My burdensome superpower makes it hard to relax at a backyard cookout or pool party. I see food-safety blunders. As I scan the scene of revelers in shorts and sundresses clinking glasses of rosé and nibbling finger foods, my radar inevitably homes in on a hot spot. The host is basting steaks on the grill with the marinade in which the meat sat for hours. Guess I’ll stick with the vegetarian option.
I spy such situations at any given outdoor event, and it’s not only me being persnickety. About 48 million in the U.S. get sick from food-borne illness each year, and summertime is high season, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While myriad causes are to blame, we have the most control over food handling at home.
As you plan your next summer gathering, keep it healthy by taking note of how to avoid these five common food-safety mistakes.
• Basting with the marinade: A golden rule of food safety is not to let juices from raw meat, poultry or fish come in contact with ready-to-eat foods. Raw items may contain a multitude of disease-causing bacteria, most of which are killed through cooking. If you baste with a used marinade, germs in it might not be cooked long enough, especially if you are basting when the food is nearly done. Instead, when you initially prepare the marinade, reserve some in a separate container for basting. Or, once you remove the raw food from a marinade, you can put it in a saucepan and boil it. Since even a clean marinade comes in contact with undercooked meat via the brush when basting, avoid basting toward the end of cooking and toss out any leftover basting liquid.
• Guessing foods’ doneness: There is a relatively small window of temperatures in which meat, poultry and fish are cooked enough to be safe to eat but not so much that they are dry and tough. The only way to be sure is to use a food thermometer. If you don’t have one, it is well worth the roughly $10 for an instant-read thermometer. The Agriculture Department-recommended safe minimum cooking temperatures are: 145 degrees for steaks and chops (with a three-minute rest time), 160 degrees for ground meat and for poultry and 145 degrees for fish. That doesn’t mean you won’t opt to cook your steak medium-rare (about 135 degrees) if that’s how you prefer it, just as you might eat your eggs with runny yolks despite government warning. But at least you will be doing it knowingly.
• Using the same tools for raw and cooked food: Cooking food to the perfect temperature won’t help if you transfer bacteria right back onto that food by using the same utensils and dishes you used for the raw ingredients. Think double when cooking out with two sets of tongs, spatulas and plates at the ready, one for raw and another for cooked food. Even better if they are somewhat different from each other so you can distinguish them.
• Touching food with unwashed hands: More food poisoning occurs in summer partly because more cooking and eating are done outside, away from running water, and therefore more likely with unwashed hands. Keep hand wipes and sanitizer (with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol) in easy reach of food-prep areas at any cookout or pool party. To minimize contamination from guests’ hands, have enough serving utensils and keep wipes and sanitizer out for them, too. Don’t think a dip in a pool, lake or ocean cleans your hands. There are plenty of germs in those waters that you wouldn’t want to touch food. So wash your hands before cooking or eating, even after swimming.
• Keeping food out too long: People seem to have no clue about the dangers of leaving food out for more than a couple of hours. Bacteria grow and thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, so food should not be in that zone for more than two hours. If it’s more than 90 degrees outside, the limit is one hour. It’s easy to let time slip away when you are entertaining, so set a timer when you put the food out to remind yourself when it needs to be refrigerated. If guests are dropping by at various times, consider staggering the dishes you serve, putting some out at the start of the party, then replacing those with others later. If possible, keep cold food out on a bed of ice and warm food either on a side rack on the grill or in a 200-degree oven.