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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Be a Cook Whose Kitchen Would Pass a Safety Inspection

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Have you ever sniffed leftovers and asked yourself, Is this food safe? Or wondered, Was it something we ate? Every state inspects restaurant kitchens to make sure they are clean, well-run, and completely food-safe. But what about your home? Would your kitchen pass a safety inspection? Part of being a great cook is being one who understands the basics of food safety, and who can not only cook well, but also save, store, and use leftovers efficiently and well.

Why Food Safety?

Professional cooks have to pass food safety exams and inspections to make sure their cooking, storage, and food prep practices are safe. This isn’t the case for home cooks, and yet you can get just as sick from contaminated food at home as you can in a restaurant. Luckily, the habits that keep food safe and fresh are largely the same, whether you’re serving hundreds of diners a night or just your family. And they’re not that complicated, either! So, let’s take a look at how to keep food safe, and also keep it fresh!

The Heart of Food Safety (It’s All About One Thing)

The food we like to eat is edible — and desirable — to more creatures than just us. And some of those creatures are microscopic molds and bacterias that can make us sick if we ingest them.

The basic principle of food safety, then, is to keep those molds and bacterias away from food if possible, and to make sure their environment (the food we plan to eat) is either too hot or too cold most of the time. The temperature range in which microbes like to grow is called, appropriately, “the danger zone.” (Cue Kenny Loggins.)

What Is the Danger Zone?

The USDA officially defines the danger zone for food as the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F. In between these temperatures, harmful bacteria can grow more quickly, sometimes doubling in as little as 20 minutes. Hotter than this, and most bacteria are destroyed. Colder, and they may be present, but they generally aren’t growing. This is why you should always keep your fridge temperature at 40°F or cooler, and why meats especially need to be cooked to certain temperatures above 140°F (more on that below.)

Of course, you can’t keep all food outside that range all the time. It’s not practical. So the USDA advises that any cooked food be consumed, refrigerated, or tossed out before it’s been in the danger zone for more than two hours. That doesn’t mean that a sandwich sitting on the counter since noon is suddenly deadly at 2:01. But it’s a good guideline for knowing when eating something is a little more risky.

As long as you’re not cooking dinner hours before you eat it, food will most likely be in the danger zone for long periods when you’re defrosting something or cooking it.

The Safe Way to Defrost Food

No matter what you’re defrosting, the safest way to do it is to move it from the freezer to the fridge. This, of course, avoids the danger zone entirely. The problem is that meats and liquids like stock often take 24 hours or more, which is not always convenient. There are times you want to defrost something faster. Grandma may have just set it on the counter, but the FDA recommends against that and we do too. Here are the three methods that are most recommended.

  • Put it in a bowl of cold water. As long as the food is in a leak-proof container (a plastic bag or quart container) it can be submerged in cold tap water, which will thaw it much faster. But you’ll need to change the water every half hour or so to keep the water cold. A small package of meat may thaw in 30 minutes to an hour. A large frozen turkey could take several hours — generally food takes about half an hour per pound to thaw this way.
  • Thaw it in the microwave. The USDA recommends thawing meat in the microwave as a safe option, and yours probably has that nifty “defrost” button right on it, but we recommend against using the microwave, especially for meat. Not because it’s unsafe, but because it doesn’t leave you with the best-tasting food. The reason for this is that microwaves are great at heating water, but oddly, not at melting ice. So defrosting food with them tends to leave you with some spots that are partly cooked, and others that are still frozen.
  • Cook it straight from frozen. You can cook certain cuts straight from the freezer, and they’ll turn out just fine. This doesn’t work for a whole chicken or turkey, but frozen chicken breasts, and frozen fish filets only need a longer cook time. With chicken, especially, the oven is usually the best method here.

The Safe Temperatures for Cooking Food

Meats and proteins must be cooked to different temperatures, based on what strains of bacteria are likely to be present and how hot the meat must get before the bacteria are safely destroyed. You can find the complete meat and poultry charts on the federal food safety site, but the basics are below.

