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Cooking With Care - Basic Food Handling and Cooking Tips

Cross-contamination is often the culprit in the spreading of bacteria and viruses. The CDC estimates that nearly half of all foodborne illnesses outbreaks are due to people insufficiently washing their hands. Cold and flu viruses are also transmitted by hand-to-hand and hand-to-surface contact. Always wash hands before, during, and after preparing a meal for at least 20 seconds in hot, soapy water (the friction caused by rubbing hands together helps kill bacteria). Consider using a kitchen timer to ensure scrubbing for the proper amount of time.

Also wash any other items that come in contact with food, such as utensils and cutting boards. If there is no time to wash cooking tools between uses, use separate plates and tools to keep raw and cooked foods from coming into contact with each other. Using different color-coded sets can aid in keeping foods from coming into contact with each other.

Proper temperature is an essential deterrent to foodborne illness. According to the USDA, temperature is the only way to gauge whether food is sufficiently cooked. Therefore, always use a thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe temperature. A refrigerator/freezer thermometer will test that foods are stored within a proper temperature zone. Limit the time food spends in warmer environments by picking up meats, dairy and other refrigerated products and the end of a shopping trip, and refrigerate them promptly at home.

While cold temperatures will stop the growth of bacteria, heat will kill existing bacteria. Cooking food to an internal temperature of at least 160°F will kill almost all viruses, parasites, and bacteria. The USDA recommends specific internal temperatures for various kinds of meats and foods for safest preparation.

Food temperature readings are affected by the type of thermometer used and where the stem is inserted into the food. The stem should be inserted into the thickest part of the food, even sideways when necessary. When testing meat, insert the stem away from bone, fat or gristle. Whole birds should be tested at the thickest part of the thigh. If the cut of meat is an uneven shape, it is a good idea to test temperature in several places to ensure the entire meat is properly cooked. When the thermometer reads the ideal temperature, push the stem in a little more. If the temperature remains the same the meat is done; if the temperature drops, continue to cook the meat. Casseroles, lasagnas and other combination dishes should also be checked at the center or thickest part of the meal. Test the dish in several places, especially when cooking egg, meat, and poultry recipes. Digital thermometers are a good choice for thin foods, like hamburgers and pork chops, as the temperature sensor is in the tip of the stem. Do still insert the tip into the thickest part of the food, even sideways, in order to test that the potentially coolest part of the meat is fully cooked.

USDA Recommended Cooking Temperatures

Most bacteria are destroyed at cooking temperatures between 140 and 160°F. However, various meats cook best at various temperatures to reach ideal “doneness”, resulting in both safe and delicious meals. Following are the minimum INTERNAL temperatures food must reach to be considered safe to eat, regardless of how they are prepared.

  • Fresh ground beef, pork, veal: 160°F (72°C)
  • Beef, veal, lamb (as roasts, steaks and chops):
    Medium rare: 145°F (63°C)
    Medium: 160°F (72°C)
    Well Done: 170°F (77°C)
  • Fresh Pork (as roasts, steaks and chops):
    Medium: 160°F (72°C)
    Well Done: 170°F (77°C)
  • Ham:
    Fresh (raw): 160°F (72°C)
    Precooked (to reheat): 140°F (60°C)
  • Poultry:
    Ground chicken or turkey: 165°F (74°C)
    Whole chicken or turkey : 180°F (83°C)
    Breasts or roasts : 170°F (77°C)
    Thighs or wings : 180°F (83°C)
  • Stuffing: 165°F (74°C)
    (cooked alone or in bird)
  • Fish: 145°F (33°C)
    (cook until opaque and flakes easily with fork)
  • Egg dishes: 160°F (72°C)
  • Leftovers or casseroles: 165°F (74°C)

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