"Meat is expensive. It is costly and embarrassing to overcook it. Friends and family are priceless. It is not nice to kill them." Meathead
Cooking can be dangerous. Fire, knives, pathogens, oh my! People can die from improper cooking. A little knowledge and a lot of common sense can get you out alive. Below is an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in one recent year roughly one in six Americans got sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. The bad guys are certain types of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Bacteria are everywhere. But the air, water, and soil around us are teeming with bacteria and virus cells. There are more microbes in your body than all other cells combined and they may weigh up to three pounds. Most of them are friendly and many, called probiotics, are beneficial. Alas, some of them, called pathogens, are not so friendly, especially Salmonella, STEC (Shiga toxin producing E-coli), Shigella, Listeria monocytogenes, Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter jejuni, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium botulinum. They are hard to trace because they can often take a day to grow in your gut before they knock you down, so figuring out what it was in the fridge or if it was the restaurant lunch is hard to do.
Viruses include norovirus and Hepatitis A.
Parasites like tapeworm and protozoa like Giardia are also risks.
Quite a rogues gallery. If you ingest enough of them, they can leave you sitting on the toilet for hours, plant you on your knees in front of the porcelain god, send you to bed in a sweat and writing in pain for months, propel you to the emergency room, or even the cemetery. Children and elderly are especially at risk.
How do foods get contaminated?
It is helpful to think of all raw meat as kryptonite. Of course most is perfectly safe, but you never know, and trusting your butcher is no guarantee because most contamination happens long before it hits you his loading dock. And although fruits and veggies are not as frequently contaminated, if you pay attention to the news, you will know that recalls of lettuce, spinach, chile peppers, melons, sprouts, and strawberries are frequent because we eat them raw. Contaminated meats are decontaminated when we cook them properly.
The most common source of contamination is animal waste, and that includes us. If the bad breeds of E-coli get into water that is used for irrigation, if organic fertilizer is not sterilized properly, if Bambi or Thumper have lunch in a field of lettuce, if a steer's intestines are accidentally sliced open in the slaughterhouse, or if your butcher didn't wash his hands after using the toilet, we have a problem.
Salmonella lives in many of our avian friends. If a bluebird bombs a strawberry, if the henhouse isn't cleaned properly by a minimum wage teenager, if the water bath used to remove the feathers from chickens isn't disinfected, we have a problem.
Egg shells may look impervious, but if the hen has salmonella, it can get into the ovum before the shell hardens.
Raw fish sushi is silky and elegant, unless tapeworm eggs from seals, walruses, or whales get into your salmon. They can grow up to 60 feet inside a human.
Raw sprouts might seem like health food, but if Tweety decides to visit the alfalfa seeds or if rodents and insects nibble through the burlap shipping bags in the hold of a ship or warehouse, when we soak and warm the seeds to sprout them, we also water and warm the pathogens. That makes sprouts the most dangerous food in the super market.
Improper food handling also makes contamination from your hands, cutting boards, and knives a major problem.
Pasteurization vs. sterilization
The most effective way to make food safe is to cook it properly. Raw food, of any kind, is always a risk. In the language of food safety scientists, you need a "kill step" in the process. Lemon juice, vinegar, alcohol, salt, and freezing will not pasteurize food. They may kill a few bad guys and hamper their growth, but they absolutely positively cannot be trusted to make food safe. Sorry, but they just don't get the job done. Acid and salt might inhibit growth, but they won't make your food or countertop safe. Remember, when research labs want to store their microbes, they freeze them.
Chlorine will kill bugs, but you don't want to wash down your carrots with a poison. But chlorine is an excellent disinfectant for cutting borads, countertops, knobs, and handles.
Cooking is the only sure cure. To cook foods properly you must use a digital thermometer. Cooking without it is like driving at night without headlights. Click here for a Food Temperature Guide, and my recommendations for thermometers are here. The excellent thermometer shown here, the Thermoworks Thermopop reads accurately in 5 seconds and sells for less than $30. Click here to order it.
The goal in cooking is to make foods safe, and that usually means pasteurization.
Pasteurization. The process of killing all or almost all of the microbes in food usually by heat. Pasteurization may leave a few microbes, but it reduces the population to a level deemed safe (107 kill rate, a.k.a. 7D), which means that the number of survivors is so small, chances are you won't encounter any, and if you do, there will be so few as to be harmless. But pasteurization cannot kill spores, which are dormant fortress-like forms that some microbes assume to withstand adversity (see sidebar). Pasteurization can be done quickly at high heat, or slowly at lower heat, usually above 130°F. At that temp it can take more than two hours to pasteurize chicken. At 165°F, it takes only two seconds. I have written more on this relationship between temperature, time, and kill level in my article on the Food Temperature Guide.
Sterilization. A method that kills or removes all microbes and their spores by using one or more of the following: Heat, irradiation, chemicals, pressure, or filtration.