  • 145°F for fish and whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, or lamb. Pork used to have a higher recommended temperature, but in 2011 the USDA revised it down.
  • 160°F for ground meat, including beef, lamb, and pork.
  • 165°F for any kind of poultry including ground chicken, turkey, and duck.
  • 165°F is also the temp that any leftovers should be reheated to.

These are, by the way, the internal temperatures. So the best way to make sure that your food has gotten hot enough is to invest in a good instant-read thermometer.

The Tricks of Cooling Hot Food Fast

Just as you don’t want to leave food defrosting for hours on the counter, it’s not a good idea to leave hot soup or other cooked foods foods out! But throwing a big pot of freshly made stock into the fridge is a bad idea. The heat from the food will quickly warm up the rest of the fridge much higher than 40°F, and could potentially cause everything in there to spoil. Food needs to be room temperature before going into the fridge. So what do you do?

A cold-water bath is your friend here, as well. If you have a lot of food that you don’t want to immediately eat, put it in small, sealed, airtight containers (for liquids, plastic pint or quart containers — not glass — work best) and then put those containers in cold or ice water. They will go from very hot to room temperature in just a few minutes.

Cross Contamination (and How to Avoid It)

Aside from keeping food at the right temperature, you can avoid spreading bacteria by avoiding cross contamination. This means especially keeping things like raw meats away from foods like vegetables and fruits that you might eat raw, or not cook as thoroughly. Here are some best practices for avoiding cross contamination.

Inside your fridge, all food other than vegetables or fruit stored in a drawer should be well-wrapped. Leftovers should go into sealed containers (which will help keep their smells from penetrating other ingredients). Organize your fridge. Things that don’t need to be cooked to be safe should go toward the top, then everything else should be organized downwards based on the temperature it needs to be cooked to. This means the safest place for uncooked meat and fish is on the bottom shelf. The refrigerator door is the warmest part of the fridge, so only condiments should go there. Don’t put eggs or milk in the door; they should be placed in a colder part of the refrigerator where they’re less likely to spoil.

Outside your fridge, keep separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, and of course wash your knives and all other tools and surfaces thoroughly after each cooking session.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

When it comes to safe cooking there are a lot of temperatures and numbers — and it’s easy for them all to blur together. But if you remember nothing else, it’s best to memorize the danger zone: Food should be kept between 40°F and 140°F for no more than two hours. If you remember that, you’ve made your cooking practices a lot more safe already. So remember: Kenny Loggins. Danger Zone.

What You Don’t Need to Learn

Food safety is all about minimizing riskbut it’s impossible to eliminate risk entirely. You can’t do that and sometimes you might not even want to do that: The FDA recommends eggs be cooked to 145°F but doing that would eliminate runny yolks. Steak is delicious cooked to rare or medium rare, but those temperatures are well below the guidelines. Don’t worry about memorizing the cook temperatures for every protein (which can always be looked up), or stress about knowing the recommended storage periods or temperatures for everything. Professional chefs take a 16-week course in safe food handling, and read a big course book. You don’t need to know all that to be safe at home, and in the end, it’s about having a general sense of the acceptable risks for you.

How Pros Keep Food Fresh and Delicious

One benefit of practicing food safety is that food is often more delicious when it’s safest — when it’s been stored well and is still fresh. Here are a few tips that the pros practice, that are worth bringing into your home.

Treat Air as the Enemy

When food is exposed to too much air in the fridge or freezer, it will lead to dehydration. And in the freezer it can lead to freezer burn. Although it is safe to eat freezer-burned food, the color and taste may be altered. Invest in heavy-duty freezer bags, and try to press out all the air before sealing them. For ground meat, you can do this with a rolling pin, which makes the packages very easy to stack — watch the video above for a great demonstration.

When storing containers in the fridge or freezer, try to fill them to the very top when possible. If it’s not possible, a small sheet of plastic wrap pressed down will work. And with guacamole in the fridge, a layer of water on top will actually keep the air away, and can be easily poured off before reusing.

