When the thermometer’s soaring on the back porch or at your apartment window, it’s time to take a really close look at your food safety practices in the kitchen.
Although this is a subject of importance to everyone who cooks or eats at home, it’s particularly critical for people with a chronic disease for whom a bout of food poisoning or other home-based food-borne illness could result in serious complications, even death. We all need to realize that food safety in the kitchen goes beyond sparkling floors, spotless countertops, and gleaming sinks.
This is even more important during hot weather. We went back to our text books; discussed the subject with our friends at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and food colleagues at several universities; and added our own thoughts and practices regarding kitchen safety. Either print this article for quick, convenient reference or Bookmark this page.
Safe Food Storage
- Check the temperature in your refrigerator and freezer. Refrigerators should stay below 41°F (5°C). This won’t kill any bacteria that is already present, but it will keep them from multiplying. The fewer bacteria present, the less likely they will make you sick. Keep the freezer at zero degrees F (-18°C). Again, this won’t kill any bacteria already present, but it will stop additional growth. How do you check the temperature? Buy a thermometer in the housewares section of most any supermarket. If needed, adjust the temperature controls.
- Take extreme care in handling leftovers — this is particularly important during hot weather. The FDA suggests refrigerating leftovers within 2 hours of cooking. We refrigerate leftovers immediately after a meal, before we do the dishes or leave the kitchen. When we were youngsters, we can remember our mothers leaving the food out until it had come to room temperature before refrigerating. We put the hot leftovers into storage containers and then, the fridge. Better a few pennies for the refrigerator to bring the temperature back to its setting (with today’s modern appliances, this will happen quickly) than for us to get sick. Put the date on the leftovers and use within 3 to 5 days. If in doubt, throw it out.
Food standing at room temperature for more than 2 hours in headed for the compost heap or the garbage disposer in our homes. We don’t even taste it to see if it’s gone bad. For the amount of food involved, it’s simply not worth the risk.
- When you shop for meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, check the “sell by” date, and opt for the package with the later date. It wouldn’t hurt to get acquainted with the meat manager or a butcher at your store. He/she will gladly explain their label and show you where to look for the date. Once home, store meat and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator: a special meat keeper or the coldest area where the air can circulate freely around the food. Use within 2 days of purchase. Otherwise, wrap the food tightly in moisture-proof freezer paper, aluminum foil, or in freezer-safe self-sealing plastic bags. Note the date on the package and freeze. Use within 2 months.
Only buy seafood that is very fresh and properly displayed — fillets in pans surrounded by ice and whole fish displayed under ice. Fresh fish doesn’t have a strong odor. If the seafood area of your store has a strong “fishy” smell, it usually means that the display cases need to be cleaned. Ask to speak to the department manager and plan meat, poultry, or vegetarian for your next meal. If the problem persists, switch markets. You’re entitled to have food safety practiced at your store.
Once home, wrap the fish and cooked shellfish in plastic wrap or plastic bags and store atop a container of ice in the refrigerator. Use within 1 day of purchase. Be particularly careful to not use uncooked shellfish (lobsters, clams, crabs, mussels, and oysters) if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break. Live shellfish will close up when the shell is tapped. It will have arrived home in special packaging that allows air for it to live; store this container atop a bowl of ice in the fridge.
Even when using fish and seafood within 1 day of purchase, you may occasionally have an experience like mine: I purchased several pounds of prawns for a special barbecue party. When I went to clean the shrimps, there was a distinctive odor to them, unlike the usual aroma of raw shrimp. I immediately returned them to the store, and was offered full credit or replacement with shrimps that had been defrosted since my original purchase (depending on where you live, you’re more likely to be using defrosted frozen shrimp than fresh). Sure, it took some time and effort, but that’s better than someone getting sick. When in doubt, return it to the store.
Food safety experts recommend thawing frozen food in the refrigerator, in a microwave oven, or by putting the food in a self-sealing plastic bag immersed in cold water. This later method requires constant attention as you will need to change the cold water every 30 minutes. Follow your owners manual for defrosting in the microwave and once thawed, cook immediately. Never thaw meat, poultry, fish, or seafood on the countertop or in the sink without cold water. Bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature. Don’t cook any food that has a strong, unpleasant odor.
Food Handling Safety
- Wash hands thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after handling any raw food.
- Be wary of the possibility of cross-contamination; use clean, smooth cutting boards made of hard maple, glass, or plastic that are free of cracks and crevices. Avoid boards made of soft, porous materials. Wash cutting boards in hot soapy water or better yet, sanitize them in the automatic dishwasher or rinse them after washing in a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 ml) chlorine bleach to 1 quart (1 l) water. Since we sometimes cook most of the day when we’re developing recipes for this site or one of our cookbooks, we keep a ready-supply of this solution in a spray bottle near the kitchen sink.
Always thoroughly wash and dry any knives or other utensils after using them for raw foods, such as poultry, before using them for another food, raw or cooked. We have different cutting boards for raw foods that will be cooked and food that has already been cooked or is to remain raw, i.e., a board to cut raw chicken or fish and an entirely different board to cut bread or fresh fruits.
Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the countertop. Discard the marinade when you lift out the food for cooking as it contains raw juices which may harbor bacteria. When using a marinade to also baste the food during cooking or to make a sauce, we make a double portion, reserving half for the later use. It’s questionable if simply boiling the reserved marinade is sufficient to kill any bacteria that might be present, since this is a function of both heat temperature and time. If a recipe says to boil the mixture and then use, they’ve calculated the necessary time to kill any bacteria. We’ve both experienced food poisoning from restaurant meals; so, again we simply won’t take a chance at home.
Can you get sick from contaminated raw vegetables? You sure can. Pay attention to where your market gets its produce and how it keeps it fresh. Don’t buy limp or bruised fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re cheaper. They are also about to go bad. Always wash produce (even if you’re peeling it) under cold running water, or you can use a fruit & vegetable cleaning solution (we buy ours at a health foods/organic produce store).
By the way, when was the last time you sanitized the kitchen sink drain and/or your electric garbage disposer. Last night, last month, never? Believe me, if you could see into the drain, you’d probably be running for the bottle of bleach solution. If you have a compost heap, virtually no food will get down the sink drain, but you still need to occasionally pour a little of the bleach solution (again, 1 teaspoon/5 ml chlorine bleach to 1 quart/1 l water) down the drain.
If you have an electric garbage disposer, be sure to fully grind the food while running cold water, letting the water continue to run for a minute or two after turning the disposer off. Food particles trapped in the disposer or its drain are havens for bacterial growth. In our households we again run the disposal unit when we’ve finish tidying up the kitchen area, tossing a small piece of fresh unpeeled lemon or lime into the disposal unit for immediate freshening. To our family and friends, this sudden burst of citrus oils perfuming the air has become a signal that our work is done! Sanitize the garbage disposer by pouring 2 cups (480 ml) of the bleach solution down its drain every 2 weeks.
- The USDA suggests cooking meat to an internal temperature of at least 160°F (71°C). Does that mean that you can never enjoy another rare or medium-rare steak or tenderloin roast? We personally practice caveat emptor (buyer beware) in our homes. We know our butcher and his/her sources of meat so we have no problem in sometimes cooking beef to medium-rare (rare, we too have given up). To us, medium-rare beef steak or certain beef roasts simply taste better and so far we’ve had no trouble.
Cooking ground beef is another matter as research shows that ground beef absolutely needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) to protect against food-borne illness. That doesn’t necessarily mean “no pink” in the center. Some research findings show that some ground beef patties, cooked to the 160°F (71°C) may remain pink inside for a number of reasons. It’s best to use a meat thermometer unless you are so proficient in cooking meat that you can tell by the look and the feel when it’s done.
Recommended internal temperatures for other foods to insure food safety are:
- pork — 160°F (71°C), medium/no pink
- lamb – 160°F (71°C), medium/some pink
- veal – 160°F (71°C), well done
- whole poultry and thighs — 180°F (82°C)
- poultry breasts — 170°F (77°C)
- ground chicken or ground turkey — 165°F (74°C)
- fish and seafood — cook at a high temperature, making sure the internal temperature reaches 145°F (63°C) for at least 15 seconds
- Buy only refrigerated eggs. If eggs are sitting in a special unrefrigerated display (this happens sometimes at farmer’s markets and during the holidays at the grocery stores), head your cart to the refrigerated section or buy your eggs at another place. Cook fresh eggs until both the yolk and white are firm,not runny, and scramble eggs until there is no visible liquid egg. Better yet for your diabetes diet, use refrigerated pasteurized egg substitutes. Try the different varieties; they do taste different after cooking. We’ve settled on one that’s hard to tell from the “real thing,” in cooked appearance, texture, or taste. Of course, for a hard-cooked egg, you have to start with a fresh egg.
Cookbooks written several years ago will call for uncooked eggs (Caesar salad, home-made eggnog, ice cream, mayonnaise, etc.) or uncooked egg whites (meringues, cold souffles, mousses, etc.). The inside of the egg was once considered to be sterile; but in recent years a bacterial organism, Salmonella enteritidis, has been found inside some eggs. How it got there is an unsolved mystery which scientists and egg producers are addressing. Meanwhile, only use cooked-version recipes and cooking techniques which hold an internal temperature of 140°F (60°C) for at least 3 1/2 minutes or an end-point temperature of 160°F (71°C). While the presence of the microscopic organism is very rare (even if you live in an area where a Salmonella has occurred), the FDA considers eggs to be a perishable food that should receive refrigeration, sanitary handling, and adequate cooking. Never taste anything, such as a cookie dough, cake batter, etc. , that contains raw eggs.
Safe Serving Practices:
Especially when you’re serving food buffet-style or keeping a plate warm for someone who’s late for dinner, keep hot foods hot, 140°F (60°C) or higher, and cold foods cold, 41°F (5°C) or lower. Occasionally a recipe calls for food to be served warm or at room temperature. If the recipe is here on this site, in one of our cookbooks, or from a reputable published source, and written within the past few years, you can be reasonably sure that the question of food safety was addressed. Immediately refrigerate or freeze leftovers. Never keep cooked food unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours.
Next article: We’ll give you special food safety tips for the picnic basket, cooler, lunch bag, pot luck, or backpack.