Foodborne illnesses caused by improperly cooked or stored food are easy to avoid with a few basic precautions. Most of the steps, like keeping your work area clean, stem from common sense. Others may not be so intuitive. Always err on the side of caution if you're unsure about whether or not a food is safe to eat.
Freezing main dishes for serving on busy days is a real timesaver. If you plan to freeze prepared food, undercook it slightly if you'll be reheating it in the oven, then cool it quickly. Leaving it at room temperature increases the chance of the food spoiling. Freeze foods at temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Break up large recipes into single meal portions so they'll freeze thoroughly in 24 hours. Package the food in freezer bags, freezer paper or aluminum foil. Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator rather than on the countertop. The length of time it's safe to keep dishes in the freezer varies by food. Casseroles last up to six months, but pies start to deteriorate after a few weeks.
Make sure your refrigerator holds a temperature of 40 degrees or lower. If your fridge doesn't have a built-in thermometer, buy an appliance thermometer. If you have a power outage, check the temperature in the refrigerator. The food is safe if it's still under 40 degrees. Food that has been at a higher temperature for more than two hours is unsafe and should be thrown out. It's okay to put hot food directly into the refrigerator, but break large portions into smaller containers so they'll cool quickly. Store eggs in their carton on a shelf rather than in the door, where temperatures tend to be warmer. Keep the refrigerator clean, and get into the habit of throwing out leftovers at least once a week.
Small Appliance Safety
Covering foods when you're cooking them in the microwave creates steam, which kills dangerous bacteria. Stirring the food partway through cooking distributes the heat, which also helps kill bacteria. If you plan to start a food in the microwave and finish it on the grill or in the oven, move the food from the microwave to the other appliance immediately. Do not let it sit. Thaw poultry and meat before you put it in a slow-cooker. Make sure the cooker is at least half, but no more than two-thirds, full. If the power goes out and you're not around, throw out the food in the slow-cooker if it's not finished. If you're home when the outage occurs, immediately finish the food on the grill or other working heat source, like a gas stove.
Food thermometers, which cost less than $10, provide peace of mind about whether or not foods are completely cooked. Probe thermometers with an alarm that goes off when the food is done free you to do other things while the meal is cooking. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat or poultry, but not touching the bone. Cook ground meats to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Just because a hamburger is brown in the middle doesn't mean it's cooked to a safe temperature. Cook poultry to 165 degrees, and roasts, steaks and chops to 145.
Wash your hands before and after handling food in warm, soapy water for 15 to 30 seconds. Wash cutting boards in warm, soapy water after each use. Never chop other foods on a cutting board after you've used it to cut up meats or poultry without washing it. Rinse fruits and vegetables under cold, running water, and never put cooked food on the same plate that held raw meat or poultry. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping cooked and raw foods separate, and cover meats and poultry in the refrigerator to keep raw juices from seeping into other foods.
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