We love entertaining. Nothing gives us more pleasure than feeding a gaggle of people and watching the delight in their eyes as they chow down with some serious good eats. For most cooks, it’s a real point of pride.
However, where many of us fall down on the job is food safety. This is serious business, as one in six Americans get food poisoning every year, and about 3,000 are killed by food-borne illnesses, according to the CDC. Yet, there are some simple steps you can take to protect your friends and family as you cook.
We all hear the warnings about keeping potato salad cold. Most of us assume it’s the mayonnaise that’s the most likely source of contamination, but that’s probably the safest part of the dish. Commercial mayonnaise is a rather acidic ingredient, and usually contains preservatives that retard spoilage.
The real culprit is, well, everything else. Potatoes, onions, and eggs, in particular, are highly perishable, as each is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. It’s your handling of these ingredients, rather than the mayo, that will prevent the little critters from growing.
So here are some important safety tips to help prevent adding something unwanted to your weekend cookouts (note: we are NOT experts on food safety. These are just basic guidelines, collected from sources believed to be reliable).
- Proper handling. Make sure raw meats and fish, especially poultry, do not come into contact with prepared foods. Use separate dishes for raw meats and cooked meats when transporting to and from the grill. Always wash your hands after handling raw meats.
- Proper temperature. The food “danger zone” is 40° to 140° Fahrenheit. Your food should spend as little time in this range as possible. Cold foods should be held below 40° and hot foods above 140° if at all possible. No food should be served if it’s spent more than two hours in the “danger zone.” This guide to proper handling explains the correct procedure for cooling down cooked foods in order to maintain their safety.
- Cook foods properly. For ideal safety, follow FDA guidelines for cooking meats. The FDA recommends cooking ground meats to 160° (165° for ground chicken and turkey), and other fresh meats to 145°. Now, for most steak lovers, anything above medium rare (130°-135°) is a carnal sin. The good news is that the FDA guidelines are deliberately set to be idiot-proof. While cooking ground meats, stick to the FDA guidelines. But don’t worry too much about a medium-rare steak.
- Always wash your produce. Fruits and vegetables are grown in dirt. Dirt contains microbes, some of which are dangerous bacteria. Almost half of all cases of food poisoning are traced to produce, including nuts. Leafy greens are the most common source.
- Wash your dishes and utensils. One potential source of food poisoning that’s often overlooked is meat thermometers. If you use an instant-read thermometer to check the meat as it cooks, you are potentially coating it with bacteria every time you perform a test. Be sure to wash thermometers with soap and hot water after each check.
These aren’t terribly difficult steps to take, but they are very important. The risks of food-borne illnesses are very real, and it doesn’t take much effort to prevent them. Stay safe this holiday season, and as always, well-fed.