There are many things to consider when thinking about the food-safety basics. Allergies, intolerances, and dietary restrictions are very important, and vary widely from one person to the next. Be mindful of cross contamination when you’re dealing with these concerns. Follow the advice of your physician, and when you’re cooking for others, communicate with them to ensure you’re meeting everyone’s needs.
It should be noted that physical and chemical contaminants can also be dangerous, but this post will focus on the organic side of things.
DISCLAIMER: This is the advice I follow at home. These are my personal, not professional, opinions and I cannot guarantee anyone’s health. For more, better information, check out the recommendations of your local health authority.
The risk of food poisoning can be minimized through good food-handling practices, and his post provides some context for food-safety basics at home. Take it with a grain of salt and continue to gather information so you can make your own informed decisions.
Bacteria can come from a variety of sources and is usually present to some extent in our food. Bacteria can be removed by washing, or killed by things like heat or disinfectants, and its growth can be slowed or inhibited by refrigeration, freezing, and various other methods of preservation. Different types of bacteria have different levels of concentration (how many organisms are in the food) at which they cause illness. For some it’s very low, and others are relatively high. For this and other reasons, some kinds of food are considered high risk, and others low risk. Meats, dairy, and cooked rice are especially high risk foods, and things like fruit, vegetables, bread, dry goods, and preserved goods are low risk. High risk items should always be kept refrigerated and shouldn’t be kept if they’ve been left at room temperature for more than a short period of time.
There are a lot of things you can do to help keep your kitchen hygienic. You should always wash your hands before you start cooking or handling food. Wash them again after handling raw meat, unwashed produce, raw eggs, or when returning to the kitchen. If you prepare meat in your kitchen, and especially if you use plastic (as opposed to wood) cutting boards, use a separate cutting board for raw meat that isn’t used for anything else. Raw meat should always be kept separately from other ingredients and handled with different utensils than cooked food or other ingredients.
Different foods require different cooking temperatures and times to kill bacteria all the way through. I’m not going to try to list them here as you can easily search for this information. It’s nice to have a good cooking thermometer for times when you’re cooking thick cuts of meat, or trying to get a dish to an exact temperature for safety or precision, but much of the time you might not need to be that precise.
Some people choose to consume raw or partially cooked eggs and meat in certain situations, and that’s your choice to make. Solid cuts of meat or fresh fish can sometimes be eaten rare or raw. Poultry and composite meats (e.g. sausage or hamburger), however, should never be eaten rare! Poultry has very porous flesh and things like hamburger have been ground up and mixed together—in both cases, this allows bacteria to penetrate into the center of the meat where it won’t be cooked fully if eaten rare.
Relatively fresh eggs that have been handled properly are sometimes consumed raw, but it is still safest to cook or pasteurize them. You should do your own research on this if you’re not sure how you feel, and you should allow other people to make their own decision by telling them what’s in the food you’re serving them.
In general, you shouldn’t wash eggs. If they’re washed at the wrong temperature it can cause the membrane inside the shell to contract and draw contaminants into the egg. In some countries (such as the US), eggs come pre-washed and must be refrigerated because the outer coating of the shell has been stripped away. In many other countries, they are not washed and can be stored at room temperature.
Fresh fruits and vegetables should always be washed (or peeled) to remove pesticides, bacteria, and other contaminants from the skin. Fresh produce doesn’t necessarily require refrigeration, but anything that has been cooked, pre-cut, or peeled should go in the fridge.
If you have been ill with vomiting or diarrhea recently you probably shouldn’t cook for anyone other than yourself. If you have a skin infection or open wounds on your hands, you should make sure they’re fully covered with a waterproof bandage before you cook anything. And, of course, wash your hands before handling food and be sure to cover your cough/sneeze.
There are many other considerations in the subject food safety. These guidelines are just a few food-safety basics that might help you start thinking about good hygiene in the kitchen if you’re new to cooking.
Whew! You made it all the way through! Next, you can think about stocking your pantry with this article!