How to Keep Food Safe Like a Pro

The past few months I’ve been teaching food safety and sanitation to beginning culinary students. Not the sexiest topic in the culinary world perhaps, but maybe the most important. After personal hygiene (I’m just going to assume you all wash your hands after you go potty), the biggest areas of concern—to chefs and home cooks—are the “danger zone” and cross contamination.

The Danger Zone:

While Kenny Loggins made a song of unrivaled awesomeness in the 80s by the same name, the danger zone in the kitchen has nothing to do with fighter jets or guys named Goose. It’s the range of temperatures (41-135 Fahrenheit) in which food borne bacteria most rapidly proliferate.

Four hours is the maximum amount of time foods can safely spend in the danger zone, and cooks should try to move foods through that range when heating, cooling, and storing foods.

Some tips:

  • Cut large roasts into smaller portions to cool, and separate stews into smaller containers.

  • Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator so when they finish defrosting, they don’t spend time at room temperature–in the danger zone.

  • Heat leftovers to at least 165 Fahrenheit, nearly a simmer, before serving.

  • Buy a refrigerator thermometer and check to make sure temperatures stay below 41 Fahrenheit.

  • Keep hot foods uncovered until they have cooled, speeding up the cooling process.

  • Discard foods left out for more than four hours, like at potlucks or dinner parties.

  • Keep food warmers and crockpots at temperatures above 135 Fahrenheit.

Cross Contamination:

Cross contamination, the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food to another, comes in three yummy flavors: direct, indirect, and drip.

Direct is when foods, like raw meat, come in contact with foods that will be eaten without cooking, i.e. “ready-to-eat-foods”. Indirect is when bacteria contaminates a surface, which then comes in contact with another food. Drip is just what it sounds like, when one food drips contaminants onto another food.

Some tips:

  • Keep hazardous foods, like raw meat, separate in your grocery cart, and pack them in separate bags at the checkout.

  • Consider limiting the use of cutting boards at home to specific foods. Use one for raw meats and another for other foods. In restaurants kitchens, color determines cutting board use. Yellow is for chicken, red for red meats, blue for fish and seafood, and green for vegetables and fruit.

  • Wash hands and utensils before cooking and as often as needed, while you prepare meals, especially when switching from handling meats to vegetables.

  • Sanitize utensils if they become contaminated, like tongs used to put raw chicken on the grill.

  • Store raw and thawing meats at the bottom of the cooler, underneath other foods, especially ready-to-eat foods. In restaurant coolers, foods are stored from top shelf to bottom in this order:

    1. Ready-to-eat foods

    2. Raw seafood and fish

    3. Raw red meats

    4. Raw pork

    5. Raw ground meat

    6. Raw poultry

A while back I was talking to the chef from La Belle Vie, Michael DeCamp, a guy who is cooking, arguably, the most exciting food in the Midwest. His biggest concern for new hires and students graduating from culinary school is attention to sanitation. The foundation for kitchen creativity and culinary artistry, even at the very highest levels, starts with keeping it clean and safe.