Scared of Food Safety? Don't Be. Here's Your Ultimate Guide to Food Safety in the Kitchen

Scared of Food Safety? Don't Be. Here's Your Ultimate Guide to Food Safety in the Kitchen

(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

Nothing brings me greater joy than cooking for people I love. But nothing gives me greater fear than feeding someone a meal that makes them sick. Do you share this fear? It's reasonable to be very cautious about serving safe food.

But sometimes that fear can hold us back in the kitchen — worrying unduly, or throwing out perfectly good food. After polling friends, it became clear that our insecurities and anxieties about raw meats, spoiling leftovers, and marinated fish all originate from a lack of information. So today let's tackle this fear with the greatest weapon we have: knowledge!

(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

The Fear to Overcome: Making People Sick

Over time, food recalls and E. coli scares caused me to develop a bit of paranoia around the food I buy, the food I save, and the food I serve. And I often err on the side of super-caution when ingredients seem questionable, no matter what the expiration date says or how expensive it was to buy. I once tossed an entire six-person dinner of miso-marinated fish because I worried the filets sat out too long. And giant containers of yogurt seriously freak me out.

My working motto: When you don’t know, you throw. But that’s exactly the problem here; not knowing.

How Do You Know What's Safe?

Guidelines tend to be murky — how can raw eggs be bad but Caesar salad dressing is okay? And unless you go to culinary school or have a copy of the ServeSafe Coursebook lying around, one mainly picks up safety tips from family and friends; resources that often come with their own set of conflicting guidelines. One of my friends won’t touch raw chicken but eats raw cookie dough without abandon. Another friend simply cuts off moldy sections of cheese, but won’t touch pink pork. And my husband treats expiration dates like urban legends.

In sum: It is hard to know what’s hearsay and what’s a hard-and-fast rule, when you’re being safe or overly cautious and wasteful, and when to throw out leftovers or eat them for lunch the next day. All questions which, on their own, cause indigestion.

But knowledge is power. And it turns out, with the right information, the steps to food safety and sanitization are simple, not scary. With the help of the Internet (and the FDA, the CDC, the USDA, and FoodSafety.gov), I’ve compiled a neat and tidy list on how to keep your food neat and tidy and safe, from the grocery store to the refrigerator to buffet table. So you can confront those fears and question marks, and feel confident about the food you make and serve.

The Essentials of Food Safety

Before we dive into specifics, let’s memorize these overarching food safety and sanitation principles:

  • Memorize four essential words: To keep food safe and your kitchen sanitized, just remember these four words: Clean, separate, cook, and chill. It’s the “stop, drop, and roll” of the kitchen.
  • Understand the danger zone: Food enters a “danger zone” between temperatures of 40°F and 140°F, so never leave food (groceries or cooked dishes) out at room temperature for longer than two hours. And only one hour if it is a hot day.
  • Know the facts: Marinades do not kill bacteria, you cannot smell salmonella, and vegetables should be washed even if they will be peeled. Brush up on these and other food safety myths with these helpful sheets on common misinformation and mistakes.
  • The source of your ingredients is still important: What follows are recommended guidelines. Depending on where your food comes from (aka your backyard) or your thoughts on food safety, you may choose to eat steak tartare or raw egg yolks or unwashed produce. Do so at your own risk and remember, the more you know about the quality of the ingredients and where they came from, the better.
  • Be aware and more cautious with certain groups of people: But certain at-risk populations — i.e., children, pregnant women, elderly, and those who are immunosuppressed — require special precautions and this should be taken into account when cooking for others.

Food Safety & Sanitation at Home: A Complete Guide

This list might look long and overwhelming, but that's just because there are so many different places in our lives that food touches, and of course different types of food too. So consider this a reference guide to dip in and out of as needed.

Tips for Food Safety While Shopping

Food safety starts at the store. And while you cannot completely control how your food was raised, handled, and packaged, stick to these best practices to ensure fresh, quality ingredients.

