicken meat is less dense than beef or pork, and it's much easier for bacteria to travel through the flesh. Also, processing chickens is a much more invasive process than processing beef or pork, and bacteria usually are spread throughout the whole bird. So remember, chickens are always cooked to well done.
Here's information from the USDA: "Consumers with food safety questions can phone the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. The hotline can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday, and recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day."
- Separate cooked and uncooked foods, as well as foods eaten raw and those cooked before eating. Cross-contamination occurs when raw meats or eggs come in contact with foods that will be eaten uncooked. This is a major source of food poisoning. I always double-wrap raw meats and place them on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator so there is no way juices can drip on fresh produce. Use the raw meats within 1-2 days of purchase, or freeze for longer storage.
When grilling or cooking raw meats or fish, make sure to use a clean platter to hold the foods aftercooking. Don't use the same platter you used to carry the raw food out to the grill! I also wash the tongs used in grilling after the food is turned for the last time on the grill, as well as spatulas and spoons used for stir-frying or turning meat as it cooks.
Be sure to wash your hands after handling raw meats or raw eggs. When I see a chef or presenter on a TV cooking show handling raw meat or raw eggs, then wiping his or her hands on a towel before preparing a salad or fresh fruit, I just shudder. It is crucial to wash your hands with soap and water or a premoistened antibacterial towelette after you have touched raw meat or raw eggs to avoid cross-contamination.
Go to the next page to learn about cleaning and chilling.
Now that you understand about cooking food properly and separating cooked and uncooked items both before and after cooking, it's time to move on to the last two points.
- Cleaning is a crucial part of food safety. Wash your hands and work surfaces frequently when you are cooking and after you have blown your nose, been to the bathroom, touched a pet, or changed a diaper. Plain old soap and water are very effective. If you slowly sing a verse of "Happy Birthday To You" while washing your hands, you will have washed them for the proper length of time. If you are cooking for someone who is pregnant, is very young or old, has a chronic illness, or a compromised immune system, choose a soap with more sophisticated antibacterial qualities.
I wash my hands 20-30 times while I am cooking, and my work surfaces are cleaned that often too. I wash tongs, spoons, and spatulas after they have touched uncooked meats or eggs. I prefer using paper towels for drying my hands and my countertops. They are easily discarded and don't carry bacteria to another surface. That habit may be environmentally incorrect, but I still do it - and no one has ever had food poisoning eating at my house.
One easy way to avoid cross-contamination is to use a large platter to cut raw meats. After the meat is prepared and is cooking, just put the platter directly into the dishwasher, along with any utensils used to prepare the meat.
- Chilling food is very important. The danger zone where bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella multiply is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below; your freezer should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Here's a simple rule: serve hot foods hot, cold foods cold. Use chafing dishes or hot plates to keep food hot while serving. Use ice water baths to keep cold foods cold. Never let any food sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours - 1 hour if the ambient temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
When packing for a picnic, make sure the foods are already chilled when they go in the insulated hamper. The hamper won't chill food - it keeps food cold when properly packed with ice. Hot cooked foods should be placed in shallow containers, covered, and immediately refrigerated so they cool rapidly.
Here are some important links about food safety:
- Food Recall Hot List
- Busy Cooks Basics of Cooking Lesson Series
- Food Poisoning Bulletin (disclaimer: I'm the editor of this site, which highlights food safety information and lists all recalls and updates.)
What About Power Outages?
If the power goes out at your house, follow basic food safety rules. Perishable food is safe at room temperature for 2 hours when the temperature is below 80 degrees F. Above that temperature, you only have one hour before bacteria start to grow in unrefrigerated food.
Keep your refrigerator and freezer closed. Open the doors as little as possible. An unopened refrigerator should keep foods cold for up to four hours; you will still have to evaluate each item individually when the power comes back on. A freezer that is half full should keep foods frozen for 24 hours; a full freezer should keep foods frozen for 48 hours. You can cover your fridge and freezer with thick blankets to try to insulate them and keep them as cool as possible. For longer outages, you can try to find dry ice to pack into your freezer, but you must take special precautions handling it.
If the power outages lasts longer than 4 hours, remove milk, meat, and dairy products from the fridge and pack them into a cooler with lots of ice.
Having an instant read food thermometer is crucial to determining food safety after the power comes back on. If refrigerated products are still below 40 degrees, they should be safe. Check to see if frozen foods still have ice crystals visible and that their temperature is below 40 degrees. You can then refreeze these foods, but there will probably be some loss of quality.
And remember the most basic rule: When in doubt, throw it out. Any cost savings you may gain by keeping questionable food will cost you much more in terms of doctor and hospital bills if someone gets sick.
Remember that cooking outside during a power outage on your charcoal or gas grill is a great way to keep the temperature inside your house as cool as possible.
Here's more crucial information: check sell-by dates when shopping and tell the grocery store manager if you see any expired foods on the shelf. Don't dawdle between the grocery store and your freezer or refrigerator at home. Never use food in cans that are bulging, leaking, rusted or dented. Thaw foods in the refrigerator. Bring all canned soups and gravies to a rolling boil before serving.
Do not serve food in non-food containers!! Things like flower pots and litter pans (for the Kitty Litter Cake (and even then I'd still use a large roasting pan myself) can only be used if the container is first well-lined with food-safe material, either another container, or a couple of layers of plastic wrap. Not only are many containers made with lead, but they could be sprayed with pesticides while in the warehouse. Just be safe and choose containers and serving dishes made for food.
If you study this information, safe food handling will become an ingrained part of your kitchen habits. They are second nature to me! And I enjoy cooking and entertaining more because I know I have done everything I can to ensure that the foods I serve family and friends is safe.