Resources. A consortium of international research facilities has produced a databank of info about predictive microbiology and risk assessment called ComBase. It is loaded with highly technical but informative data.
- Bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature. An E-coli population can double every hour at room temp. Uncooked meat must be kept cold. Make grocery shopping your last stop when you're out running errands so groceries do not sit in you car any longer than they have to.
- Don't push the cart with meat, dairy, or eggs around the store for 30 minutes. Make the meat counter the last stop. Get the dry goods and veggies first.
- Keep the meat separate from other foods in your cart and when bagged, have meat bagged in plastic. Put meat in the coolest part of your car. If your grocery store is more than 30 minutes from home, on hot days you should bring an insulated box or bag for carrying refrigerated products.
- Pay attention to the dates on packaging. "Sell By" date tells the store when to remove products from the shelf. "Best If Used By" or "Use By" dates tell you when you should eat or freeze the product. These dates are not related to safety, just quality. And you can no longer rely on the color of meat if it is prepackaged because some grocers now sell red meat packed in a carbon monoxide or nitrogen or wrapped in a film impregnated with nitrites to prevent browning. Remember, the dates are meaningless once the package has been opened and exposed to air and bacteria.
- Often the newest stock is placed near the back of displays. Nuff said.
- Don't buy cans that are dented, leaking, or bulging.
- When you buy new grills, smokers, or cooking utensils, clean them thoroughly before using them in order to remove any oil, grease, or metal shavings from the manufacturing process.
- When you get home, get cold products into the fridge right away. And quit leaving the door open.
- Keep a thermometer in the fridge and the freezer. Make sure your refrigerator is between 33 and 40°F. Shoot for about 38°F for the fridge. Your freezer should be 0°F or below. If you lose electricity, keep the fridge door closed. The box is well insulated and if the gaskets are still good and the door is hung properly, food will be safe for hours.
- FIFO means first in, first out. That means if you buy a slab of ribs on Monday, and then they go on sale on Wednesday so you buy another slab, cook the slab you bought on Monday first. FIFO also applies to canned foods and dry goods. Write the date of freezing on frozen food packages with an indelible marker. Put a date on leftovers too. In fact, date everything.
- Flour and grains attract small insects and the fats in them can go rancid. Store them in airtight containers in the cool and dark. If you find small moths in the pantry, you may have to throw everything in the pantry out because their eggs can be anywhere. These buggers are hard to get rid of once they show up.
- Keep spices out of direct sunlight. Cool and dark is best.
- If you marinate or brine your meat, it must be kept in a refrigerator or cooler.
- Anything touching raw meat becomes contaminated and must be properly cleaned. Use a bleach solution on anything except food. Depending on the concentration of acid and salt they might inhibit growth, but they won't make your food or countertop safe. And when research labs want to store their cultures of microbes for later research, they freeze them. A hot dishwasher and its detergent will make things safe. For countertops, cutting boards, knives, meat grinders, and other things that can't go in the dishwasher, bleach is your go-to sanitizer.
- Wrap raw meat tightly and put it in pans or on platters. Store raw meat so it cannot drip on other foods.
- Wash kitchen towels often.
- Sponges are the most contaminated thing in the kitchen, but putting a wet sponge in the microwave for two minutes will pasteurize them. Do it weekly.
- After you rinse meat in the sink you must wash the sink thoroughly. Soaps with bleach such as Comet are good for cleaning sinks, counters, and cutting boards. Use the bleach solution described in the sidebar article. Scrub your sink often!
- Do not carry raw meat over the floor without having a plate under it especially if you have young children.
- Do not use a fork or the Jaccard blade tenderizer to puncture meat and tenderize it unless you will be cooking it past 160°F. These devices puncture the surface and plunge into the meat cutting through tough fibers. In the process they also push any surface contamination down into the center of the meat. If you are cooking Texas style brisket or beef ribs up to 180°F or more, as they are usually cooked, no prob. But if you are cooking a steak to 130°F for medium rare, then you risk contamination and a tummy ache or worse.
- If you are cooking outdoors or at a competition, a cooler with ice is a necessity as is the bleach solution described in the sidebar article.
- Occasionally use a bleach solution to wash anything that you touch a lot like the refrigerator door, oven door, cabinet knobs.
- It is best to handle raw meat with rubber or latex gloves. Pull off gloves by grabbing the cuffs and turning them inside out so the outside of the gloves doesn't contaminate your hands.
- You may handle uncooked food with your bare hands but you must first wash your hands past your wrists thoroughly with hot water and soap for 20 seconds by rubbing them vigorously. That's about the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. Pay close attention to the areas under your fingernails. Rinse them thoroughly, dry them with paper towels, and throw the towels away. When you are done handling meat, you must wash and dry your hands again. Do not handle the refrigerator door handle, drawer knobs, or the faucets with contaminated hands.
- If you have a cold or any contagious illness, you should not handle food. Let someone else do the cooking. If you absolutely must cook, wear rubber or latex gloves and a mask.
- Pet water bowls should be dumped outdoors or in the toilet, not the sink.
- Click here to read how to defrost your meat safely.
- Discard any cans that are leaking or bulging.
- Wash the top of beer and soft drink cans. And quit drinking from the milk bottle!
- Use only cold marinades. If you had to heat your marinade to make it, let it cool before putting meat in it.
- Do not stack meat while cooling.
- Look carefully at anything that has been aging in the fridge and if it has any sign of mold or slime, throw it out. Smell anything that has been kept in the fridge for more than three days.
- Wash fruits and veggies even if you plan to peel them because contamination on the skins can get on your hands, knife, and cutting board.
- Don't wash poultry. Rinsing it in the sink cannot remove Salmonella and Campylobacter which are often embedded in the muscle. In fact, rinsing makes things worse by splattering contamination onto the sink and counters. "There's no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you're making it any safer, and in fact, you're making it less safe," said Jennifer Quinlan, a food safety scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia in an NPR interview. Click here for more surprising info on chicken safety.
- Cooking must be done at an air temperature of 175°F or higher unless you are cooking sous vide, in a vacuum sealed plastic bag hot water bath. That means your oven, frying oil, or boiling water must be above 175°F.
- Cook to the proper temperature. I don't care what the cookbooks say, you cannot tell if meat is cooked properly by its color or the color of its juices. This is especially important for chicken, turkey, ground meats, and sausage if it is not precooked. They are more susceptible to contamination. When the meat is done, if you aren't serving it within 60 minutes, you must keep it warmer than 135°F.
- Be sure to clean the probe on your thermometer after you are done using it.
- When handling cooked foods you should use tongs or wear gloves.
- If cooked meat falls on the ground, for any length of time, even less than five seconds, it should be discarded or washed and then heated to above 165°F on the surface. A research paper titled "Residence time and food contact time effects on transfer of Salmonella Typhimurium from tile, wood and carpet: testing the five-second rule" published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Microbiology in 2006 concluded that the five second rule is bogus. The team of scientists from Clemson University proved that "Salmonella Typhimurium can survive for up to four weeks on dry surfaces in high-enough populations to be transferred to foods and [it] can be transferred... almost immediately on contact."
- You must not bring cooked meat to the table on a platter that carried raw meat out to the grill. Wash all dishes, knives, tongs, and brushes that have touched raw meat in hot soapy water, preferably a dishwasher. This means that if you use tongs to put raw meat on the grill and turn it, you must clean tongs to take it off the grill.
- Even if the meat is browning, the juices bubbling to the surface may be contaminated. You can use a marinade as a mop or a basting sauce, but remember, painting meat with a brush and dipping it into a marinade or sauce contaminates the meat, brush, and marinate. You cannot use a used marinade as a baste during the last 30 minutes of cooking or as a dipping sauce at the table.
- If you wish to use marinades or bastes as a sauce, you must bring them to a rolling boil for at least a minute and even that is not foolproof because some spores can survive boiling. It is better to discard them.
- Be sure to discard bastes or mopping solutions after you're done cooking. They are contaminated with raw meat juices. You cannot save them for future use.
- The best way to baste or apply a barbecue sauce is to spoon, pour, or spritz the liquid onto the meat. Especially if you leave it sitting out during the cook. If you must use a brush, use one that is easy to clean and sterilize such as the new silicon brushes.
- So you don't waste sauce by dipping the brush into the bottle and contaminate the sauce in the bottle, pour the sauce you need into a cup or bowl and dip your brush or spoon into the cup or bowl.
- If you are a guest in someone's home and you see them using an unsafe method such as putting cooked chicken on a platter that has had raw meat, politely but firmly, speak up!
- Avoid burning food, and if you do, cut off the burned parts. In addition to tasting bad, burned food may be bad for your health. Read my article Does grilling pose a cancer risk?
- And this very good advice from my friend Brad Barrett at GrillGrates: Be careful with the adult beverages. Pay attention to what you are doing. Brad claims he once hit the daily double: A hangover and Montezuma's revenge. And he is sure that one led to the other.
- Your motto: When in doubt, throw it out.
- Do not leave leftovers on the table for more than an hour. Refrigerate leftovers promptly on the lower, cooler shelves. Divide them into small portions so they cool quickly. FDA requires food processors to get the temp down to 41°F in six hours.
- Cooked foods in general should be used within a week if they are stored in the refrigerator, regardless of how they have been cooked, even if they have been smoked. Demesne.info is a website with more on storing specific foods.
