Contributing Author: Gentle Heron
Fresh foods include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, vegetables and fruits. They should all be handled carefully to maintain health and safety, beginning while shopping and continuing through storage, thawing, preparation, cooking, serving, and care for leftovers. Safe food handling can protect you from many food-borne illnesses. It is not possible to see, smell or taste harmful bacteria in foods; your only protection is careful food preparation.
Shopping for Perishables
Purchase all your non-perishable items before adding perishables to your cart. Pay attention to “Sell By” and other expiration dates. Check that the packaging of mea, poultry, fish and diary products is not torn or leaking.
Once you have bought your groceries, be sure that perishable foods are refrigerated (or frozen) within 2 hours. They should be safely stored within 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F (32.2 ºC).
Storing Perishables in Refrigerator or Freezer
Before and after handling perishable foods, wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
Wrap meats, poultry and fish securely to maintain their quality while in storage, and to prevent leaking juices from getting onto other foods.
Fresh poultry, fish, ground meats and variety meats should be cooked or dozen within 2 days from purchase. Other meat should be cooked or frozen within 3-5 days from purchase.
Meat and poultry that can not be cooked right away can be frozen in the original packaging. Wrap the package with an additional layer of foil or plastic wrap to protect food quality.
Thawing Frozen Food
Three methods are available for thawing frozen foods.
- Allowing the food to thaw slowly in the refrigerator is the safest method. Be sure the food is thawing in a container to catch any juices that might drip onto other foods in the refrigerator.
- Foods can also be thawed in cold water. This method is faster than thawing in the refrigerator. Place the frozen item in a leak-proof zip-type plastic bag. Submerge it completely in cold water. Change the water every half hour to keep it cold. Once the food is thawed, cook it immediately.
- Some food can be thawed in the microwave, following manufacturer directions. Cook micro-thawed food immediately.
Remember, always wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after you handle meats and other fresh foods.
Be aware of the dangers of cross-contamination between different types of raw foods, and between raw and cooked foods. Keep raw meats, poultry and fish (and any juice from them) away from all other foods.
After cutting raw meats, wash the cutting board, knives and counter tops with hot soapy water.
Sanitize counter tops, cutting boards and kitchen utensils with a solution of 1 Tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water.
If meat or poultry is being marinated, do it in a covered dish in the refrigerator. Never marinate meats at room temperature.
The safest way to know that food is cooked properly is to test its internal temperature. An instant-read thermometer is ideal for this. Put the probe into the thickest part of the meat to test its temperature.
The minimum temperature at which the following meats are considered cooked are shown on this chart.
|Raw beef and pork roasts, steaks and chops||145 °F (63 ºC)|
|Ground meats||160 °F (71 ºC)|
|Poultry||165 °F (74 °C)|
Some people will prefer meat cooked to a higher temperature, for well-done meat.
Let meat rest for 3-5 minutes away from the heat source once proper internal temperature has been reached before serving and eating it.
Serving the Food
The old saying is correct: “Keep hot food hot and keep cold food cold.” Hot food should be kept at and internal temperature of 140 °F (60 °C) or warmer. Cold food should be held at 40 °F (4 ºC) or colder.
You can maintain the temperature of foods in insulated containers like a good-quality thermos for packed lunches or slow cookers or warming trays for buffets. A good thermos works to keep cold foods at proper temperature, as do ice bowls on a buffet table.
Do not leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90 °F (32 ºC), these foods should not be left out over 1 hour.
Caring for Leftovers
Food that has remained at room temperature for over 2 hours (or 1 hour in hot conditions above 90 °F (32 ºC)) should be discarded.
Leftovers should be placed in shallow containers and immediately put into the refrigerator or freezer. They need to be cooled rapidly, and a large mass of food will take too long to cool in the center of the mass.
Cooked leftovers should be used within 4 days, or frozen for longer storage. Reheat the leftovers, whether refrigerated or frozen, to an internal temperature of 165 °F (74 °C).
It is OK to refreeze defrosted raw meats and poultry before cooking if it has been thawed in the refrigerator. If thawed in cold water or the microwave, cook the meat before refreezing it.
Check the cold storage chart at the bottom of the page at this link to find short safe storage times for refrigerated foods. Frozen foods will keep indefinitely, but will lose quality if kept beyond the time indicated in the chart.
Whenever you work with fresh perishable foods, follow the four steps of the Food Safe Families campaign to keep food safe:
- Clean — Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Separate — Don't cross-contaminate.
- Cook — Cook to the right temperature.
- Chill — Refrigerate promptly.
NOTE: The link for Food Safe Families is https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/basics/index.html
1. Clean - Wash hands and surfaces often.
Harmful bacteria are everywhere, including your on your hands, in food, and on your counter tops, cutting boards and cooking utensils. Wash you hands with soap and running warm water for at least 20 seconds to clean them. Wash your utensils and the cutting board and counter top after cooking with them. Sanitize the counter top when finished preparing the food. Rinse fruit and vegetables (but not meet, poultry or eggs) with running tap water before peeling or cutting them.
2. Separate - Don’t cross-contaminate.
If possible, use separate cutting boards and plates when working with produce and working with meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Never put ready-to-eat food on a surface that has not been cleaned after being in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish or eggs.
Keep meat, poultry, fish and eggs in separate grocery bags. Don’t allow juices from meat, poultry or fish to contact other food in the refrigerator.
3. Cook - Cook to the right temperature.
You can’t tell by the color or texture of cooked food if it is properly done. The safest way is to use an instant-read thermometer to take the internal temperature of cooking foods. Check the recipe for the recommended internal temperature to know when a dish is done cooking.
As cooked foods cool, bacteria multiply. Keep hot foods hot in a slow cooker or on a warming tray.
4. Chill - Refrigerate promptly.
Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria, so be sure to return cooked foods to the refrigerator within 2 hours of completing cooking them. Raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs and cut fruits and vegetables should not be left out at room temperature; put them in the refrigerator as soon as you return from the store.
Don’t thaw or marinate foods at room temperature.
Follow these steps when cooking with meats, dairy products and fresh produce and you will be less likely to come down with a food borne illness.
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