November 21, 2020

Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Forcing You to Cook? Learn About Food Safety

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our lives in just about every way. From stores and restaurants closing to practicing social distancing, everyone is being forced to learn new habits and new ways of living. Is the coronavirus pandemic forcing you to cook?  This is a great time to learn about food safety.

If Coronavirus Pandemic Is Forcing You to Cook, Learn About Food Safety

In 2015, for the first time, Americans started spending more of their food budget on restaurant meals than grocery stores. While some groups will always cook from scratch, many people just don’t do that anymore. So it’s crucial that you learn about food safety as you are just starting to cook. You don’t want to get food poisoning when hospitals are overwhelmed with pandemic patients, or any other time for that matter. Home cooks are the last line of defense against food poisoning.

The basic philosophy of food safety is summed up in four words: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. If you remember these words and learn the concepts behind them your food should be safe to eat.

Clean

Before you start cooking, you need to clean. Any kitchen can be contaminated with bacteria that can make you sick. That means you need to wash off your countertops with soap and water, rinse, and dry before you start cooking. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dry them on clean towels. Handwashing is crucial so you don’t get sick from Salmonella or coronavirus.

Make sure that your stovetop, microwave, and oven are clean, as well as utensils and cutlery. Clean your cutting boards too. Wash your hands after you handle raw meat, eggs and poultry too.

Some foods need to be cleaned before you can eat them. Produce must always be rinsed under clear cool running water before you slice it or you could transfer bacteria from the skin to the flesh. Scrub firm skinned produce such as cantaloupe and potatoes with a clean brush, rinse well, then dry with paper towels to help remove bacteria. Produce washes are not recommended for most foods. And don’t use soap or bleach!

Do not rinse raw meats before cooking. The running water can aerosolize bacteria on these products and can spread those pathogens up to three feet away from the faucet: that includes your face! Modern meats don’t need rinsing since the only way to kill pathogens is with heat; you can’t rinse them off food.

Separate

One of the big causes of foodborne illness is cross-contamination. That means that products such as raw meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs that typically contain bacteria should be kept far away from foods that are eaten raw such as produce. One drop of raw meat juice can contain millions of pathogenic bacteria.

Separating starts at the grocery store. Keep raw meats and poultry away from produce. Put raw meats into plastic bags the store provides. Buy meats last so they spend less time out of refrigeration, and put them in the fridge or freezer as soon as you get home.

When you put food away in the fridge, never store raw meats on top of raw produce. You might even want to put the raw meat and poultry on trays to ensure that the juices from these products don’t drip onto fruits and vegetables.

When you are working in the kitchen, use separate cutting boards, utensils, and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood and produce. One good way to remember which board should be used is to buy them in different colors. And never mix them up.

Cook

Cooking food thoroughly to a safe final internal temperature is the last defense against food poisoning. Many foods, such as raw poultry and raw ground beef, are often contaminated with pathogens that can make you very sick. That means you need a reliable food thermometer, and you need to learn the minimum safe cooking temperatures for these types of foods. The USDA has a chart of safe cooking temperatures. Print it out and tape it inside a cupboard in your kitchen.

Heat will always kill bacteria and viruses, which will also protect you against coronavirus. The latest research from the World Health Organization is that coronavirus is destroyed at 133°F. You can’t tell if food is safe to eat by looking at its color and checking texture. Your food thermometer is the only way to make sure you are eating food that is not contaminated.

So, whole cuts of beef, pork, veal and lamb, such as roasts, fresh ham, and steaks, should be cooked to a minimum temp of 145°F with a three minute stand time. That means you let the food stand for 3 minutes after it comes out of the oven or off the grill so the temperature can rise a bit. The USDA used to recommend that pork should be cooked well done, but they changed that recommendation in 2013 because of the way pork is now raised.

Ground meats made from beef, pork, and lamb should be cooked to 160°F. Bacteria is often present on the carcasses of cows, pigs, and sheep. When meat is ground the bacteria can mix all through the product. Rare and medium ground beef is not safe to eat.

All poultry, including whole chickens and turkeys, chicken parts, and ground chicken and turkey, has to be cooked to 165°F. Leftovers and casseroles need to be heated to 165°F too.

Fin fish should be cooked to 145°F or until the flesh is opaque. I like to cook my fish until it flakes when you insert a fork and twist it. Oysters and other shellfish should be cooked until the shells open. Another note about shellfish: never cook shellfish that stays open before it cooks, and discard shellfish that won’t open after cooking. Those products are dead and could contain pathogens.

Chill

The final step in kitchen food safety is chilling food. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature danger zone of 40°F to 140°F. That means that all perishable foods need to be refrigerated within two hours of cooking or refrigeration. That time drops to 1 hour if the air temperatures is 90°F or above.

Make sure your fridge temperature is below 40°F; a refrigerator thermometer to make sure is a good investment. And they are very inexpensive.

Never thaw meats on the counter, because bacteria can grow rapidly as it thaws. And some bacteria produce toxins as they grow that aren’t destroyed by heat and can make you sick.

If you need to thaw meats or poultry, thaw them in the fridge overnight, in cold water for 30 minutes, or in the microwave. Thawed meat needs to be cooked right away, especially if you use the microwave to thaw it, because some of the meat could be partially cooked and in the danger zone.

Cook and Enjoy!

Now that you know the basics of food safety, you can be confident that your food is safe to eat. There’s a real satisfaction in making food from scratch. And it usually tastes better and is better for you than restaurant food.

 

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