  1. Don't cross-contaminate in the cart: Do not cross-contaminate in the cart. Keep raw proteins and eggs separate from everything else.
  2. Pick up perishables right before check-outNext, to keep frozen foods and perishable items (like dairy, eggs, and meat) as cool as possible, grab them right before you check out.
  3. Use a cooler bag and ice pack: Pro tip from my mom: Stash a cooler bag (or a cooler-shopping bag!) in your car to keep ingredients at a safe temperature during the transport home. Double pro tip: Pack an ice pack or ask for ice from the meat and fish counter when you have another errand to run.

Now, for choosing your ingredients:

  • Produce: When it comes to buying fresh vegetables, skip anything with signs of rotting, especially pre-packaged or pre-sliced vegetables and fruit. Avoid anything with film or goo or signs of mold. And the FDA recommends buying fruits and vegetables free of bruises or signs of damage. But don’t confuse “ugly” or dirty produce with dangerous produce — ugly will still be safe and tasty to eat.
  • Eggs: Open that carton. The FDA recommends buying refrigerated eggs with clean shells, free of cracks. Of course, eggs at a farmers market may be sold at room temperature, so talk to the source (i.e., farmer or stand operator) to learn more about the freshness and cleanliness.
  • Fish, Meat, Poultry: Do not buy anything that feels warm to the touch or looks/smells funny — check out this guide specific to fish. And when choosing packaged proteins, do not buy anything with tears and signs of liquid or leakage in the packaging.
  • Prepared or Canned Foods: Check the “sell-by” or “use-by” dates and skip items with tears in the packaging, opened tops (duh), dents, bulges, leaks, or signs of rust.
  • Note Product Recalls: And keep up with product recalls through email, RSS feed, or a nifty Food Safety widget.

As for those expiration and “use-by” dates on packages, here’s a spoiler alert: They are not required or regulated by the FDA — except for those on baby formula. And moreover, most of the numbers refer to quality rather than safety — check out this list for a breakdown of the labels.

Tips for Food Safety in Food Prep & Sanitation

Proper handling of food need not require a hazmat suit or an official safety assessment (although you can take the test here). Just remember to constantly sanitize surfaces and separate ingredients to keep bacteria growth to a minimum.

  • Have effective cleaners around all the time: Start by having the right tools on hand, like soap and cleaners, so you can safely wash up while you cook. Check out these tutorials on making all-natural and all-purpose cleaners with vinegar and lemon.
  • Wash your hands! Then, begin any cooking adventure by washing your hands in warm soapy water, and repeat before, during, and after food preparation; especially when handling raw proteins or eggs.
  • Wash produce, not chicken: As for produce, the FDA recommends rinsing and scrubbing all produce with water before cutting, peeling, and cooking, unless dealing with packaged vegetables labeled pre-washed. As for washing chicken, skip it. Rinsing of raw poultry and other proteins will spread bacteria to your sink, counter, and other surfaces.
  • Use separate cutting boards: Once you start cooking, use separate cutting boards for meat, poultry, fish, and produce and clean those boards thoroughly after use with warm soapy water or in a dishwasher, if non-porous and plastic. Check out this USDA primer on properly cleaning different types of cutting boards.
  • Clean surfaces after cooking protein and eggs: Also clean all utensils and surfaces that come into contact with raw protein or eggs with warm soapy water (or in a dishwasher when appropriate) between uses. This includes your hands. Your sink. Your sponges. And your instant-read thermometers.
  • Be cautious of surfaces that touched raw proteins: Finally, never reuse (before cleaning) plates or serving utensils that touched raw meats or eggs. And if reusing any marinade, be sure to boil the liquid rapidly at a high temperature.
(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

Tips for Food Safety in Thawing and Cooking

When cooking, keep food safe by keeping an eye on temperatures.

  • Never defrost at room temperature. Food should always thaw in the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave, depending on how much time you have. Follow these proper techniques to defrost safely. And remember, if you choose the cold-water technique, sanitize the bowl or dishes you use as well as the sink.
  • Use a thermometer: While a quick Google search will reveal cool tricks for determining that internal temp (like poking a steak or squeezing the fleshy part of your hand), if you’re worried about safety, nothing beats a thermometer. To use properly, check out this list of USDA-recommended minimum internal temperatures and a super helpful illustration on proper thermometer placement. Just remember to wash and sanitize that thermometer after use.
  • Be cautious with eggs: As for eggs, the FDA recommends cooking until both the egg white and yolk are firm, or for any recipes that contain eggs to be cooked to a temperature of 160°F. If you do decide to make a recipe that calls for raw or runny eggs, the FDA recommends using pasteurized eggs.