When using plastic wrap to cover a dish, don’t simply spread a little across the top, and hope it will stick. Wrap the entire bowl, sealing it as completely as possible. It uses more wrap, but will keep the food longer.

For foods stored in the pantry, both air and light should be avoided. Grains and flours should be stored in airtight containers (which will also keep pests out) and kept out of direct light.

Label and Date Everything

Get a permanent marker and some painter’s tape (here’s why we recommend it) and keep it in the kitchen. Any time you put leftovers in the fridge or anything, really, in the freezer, write down what it is and the date. That way you know how long it’s been in there. Food may stay safe more or less indefinitely, but most frozen foods only taste good for several months.

Pro tip: If you want to be even more organized, get a whiteboard you can attach to the fridge or wall, and keep a list of everything that’s in your freezer (and when it arrived). This will help with meal planning, and keep you from rooting around in there looking for something to make for dinner.

First In, First Out (FIFO!)

Most restaurants and grocery stores use a system called FIFO (first in first out) for keeping ingredients and products fresh. This is just a fancy term for storing older items in front of new ones so you use up what’s oldest first. (If you’ve ever reached way in the back to get the freshest container of milk at the store, you have experienced — and thwarted — FIFO.) But you can use FIFO at home, as well. It’s especially useful for canned goods, bulk foods, and anything you may have more than one of. And the idea is simple: Make the stuff you want to use up first easiest to reach.

Credit: Emily Han

Our Favorite Food Safety Gear

A basic knife is all you need, but here are a few tools that can save time, and frustration.

5 Important Food Safety Articles

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

Label or toss out leftovers. If you have some masking or painter’s tape and a marker, grab them. If not, go online and get some now. Then read up on organizing your fridge and storing leftovers. In your own fridge, label everything that you’ve made within the last day or two, and toss out anything that you can’t remember exactly when it was made, or that is older than four days.

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Organize your fridge. Starting top to bottom, make sure that everything is placed so that it’s as safe as possible. Remember: All raw meats and fish should be on the bottom shelf. Condiments and stable things can go in the warmest part — the door. Top shelf is for things that don’t need to be cooked at all. And everything should be sealed. Share pictures of your before-and-after fridges with the tag #kitchncookingschool!

Check your work: Take a photo of your fridge before you start, and another after you finish. How tidy or safe was your fridge to start? Was there raw meat above the bottom shelf? Was milk kept in the door? How does it look now? If anything were to leak onto something below, would it cause a food safety issue? Share pictures of your before-and-after fridges with the tag #kitchncookingschool!

60+ Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Give your fridge and freezer a full overhaul. Read the articles above as well as this article on how to clean a fridge. Then get some painter’s tape, a marker, some warm soapy water and a sponge, and a towel, and give your fridge and freezer as complete a cleaning as you have time for. Starting at the top, remove everything, labeling all leftovers and throwing away anything that’s too old. Then clean the shelves and replace the food in our recommended manner. Remember: All raw meats and fish should be on the bottom shelf. Condiments and stable things can go in the warmest part — the door. Top shelf is for things that don’t need to be cooked at all. And everything should be sealed. Repeat with the freezer: Toss anything you can’t identify or that is past its use-by date. Label everything as best you can. Bonus assignment: Reorganize your pantry so that older items are at the front and newer items are toward the rear. Again, toss anything that is expired.

Check your work: Take a photo of your fridge, freezer, and/or pantry before you start, and another after you finish. How tidy, safe, and clean was everything? How does it look now? If anything were to leak onto something below, would it cause a food safety issue? Are all items well wrapped and properly labeled?

What It Takes to Be a Safety and Storage Expert

If you completed any of the assignments above, you’re already on your way, so congratulations! The trick, now, is to keep it up. This isn’t time-consuming, but it’s a matter of developing good habits. In the coming days and weeks try to make a point of wrapping and labeling anything that goes into your fridge or freezer. Freeze or toss out any leftovers more than four days old, or anything that is past its expiration. And mark some time on the calendar — 15 minutes once a month, say — to toss out anything you missed.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn