An online survey finds that many home cooks don’t follow basic food-safety standards. Here’s how you can stay safe.
By Emily Main, Rodale.com
What you can do
Refrigerate food as soon as possible to prevent bacterial growth, and make sure you take your fridge’s temperature every now and then.
You’re a clean cook: You keep meats and vegetables separate and you wash your hands obsessively. But that may not be enough to “pass inspection,” according to the results of a new survey. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health recently decided to see how home chefs would fare if they were to be scrutinized under the same food-safety standards as restaurants, and they found many to come up wanting. While you may have avoided some of their mistakes, there are other less-obvious tactics that every wannabe master chef could utilize to keep a safer kitchen.
THE DETAILS: The Los Angeles Department of Public Health created a modified version of its rating system for restaurants and posted it online. Any homeowner could take the test and see how well his or her kitchen would fare were it to be rated by the local health department’s food-safety standards. Very few people would have passed with flying colors, the department found. Just over one third, 34 percent, scored an A (between 90 and 100), while 52 percent scored B’s and C’s (70 to 89 points). Fourteen percent would have failed. The biggest mistake people made was not cooling leftovers fast enough, followed by not having a working thermometer in their refrigerator. Third was not removing jewelry or keeping fingernails trimmed when cooking.
WHAT IT MEANS: Kitchen safety is more than just using separate cutting boards for raw meat and vegetables (which, according to the results of this survey, seems to be pretty standard practice in homes nowadays). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has four basic food-safety principles it likes homeowners to follow: Clean, separate, cook, chill.
Read on for important safety tips you that will keep your kitchen grade-A safe.
Cleanliness didn’t seem to be a problem for most home chefs when it came to washing hands after using the restroom and before handling any food or washing utensils and cutting boards in hot soapy water after they’ve come into contact with raw meat. But local health departments want restaurants—and home kitchens—to be spotless from top to bottom, and that seems to be the area where most home cooks need help.
Trim your fingernails.
Even if you wash your hands, untrimmed fingernails, which 28 percent of respondents said they had, can transmit bacteria.
Another 26 percent reported that they didn’t clean cabinets. Dust your cabinets, both inside and out, regularly to keep them free of bacteria-laden dust.
Replace that sponge!
Sponges are notorious for being the germiest item in your kitchen, if not your house. You can sanitize your sponge daily by boiling it in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes, or swap those out for reusable dishrags that you can replace daily and wash on high heat in your laundry (save money by repurposing old T-shirts as dishrags).
Clean the counter.
Countertops should be sanitized before cooking and properly maintained.
Here, the survey didn’t find that people were making egregious mistakes. But it’s still worth a reminder that, in addition to using separate cutting boards for meat and produce, you should also separate raw meats from ready-to-eat foods and vegetables while you’re shopping for food at the grocery store or farmer’s market. And a particularly common seasonal food-safety mistake made by grillers is using the same plate that held raw meats to serve cooked burgers or grilled chicken. Use separate plates, or make sure the plate gets thoroughly washed between holding raw and cooked meats.
Next: 6 More ways to keep your kitchen safe
The survey didn’t ask people if they used food thermometers or to report on cooking practices. However, government food-safety officials note that food thermometers are routinely underutilized in home kitchens. Whether baking, roasting, broiling or grilling, make sure you cook meats and eggs thoroughly to ensure you’re killing foodborne bacteria (for proper temperatures, use the easy-to-read meat cooking charts at foodsafety.gov.
The survey did find that people are bad about precooking food and then not cooling it properly before they finish cooking it; 27 percent reported not storing precooked foods in the refrigerator. Always make sure food gets to the refrigerator within minutes of prepping it if you don’t plan to cook it immediately, and for things like casseroles, make sure you cook them to an internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving.
And the survey says… home cooks are the absolute worst at storing leftovers! This is the area where we need the most help, because according to the USDA, some types of bacteria can double in number in less than 20 minutes, when foods are in the “danger zone” of between 40 degrees and 140 degrees.
64 percent of people responded “no” to the statement “When cooking big portions of food to serve later (e.g., the next day), I rapidly cool it (i.e., in an ice bath and stirring frequently, separating it into smaller portions, adding ice as an ingredient, using containers that facilitate heat transfer, etc.) and store it in my refrigerator.” That’s not good. Leftovers should be covered and refrigerated within two hours of cooking, and they should be eaten within four days (or frozen and eaten within two to three months for the best flavor). Shallow containers help the food chill faster, if you don’t want to let it sit in an ice bath.
Check the temp.
Thirty-six percent of people didn’t have a working thermometer in their refrigerator. For optimal food safety, buy a special refrigerator thermometer (you can buy them at pretty much any hardware store). Or use a food thermometer to take its temp regularly. Put a food thermometer in a glass of water on the middle shelf, where the air temperature is most accurate. Leave it there overnight and take a reading in the morning. It should be at 40 degrees for both food safety and to save energy (any colder won’t protect your food and it just drains your energy bill).
Place meat properly.
Thirty-three percent of people let meat thaw in the fridge, but they kept it on the middle shelf. Let meat thaw on the bottom shelf to prevent meat juices from dripping onto and contaminating other food in your fridge.
De-clutter the fridge.
Finally, 23 percent of the respondents overstuffed their refrigerator. Refrigerators do work better when they’re full than when they’re empty, but you should leave adequate space around food to let air circulate properly, according to the USDA.