You Don’t Need to Sacrifice Food Quality for Food Safety!
When it comes to food safety, most people want to take NO CHANCES, for obvious reasons, but the science of Food Safety is not as Black and White as many think. Between the extremes of 100% safe food being either frozen solid or burned beyong recognition, there is a wide range of cooking techniques that WILL improve the quality of the food you serve while still taking ZERO risk!
If Food Safety were your only concern, the safest food handling would be to freeze everything until ready to cook, then bake, microwave, or fry until all the food is completely and thoroughly cooked… As in overcooked…
Would the food be 100% safe? Absolutely! But you’d also be doubly covered in this scenario because none of your guests would want to eat any of the food either!
Many cooks have only a limited understanding of food safety and so will often go to the extremes, which certainly makes the food safe but more often than not the results are dry, burnt or mushy; all the typical results of overcooking.
Above are the basics for essential Food Safety.
Always wash your hands after handling food. Yes, even fruits and vegetables.
Keep foods separated. Never use the same cutting board you used to cut raw meat, to cut fruit or vegetables.
Avoid the “Danger Zone” of keeping food at temperatures between 40º F and 140º F for long than an hour.
Cook foods completely.
Keep all raw food refrigerated until ready to cook or serve.
Refrigerate all leftover cooked foods.
Rules #3, 4 & 5 is where the “art” of Food Safety comes into play. It’s still 100% safe and completely scientific, we’re simply expanding the understanding of the physics of Food Safety and the basic biology of the “bugs” we want to eliminate.
As an invaluable cooking reference, we strongly recommend investing in one of the best cookbooks written called “The Food Lab; Better Home Cooking Through Science” by J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt. The book is overall, a go-to cooking Bible that all cooks should own a copy of. In addition, there is invaluable information about Food Safety which goes into greater detail along with explanations of the underlying Science than we can go into here.
It’s not just Temperature! It’s Temperature and Time…
Cooking temperature is where most of the confusion begins and the reason for that is the element of time is almost never mentioned when it is absolutely critical to making food tasty, moist and with optimum texture.
Rules are made to be… Bent…
When it comes to say, roasting a Turkey, you always see on the label, the USDA guideline: “Cook until internal temperature reaches 165º F”, which is 100% true but… The 165º temperature is when bacteria are killed instantly, did you know that bacteria are also killed when the internal temperature reaches 150º F but it takes 3-4 minutes? At 140º F it takes about 30 minutes. The point to be made here is that roasting a turkey until the inner thigh meat registers 165º F will certainly kill every possible germ, the truth is that those germs were all certainly killed off a good hour or more before so the sad result is having an overcooked, dry Turkey when it’s completely unneccessary!
Check this chart. Source: Courtesy the Food Lab
If you’ve ever wondered why Beef can be cooked to 130-135º (medium-rare) and be “safe” while a Turkey or Chicken has to be cooked to 165º, it’s a perfectly logical, valid question and the short answer is: The USDA. The USDA, being an official U.S. Government authority, can’t afford the luxury of providing consumers with a “nuanced” version of Food Safety that might be misconstrued and result in people becoming ill or worse and that makes complete sense but let’s understand some basic, very basic biology: Bacteria are easy to kill…
The exterior surfaces of a Chicken, Turkey, or a carved piece of Beef, Pork or Lamb and even fruits and vegetables, are covered in bacteria, mostly e.coli, and to tell you the truth, you yourself, sitting there reading this are also covered in e.coli. Sorry if that freaks you out a little but it’s true. e.coli is literally everywhere. You can’t escape it and you would actually become very sick without it! The important thing to understand here is we are talking about surface areas ONLY! Let’s use this nice piece of USDA Choice Beef Standing Rib Roast to illustrate:
Only the surfaces of this soon-to-be well- roasted Beef Standing Rib are covered in bacteria. All of the interior meat, bone, fat and gristle are sterile. In order to make this roast “sterile”, i.e., safe to eat, it only has to be cooked long enough for all of the surface area of the roast to reach 165º F, which could be achieved in probably 15-20 minutes.
Now, would anyone want to eat a roast that’s bascially still raw? Of course not but the point is that even as unappetizing as it sounds, the roast would be “safe” to eat because the exterior has been sterilized and the interior of the animal is already sterile.
This is important to understand. When you get a bacterial infection, what has happened is you have some kind of bacterial infection inside your cells where they should not be and unless you take an antibiotic, you will become very sick. So when you are healthy, the cells throughout your body are bacteria-free, i.e. sterile and this same condition applies to healthy Turkeys, Chickens, Cows, Pigs, etc., and it also applies to fruits and vegetables although it’s nowhere near as prevalent or dangeous but it’s always a good idea to wash all your fruits and vegetables!
Important! None of this apples to ground meats! Ground meat has bacteria all throughout it because when it was a piece of solid meat with only the surface covered in bacteria, once ground, that bacteria then spreads thoughout the ground meat so in all cases, ground meats must be well-cooked!
Is Leaving Your Raw Roast or Turkey Out Dangerous?
This is one of those issues that makes a lot of home cooks nervous but not only is it safe, it’s the #1 easiest and most effective “trick” to achieve perfectly cooked, perfectly safe food.
If you take a Fresh Turkey out of your 37º F refrigerator and place it right in the oven, which many, if not most people do, you’ve inadvertently created a 100+ degree temperature differential that’s almost guaranteed to end up with undercooked thighs and dry, overcooked breast meat. When you place a cold Turkey or a Beef Roast directly into the oven, the radiant heat from the oven begins cooking the exterior, while the deepest interior portions are still somewhere around 40º and will stay cold for a long time, so by the time, enough energy has worked it’s way though to cook the interior, the exterior is overcooked!
If you take a Turkey or Beef Roast out of the refigerator and let it come to room temperature for at least a couple of hours, the internal tempature of the meat is now 30 degrees warmer!
Are bacteria growing while the Turkey or Roast sits on the counter unrefrigerated? Absolutely… And they are ALL killed in the first 20 minutes when the surface of the Roast or Turkey, (the ONLY place the bacteria can be) reaches 15--160 degrees. It IS however, a good idea to loosely cover your Roast or Turkey with foil to keep pests, flies or the occasional overly-curious house cat from investigating your Holiday meal!
Let’s get back to our overcooked turkey! Let’s say you roasted a 12 lb turkey at 350º F for 2 hours and the interior thigh meat temperature reads 150º F. You let it continue to cook another 30 minutes and the interior thigh temperature now reads 153ºF, your turkey is 100% safe to eat because once the deepest part of the meat reached just 145º after only 10.5 minutes, the turkey is 100% safe to eat but for most people, the texture is not appealing as the texture is perceived to be far too close to raw whereas when the turkey being 150ºF, most people would say the turkey was perfectly cooked; still very moist but also firm yet tender.
Not only is there Science to Food Safety, there is a litte art involved to achieve the perfect balance of not only perfectly safe food, but also perfectly delicious as well!