Food Safety Tips for Home Cooking

Where I live in California, most people working in food service operations are now required to take food handler training – not just the cooks.  Personally, I like this development.  While it adds another layer of regulation on small businesses like mine, it is an extremely important step in guaranteeing food and kitchen safety.  Food becomes unsafe as a result of time and temperature abuse or bacteria being transferred from one food or surface to another as a result of poor personal hygiene, poor sanitation, or cross-contamination.  Whether you work in a professional kitchen or cook at home for friends and family, the same rules apply for handling food safely.

Your first and best defense against bacteria getting into your food is working with a clean set of hands.  The importance of hand washing before and between tasks cannot be stressed enough. It should take you about 20 seconds to wash your hands with antibacterial soap under warm running water.  Once you’ve washed your hands, dry them with a clean towel or paper towel.  In professional kitchens, we provide single-use towels for this purpose.  After all, what is the point of washing your hands if you are going to use a dirty towel to dry them?  This means you will wash your hands a lot while cooking.  Every time you go from chopping vegetables to opening a cabinet, grabbing a new utensil, letting the dog out, using the restroom, handling raw meat, taking out the garbage, touching your face or hair, adjusting the oven temperature, sneezing, eating or drinking – your hands need to be washed.  I recommend keeping antibacterial hand soap and paper towels by the kitchen sink.

Controlling time and temperature applies to both food storage and cooking.  Cold items should be kept cold, in a refrigerator under 40°F. Frozen items should be kept frozen in a freezer under 32°F.  Dry goods should be stored off of the floor in a cool, dry location, and out of direct sunlight.  The “temperature danger zone,” which ranges from 41°F to 135°F, is the temperature range at which bacteria is most likely to grow.  The trick to staying out of that zone is keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot.  This becomes an issue especially at picnics, buffet tables and other gatherings that involve food sitting out at room temperature for hours on end.

Cross-contamination happens when bacteria is moved from one surface or food to another.  Always wash your produce before eating it.  Always store food in clean containers intended for food storage, covered completely.  Never thaw raw meat at room temperature.  Always thaw it in the refrigerator or submerged under cool running water.  Always put fresh or ready to eat foods above raw meat in your refrigerator.  While cooking, use different utensils when handling different food items.  This applies especially when working with raw meats and vegetables.  Never use a utensil on raw meat and then turn to use it for vegetables without cleaning it first; or just use another utensil.

The same goes for cutting boards.  It is important to wash a cutting board thoroughly after each use.  Wood boards work fine for chopping vegetables or carving cooked meat, but I suggest using hard plastic boards for working with raw proteins.  I buy color-coded cutting boards and use a green one for vegetables, red for raw meat, blue for seafood, and yellow for raw chicken.  The color-coding works as a constant reminder to handle food safely.

Meats should be cooked to internal temperatures that meet guidelines for safe handling.  Those guidelines are 165°F for poultry, 155°F for ground meat, 145°F for fish, and 145°F for pork (chops or tenderloin) and steak.  Instant read thermometers are a great way to ensure safe cooking temperatures have been reached.  Don’t put hot pots of soup in the refrigerator or leave them at room temperature to cool.  Instead, cool batches of soup in an ice bath to 70°F within 2 hours of cooking and then transfer them to food storage containers for refrigeration or freezing.

Cleaning and sanitizing your kitchen ensures that each time you go to prepare a meal, you are starting with a clean slate.  Washing dishes thoroughly after cooking is one thing, but don’t forget to wipe down the counters with an all-purpose cleaner and clean (or single-use) towel.  If you are working with raw proteins, you will want to clean and sanitize your work area before starting another task.

Kristen Desmond

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