Cutting board safety
- There is a lively debate over which is safer, wood or plastic cutting boards. Science says both can be safe if they are cleaned thoroughly. Scrub them well with warm soapy water, rinse, and then scrub again with a chlorine based cleanser like Comet and a brush. Plastic boards can go into the dishwasher, where they get exposed to high heat and detergent. For that reason, I recommend plastic.
- If you do not have a dishwasher, use a bleach solution to clean your cutting board.
- Keep two boards, one for meats only.
- When boards get deep cuts, sand them smooth or throw them out.
- There is no real advantage to leaving food sit at room temp before cooking, and there is a risk. In fact, smoke sticks to cold food better than warm.
- Microbes do not penetrate whole muscle meats very well, so the interior of a fresh steak is pretty safe. Any bugs on the surface are killed instantly by the heat of cooking. But chicken is different. When chicken is processed, it is usually dunked in water to loosen the feathers. The water should be hot, should contain antibacterials, and should be changed often, but it can become contaminated easily with salmonella, especially since the animal hasn't been eviscerated yet. During and after the gutting process, chicken meat is often in contact with water and potential sources of contamination. Chicken meat is also more porous that beef. As a result, one should always handle chicken as if it is radioactive. Leaving it sit out at room temp is dangerous. It should go directly from fridge to cooking, and all surfaces that are in contact with chicken must be cleaned thoroughly, preferably with a cleanser that has chlorine, such as Comet.
- Be alert and focused when using knives and sharp objects. Beverage alcohol and knives is a dangerous combo.
- Use sharp knives.
- Do not gesture and waive with knives in your hands.
- Always use a cutting board. Never cut anything that is in your hand.
- A damp towel or paper towel under a cutting board can help keep it from shifting.
- Make sure you have plenty of elbow room when cutting.
- If you drop a knife, get your feet out of the way and don't try to catch it! Wait for the knife to stop moving before trying to pick it up.
- Never open cans with a knife. I don't care what you saw on Iron Chef.
- Never use a knife as a screwdriver.
Stovetop and side burner safety
- Make sure handles of pots and pans are not sticking out over the edge of a table or counter where people walking by can bump them.
- Do not fill pots to the brim. Liquids expand when they are heated.
- If you put a wet liquid into hot oil it will spit hot oil at high velocity right at your eyes with deadly accuracy.
- Keep pets away from the front of the stove.
Grill, smoker, and oven safety
- Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Water will only spread grease fires. The best extinguisher is rated ABC (see sidebar).
- Never cook with grills or smokers indoors or in garages. They produce invisible carbon monoxide and smoke that can kill you.
- Don't keep your grill next to a furnace air inlet or even a window. The house is often under a negative pressure, and can suck in these killing gases.
- Don't keep your grill close to your house or deck railings. Beware of overhanging roof lines or trees.
- Never use gas, paint thinner, solvents, or kerosene to start your charcoal. Chimneys or electric coil starters are the best way to start coals, but if you use charcoal starter fluid, once the coals are smoldering never squirt them with more fluid. The flame can climb up the stream and set you on fire.
- Don't cook near gasoline or other flammables. Keep propane tanks at least two feet from the burners unless there is shielding.
- On gas grills, always lift the lid when you ignite the burners. If you have one burner lit and want to add others, it is safe, just open the lid. A gas buildup under the hood could blow it open and flash in your face.
- On kamados and eggs, the lid seal is very tight so when you open it, air rushes in and it can flash flame in your face. Stand back and open the lid slowly.
- Store propane cylinders outdoors in an upright position.
- If you smell gas, turn off the grill immediately.
- Handle hot grills, coals, and hot liquids with respect. Be alert. No horseplay near cookers.
- Keep children and pets away from grills and smokers, uncooked meat, hot liquids, and sharp objects.
- Use potholders and/or insulated gloves. Insulated gloves are best.
- Do not discard ash until the coals are thoroughly dead. Let them sit overnight or dump water on them before you put them in your trash can.
- Bare feet, sandals, flip-flops, and loose clothes are dangerous around grills.
- Don't put small grills on flammable surfaces or glass tables.
- Before you use a new grill or smoker, fire it up on high and let it run for about 30 minutes to burn off any oil or grease or packing materials from the manufacturing process or from shipping. Click here to read more about Seasoning and Calibrating a New Grill or Smoker.
- Save the grill manual and remember where you put it.
- If you have long hair, tie it in a pony tail. And grilling is yet another great excuse to not wear a tie.
- If you pour water over hot coals, it will produce enough steam to melt your nose, and enough hot water will come out of the bottom to melt your toes.
- Heat the grates to high before cooking and carbonize grease and scraps from your last cook. Then scrub them off (read my article on grate cleaning). If you use a wire brush, beware that bristles can come out and people have died from wire bristles that lodge in their digestive system. Before the food goes on, use a damp cloth and tongs to wipe off the grates and visually inspect them.