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Top 5 Food Safety Mistakes: Cook and Chill

posted Jun 17, 2016, 12:22 PM by   [ updated Jun 17, 2016, 12:23 PM ]

This week, we’re focusing on the last two principles of food safety outlined in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs): cook and chill.  You may think you know the basics of how to cook food properly and chill it promptly to avoid foodborne illness, but are you making any of these common food safety mistakes?

1.  Assuming you can tell your food is done cooking by its color or texture.  

You can’t tell just by looking or touching if a food has been cooked long enough to be safe to eat.  You should always use a food thermometer to make sure seafood, meat, poultry, and egg dishes are cooked to the minimum temperature needed to destroy microbes that could cause foodborne illness.  To get an accurate temperature, place your food thermometer into the thickest part of the food, where it’s not touching bone, fat, gristle, or any cooking surface such as a hot pan or grill grates. Not only will using a thermometer help ensure your dish is safe to eat—it can also help you avoid overcooking your food because you’ll know for sure when it’s done.

2. Only washing your food thermometer after the meal is over.

If you’re already using a food thermometer to tell when your food is done, good for you! But when you get a reading that’s below the safe minimum temperature, do you wash your food thermometer before checking the temperature again? Many people forget this step, but a food thermometer that is inserted into a dish that isn’t fully cooked can contaminate your dish when you reinsert it later. To be safe, always be sure to wash your food thermometer with hot, soapy water between every use.    

3. Testing the temperature of the top of a microwave-cooked dish to see if it’s done. 

You’ve probably had the experience of removing a steaming casserole from the microwave, only to find out that the center of the casserole is actually ice cold. Not only is this annoying, but this uneven cooking could mean that even if part of a dish is hot, other parts may not have heated up enough to kill disease-causing microbes. Because of this, be sure to stir, rotate, and /or flip frequently when cooking foods in the microwave. For packaged foods, follow the microwave cooking instructions to ensure even cooking.

4. Letting hot food cool before putting it in the fridge.

Some people fear that food will spoil faster if it’s put in the fridge while it’s still hot, but in fact the opposite is true. Perishable food should be refrigerated as soon as possible. If you leave perishable food in the “danger zone” (anything between 40° and 140°F) for more than 2 hours, you should throw it out.

Other people worry that putting hot food into the fridge will warm up the entire fridge, causing other food to spoil. According to an AARP article, you should “give your fridge some credit. It’s designed to chill food and keep it cold.” When cooling a large portion of hot food, split it into separate containers to help it cool more quickly. And to keep your fridge working in tip-top shape, be sure to cover any liquids you refrigerate. Uncovered liquids can release moisture that will make your fridge work harder.

5. Thawing frozen food on the counter or in warm water.

The only safe way to thaw frozen foods is in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. If you decided to use cold water, be sure to use a leak-proof bag and change the water every 30 minutes. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the best method is to thaw food in the refrigerator and this method has another advantage—food that has been thawed in the fridge can be refrozen if you don’t end up using it. If you thaw food in cold water or in the microwave, you must cook it immediately. 

Be sure to check back next week: we’ll be rounding out our month with a closer look at food safety concerns specific to fish.