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This is the second of a two-part article on food safety. Food safety precautions must be taken at every stage of food production and serving. In the previous edition of “Food for Thought” we reviewed safeguards for purchasing and storing food. Now we delve into food safety procedures for preparing, cooking, and serving food, as well as kitchen sanitation.
First and foremost, an important concept to keep in mind is the “danger zone.” The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit; the range within which bacteria thrive. Temperatures below and above this span decelerate the development of bacteria but don’t necessarily kill it. For example, freezing food does not extinguish bacteria; it merely retards its growth. (Freezing does kill parasites however). Temperatures beyond 140 are required for most bacteria to meet their maker. Chicken for example, must be cooked to 165 degrees to kill salmonella. However, even properly cooked chicken, if left in the danger zone for a protracted period of time can become re-infected with new bacteria. The general recommendation is that food should not be left in the danger zone beyond two hours. If raw, I would cut this time in half. Trichinosis by the way, a parasite that’s rarely an issue with pork today, croaks at 137 degrees. So pork does not need to be cooked well done. Food safety only requires science, not paranoia.
Prior to cooking, most foods need to be prepped, i.e., thawed, cleaned, cut, marinated, etc. Frozen foods naturally need to be thawed. The absolute safest way is to transfer it to the fridge the day before. However, a very efficient method, one that only requires a brief visit in the danger zone is to immerse the food in warm water. Remove it the moment it’s thawed and immediately cook it to the proper temperature. It is not recommended to leave frozen food on the counter at room temperature until thawed as it will languish in the danger zone too long.
Many foods are washed prior to being used but as vital as this seems, it doesn’t do a whole lot for bacteria. Washing only cleanses the surface of a food. You can’t wash away the salmonella inside a chicken. Heat is the arch enemy of bacteria, not water. Nevertheless, rinsing your victuals can still remove debris and God knows what else that touched them in their trip from the farm to your kitchen. And I assume it goes without saying that you’ll trim away any icky spots from your food before cooking.
Finally, food that needs to sit for an hour or more, such as when resting dough or marinating meat, should be placed in the fridge and covered. Do not re-use marinades unless you bring them to a full boil for a few minutes first.
When cooking food the goal is heating it to the target temperature required to kill its most common pathogen. As stated chicken should be cooked to 165, (some say 170 in the dark meat), and pork to at least 137. I usually aim for the low 140’s with pork. Cook fish to 135-140. This range will ensure any parasites, larvae, and other squirmy ickies have kicked the bucket. Always use a meat thermometer. Do NOT rely on a recipe’s cooking time. Recipes can be wrong or your oven’s calibration can be off.
And that brings us to beef. Relatively speaking, there is less to worry about with beef, assuming it has been processed with strict sanitation methods. Therein lies the rub. If proper procedures are not followed, then the risk of E. coli rears its ugly head. Nevertheless, people eat raw beef such as steak tartare and beef carpaccio the world over and aren’t dropping dead in droves. Beef and lamb are cooked to 125 for rare, 130 for medium rare, 140 for medium, and shoe leather beyond that.
Ground beef is more susceptible to pathogens than steaks or whole cuts. Most authorities will cover their you-know-what and instruct you to cook it until there is no pink in sight. I believe ground beef to be one of those foods where the fear is out is proportion to the risk. Not that there’s no risk mind you. Food neurotics will have a seizure when I say this but I’ve been eating pink ground beef for nearly five decades and have never got sick. I’ve had numerous students in my cooking class report how they picked at their mom’s raw meatloaf mix as kids or how they or their parents always defrosted their burgers on the counter without incident. Of course, if you’re the one parent in a million whose child dies from an E. coli infection, then probability theory and individual anecdotes mean nothing. So you’ll have to decide for yourself where you stand on the ground beef issue.
Once again, the primary issue with food service is keeping food out of the danger zone. Be very mindful of this when you throw a long party, especially an outdoor one or summer barbeque. Do not allow meats, cold cuts, mayonnaise laden dishes such as potato salad, etc., to sit in the warm weather all day. Uneaten burgers and dogs should be refrigerated and reheated later if necessary. Cold dishes should be placed in containers on a bed of ice.
Last but not least is kitchen sanitation. Most of this is common sense but nevertheless bears reviewing. Wash your hands! Especially after touching any raw protein. Hands are one of the primary venues for transmitting pathogens. Make sure all your tools, particularly knives, and your counters are clean. I use a cleaner with bleach for my kitchen surfaces. Wash your knives after cutting any raw protein. Microwave your sponges for 2 minutes to kill bacteria. Don’t use the same towel you wiped the counter with on your board or knife.
I cannot stress enough the importance of a clean cutting board. Here some paranoia is warranted. Cutting boards (and knives) are the primary sources of cross contamination. Cross contamination is where you cut a raw protein like chicken on a board, and then use the board or knife to cut something else without washing it. If the second item is also a raw protein that is going to be cooked, then it’s not a big deal. But if you’re going to cut raw meat and then other items which will not be cooked, you must absolutely wash your cutting board and knife before the next item.
There is debate in the culinary world about plastic boards being safer than wood. Some claim that pathogens can infiltrate wood easier while opponents argue that as long as the wood is properly cleaned its fine. I play it safe and cut my raw protein on plastic.
Wood or plastic, raw meat or not, I scrub my cutting boards with a brush. You can also disinfect them by soaking them in solution of one tablespoon of bleach for every gallon of water. I don’t measure and I use more bleach. I simply fill the sink, pour in an ample amount of bleach and soak them for a while.