Of course, many people are less cautious about eggs and love them runny and raw. But remember: the FDA's role is to create rules that protect the weakest of the population. If you're cooking for yourself, you are free to take risks. If you cook for others — especially those with weaker systems — it's your responsibility to be cautious.

Tips for Food Safety in Serving

My food safety anxiety runs highest when hosting a dinner party. Especially when serving under the hot sun, in a buffet-style setting (i.e., holidays), or in any situation where dishes sit out for a while. So here’s what you need to know to serve food smartly.

  • Refrigerate as long as possible: Keep food cool and refrigerated as long as possible. Remember, food enters a “danger zone” between temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. So when hosting a party, limit the hang time for raw ingredients and cooked dishes. And keep more perishable ingredients, like a creamy potato salad dressing, in the refrigerator or a cooler until right before serving.
  • Know the danger zone times: Once you do put the food out, cooked dishes will remain safe at room temperature for a maximum two hours. On hot days the FDA recommends limiting time in the sun to one hour maximum for temperatures of 90°F and above. And, remember, if you happen to see unsafe practices happening at someone else’s party, say something.

Read more: Check out the FDA’s primer on picnics, BBQ, and eating outdoors. And one on Holiday Food Safety as well.

Tips for Food Safety in Storing Food

  • Check the temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer: To start, your refrigerator should be at a cool 40°F or lower and the freezer at 0°F or below. If they run hot, that not only means runny ice cream, but worse yet, spoilage. To check the temperatures, use fridge- and freezer-specific thermometers, or even an instant-read thermometer. Then adjust dials as needed.
  • Put away groceries promptly: When putting away the groceries, remember to unpack promptly and keep food out for a maximum of two hours (or one hour if 90°F or above). Avoid cross-contamination by separating proteins from produce. And be sure to check the labels of prepared and packaged foods for storage instructions — many items that start on the shelves in the store need to be kept in the fridge once opened.
  • Know how long foods will keep: To know how long items will keep, use this nifty FDA refrigerator and freezer cheat sheet. Or even better, the USDA Foodkeeper App. Items in the freezer at 0°F or below will stay safe indefinitely, as the chill keeps harmful bacteria from growing. The suggested “throw-out” dates for freezer food refer to quality and taste, not safety.
  • Label cooked leftovers: As for cooked food, place leftovers in airtight containers and label with date. If the food is still warm, it is recommended to cool it first so as not to raise the temperature of the refrigerator. But if you have to put that huge, hot pot of soup in there, transfer it first to several smaller containers to lower the heat.

Now, for some other items hanging around your pantry and refrigerator:

  • Moldy food: Use this helpful chart from the USDA to determine when you can safely cut around the problem area and when you need to compost.
  • Canned vegetables: High-acidic items (like canned tomatoes) will usually stay good for one to two years. Other products (like meats, non-acidic fruits, and vegetables) will last up to five years. So mark your calendars to clean out the cupboards and your emergency kits.
  • Opened condiments: Another helpful list from The Kitchn on when to keep and when to toss.

Have More Questions?

Try these other resources for immediate answers:

  • AskKaren.com: FSIS’s automated response system that provides food safety information everday, all day, and even a live chat option during Hotline hours.
  • USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-674-6854

Facing Fears

For those of us who did not grow watching Grandma make pasta from scratch, the kitchen can be a scary place. From the store to the sauté pan, there’s a lot to learn and often a lot at stake for the beginner cook — like, an edible dinner. These fears often keep people from trying something new or cooking at all. Which is why, one by one, in this column we will tackle these roadblocks. With the help of some tips, solutions, and maybe a few breathing exercises, we will push past the anxieties to help you feel more confident.

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