A chef doesn't just eye your steak to make sure it's done. That's because the texture and color of your entrée isn't enough to tell if it's been cooked properly on the inside—and that mistake could make you seriously sick. Take a lesson from the pros and put your food thermometer to work instead. Monitor your food to make sure it reaches the minimum recommended internal temperature: ground meat to 160 degrees; fresh beef to 140 degrees; fresh pork to 145 degrees; and poultry to 165 degrees. Finned fish are safe to eat at 145 degrees, and other types of seafood should be cooked until the flesh is firm and opaque. And when you're done, dig in right away! The reason a waiter whisks plates straight to the table—aside from being eager for a good tip—is that illness-causing bacteria multiply quickest in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Would Your Kitchen Pass a Restaurant Health Inspection?
You may think you keep a clean kitchen, but all of those nooks, crannies, and corners are perfect hiding places for bacteria and other nasty bugs. Even some seemingly innocuous items—dish towels, table linens, and doorknobs—may be harboring dangerous viruses that could make you and your family sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans gets sick every year after consuming contaminated food or beverages. With more than 250 varieties, food-borne illnesses are a common and costly public health problem that can cause everything from mild stomach upset to potentially fatal disorders. Keep your family safe by developing good kitchen habits, including these 9 smart food prep, cleaning, and cooking practices, and be grateful that your kitchen isn't in line for a visit from the Board of Health.
Take the Temperature1/9
Refrigerate the Right Way2/9
Before you even place your order at a restaurant, the ingredients of your soon-to-be dinner are waiting in the fridge or the walk-in freezer. If that refrigerated food wasn't kept between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you could be in for a rough time later on. That's why it's a good idea to invest in a refrigerator thermometer to ensure that your food stays in that safe temperature range until you're ready to cook it. Always throw your groceries in the fridge as soon as you get home, even if you're tired. Two hours is the longest time perishable food should be kept on the counter, and a one-hour window is long enough for illness-causing bacteria to breed in the summer. Consider bringing along an insulated bag to keep meats and frozen foods cold on especially long trips. And make sure your freezer is set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below to keep food at its freshest.
Keep Your Hands Out of the Ice3/9
Have you ever seen a bartender grab a handful of ice cubes and drop them in your glass? Probably not, since handling food or drinks with bare hands is the fastest way to make customers sick. The same rule applies when you're filling drink orders for friends and family. You may think that your hands are clean, but they're bacterial breeding grounds that germophobes would be wise to avoid. Plus, you run the risk of contaminating not only the ice in the drink, but also the rest of the ice in the bucket. Try a scooper or tongs as a safer alternative or, better yet, invest in an ice maker with an automatic dispenser.
Clean Countertop Appliances4/9
During the lunch or dinner rush, even the cleanest restaurant can become ground zero for contamination and that's no less true at home. That's because serving up just one meal often requires the use of multiple appliances, like a food processor, pasta maker, or blender. Add that to everyday kitchen tools, such as can openers and cutting boards, and it's easy to understand why your countertop hosts some of the dirtiest surfaces in your kitchen. Always remember to scrub and sanitize those small appliances after every use or you could be in for a nasty surprise down the line.
Cut Out Cross-Contamination5/9
There's a reason restaurants are stocked with a small army of kitchen towels. Using the same towel for busing tables, cleaning up splattered food, and wiping up spilled drinks would increase the risk of cross-contamination. At home, however, you're probably guilty of doing just that: using one or two dish towels to wipe your hands, mop up spills, and clean the countertops. To stay safe, always use separate towels for wiping your hands and cleaning cooking surfaces. Soak towels in a sanitizing solution of bleach and water, and switch them out daily if you can. Another quick tip? Stick to paper towels to clean up spills.
Related: 11 Ways to Flu-Proof Your Home
Sanitize Knobs and Handles6/9
Before closing down for the night, a good restaurant manager or shift supervisor sticks around to make sure that the kitchen is properly cleaned. It's a smart strategy to adopt at home, too, to make sure you don't neglect important spots that you probably rarely think about. These trouble areas include the knobs and handles of your cabinets and appliances, the wall behind your stove, and other often spattered surfaces. Use a kitchen degreaser to wipe down all knobs and handles, and then sanitize them with a mixture of vinegar and water.
Freshen Up Your Floors7/9
The kitchen floor can be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Wooden floors are particularly susceptible to contamination, which is why so many commercial kitchens are outfitted with tile floors. Unfortunately, even the grout between the tiles can harbor nasty bacteria. At home, wipe up spills right away with paper towels, and mop the floor daily. Sanitize wooden floors with a vinegar-and-water solution, and follow that up with a plain water rinse. If you have tile or vinyl floors, clean them with a solution of bleach and water, or ammonia and water, but never mix bleach and ammonia, which produces toxic fumes.
Scrub Fruits and Veggies8/9
Raw fruits and vegetables are good for you… unless they're crawling with contaminants. The top layer of fresh produce can harbor disease-causing bacteria and chemicals, so when you slice through the skin of fruits or vegetables—whether purchased at the grocery store or nestled on your plate at your favorite brunch spot—you may be transferring bacteria into your food. Surprisingly, some of the dirtiest items in the store are citrus fruits, including lemons, limes, and oranges, but as all produce is handled by multiple people, it should be washed before eating. Use a solution of vinegar and water and a small scrub brush to make sure your food is really clean.
Related: 8 Cleaning Mistakes Everyone Makes
Follow Food Storage Guidelines9/9
Whether you're grabbing a breakfast sandwich on your way to work or whipping one up at home, you'd never take a bite if you knew the bacon was spoiled or the bread was moldy. The dates printed on food packaging these days really aren’t optional. Follow these storage guidelines to help keep prepared food fresh longer, and always throw away anything past its "use by" or expiration date.
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