Food Preparation: Keep Temperature Right

The second cardinal rule of safe home food preparation is: Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Use a thermometer with a small-diameter stem to ensure that meats are completely cooked. Insert the thermometer 1 to 2 inches into the center of the food and wait 30 seconds to ensure an accurate measurement. Beef (including ground beef), lamb, and pork should be cooked to at least 71 C (160 F); whole poultry and thighs to 82 C (180 F); poultry breasts to 77 C (170 F); and ground chicken or turkey to 74 C (350 F). Don't eat poultry that is pink inside.

Eggs should be cooked until the white and the yolk are firm. Avoid foods containing raw eggs, such as homemade ice cream, mayonnaise, eggnog, cookie dough, and cake batter, because they carry a Salmonella risk. Their commercial counterparts usually don't because they're made with pasteurized eggs. Cooking the egg-containing product to an internal temperature of at least 71 C (160 F) will kill the bacteria.

Seafood should be thoroughly cooked. FDA's 1999 Food Code recommends cooking most seafood to an internal temperature of 63 C (145 F) for 15 seconds. If you don't have a meat thermometer, look for other signs of doneness. For example:

  • Fish is done when the thickest part becomes opaque and the fish flakes easily when poked with a fork.
  • Shrimp can be simmered three to five minutes or until the shells turn red.
  • Clams and mussels are steamed over boiling water until the shells open (five to 10 minutes). Then boil three to five minutes longer.
  • Oysters should be sautôed, baked or boiled until plump, about five minutes.
  • Protect food from cross-contamination after cooking, and eat it promptly.

Don't Leave Cooked Food Out

Cooked foods should not be left standing on the table or kitchen counter for more than two hours. Disease-causing bacteria grow in temperatures between 4 and 60 C (40 and 140 F). Cooked foods that have been in this temperature range for more than two hours should not be eaten.

If a dish is to be served hot, get it from the stove to the table as quickly as possible. Reheated foods should be brought to a temperature of at least 74 C (350 F). Keep cold foods in the refrigerator or on a bed of ice until serving. This rule is particularly important to remember in the summer months.

After the meal, leftovers should be refrigerated as soon as possible. (Never mind that scintillating dinner table conversation!) Meats should be cut in slices of three inches or less and all foods should be stored in small, shallow containers to hasten cooling. Be sure to remove all the stuffing from roast turkey or chicken and store it separately. Giblets should also be stored separately. Leftovers should be used within three days.

More Food Safety Tips

And here are just a few more parting tips to keep your favorite dishes safe.

  • Don't thaw meat and other frozen foods at room temperature. Instead, move them from the freezer to the refrigerator for a day or two; or defrost submerged in cold water flowing fast enough to break up and float off loose particles in an overflow. You can also defrost in the microwave oven, or during the cooking process.
  • Never taste any food that looks or smells "off," or comes out of leaking, bulging or severely damaged cans or jars with leaky lids.

Though all these do's and don'ts may seem overwhelming, remember, if you want to stay healthy, when it comes to food safety, the old saying "rules are made to be broken" does not apply!

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