Before you get started cooking, one of the most common mistakes that people make is simply not being safe in the kitchen! I don't just mean safe with your kitchen knives and sharp utensils! As well, I don't just mean when you are boiling water or heating oil on the stove! Food safety is one of the most important elements of cooking!

Most of the time when people have an upset stomach and believe that they have become ill from a restaurant, the actual truth may lie closer to the home! Most states regulate food handlers by mandating education or permits for the handling of food in restaurants and outside food services. But how often have you taken the time to educate yourself on the proper storage of food, cross-contamination, cooking & holding temperatures for food items etc? Food borne illness is extremely serious and that is why it is extremely important to understand how to prevent different causes that lead to food poisoning and contamination!! Go down to your local health department and take the required food handlers class for restaurant workers! It may cost $15 to $30 but it will give you great knowledge that in the end will lead to safe cooking habits in your home!!

First of all, WASH YOUR HANDS before touching food items and cooking!!! That may sound like common sense, but like a friend of mine said the other day, "Why do that call it common sense when it really appears that common sense isn't all that common?!" When it comes to washing your hands, wash them under hot water with lots of soap, for 20 to 30 seconds. Don't just wash the palms of your hands, push up your sleeves and wash the lower part of your forearm and under your nails as well! While you are cooking, WASH YOUR HANDS!! Most of us are interrupted in the kitchen by our children, our pets, the telephone or possibly someone at the door. Whatever the case, you are opening the possibilities of food borne illness by not washing your hands again after petting your dog or blowing your child's nose! Or if you are a smoker...wash your hands after smoking!! The same goes for when you are handling chicken, beef, fish or poultry! Wash your hands, the knife and use a clean cutting board before continuing with your slicing and dicing of vegetables and breads!!

The second "first of all" is make sure you have a metal stem food thermometer handy in your kitchen at all times! The thermometer must go down to 32ᄚ F or 0ᄚ C because you need to have the safety temperatures measured! Test the accuracy of your thermometer by placing it in a glass of ice water for a couple of minutes. If it does not give you a reading of 32ᄚ F or 0ᄚ C then it needs to be adjusted!

Be aware that stem thermometers usually measure from a point halfway up the stem. To give an accurate reading, make sure the stem is placed deep into the food! Thermometers also need to be cleaned and sanitized between uses! You don't want a dirty thermometer to put germs into clean food!

Here's a perfect time to introduce cross-contamination! When storing or preparing raw foods be aware that bacteria and viruses can easily transfer into foods that may not be cooked or reheated. This accidental transfer is called cross-contamination! To avoid this make sure to properly sanitize all utensils, cutting boards and work surfaces after handling raw foods, especially raw meats and fish. Make sure to wash your hands again as well, after handling raw foods!! Cross-contamination can also occur if raw foods are stored improperly. NEVER store raw meat, poultry or eggs over ready-to-eat foods in a refrigerator or freezer. Reserve the lowest shelves for storing raw meat and eggs. Make sure that your refrigerator is at least 41ᄚ F (or 5ᄚ C). Ready-to-eat foods can be saved up to 4 days in the refrigerator if held between 41ᄚ F to 45ᄚ F (or 5ᄚ C to 7.25ᄚ C). They can be saved in the refrigerator for 7 days if held at 41ᄚ F or less (or 5ᄚ C or less).

The temperature danger zone is between 41ᄚ F to 130ᄚ F (or 5ᄚ C to 54.5ᄚ C). Most germs don't grow well at cold temperatures, hence the reason we refrigerate foods! Germs don't cultivate well either at hot temperatures! So any food item that needs to be refrigerated or served cold needs to be cooled to 41ᄚ F (5ᄚ C) or less. Hot food items need to be cooked to at least 130ᄚ F (54.5ᄚ C)or higher. A lot of people eat soft poached eggs, rare steak, sushi and other items that don't meet health regulations for safe cooking conditions! Just be aware that you need to be extremely cautious when preparing such items, making sure you have the freshest ingredients and also that you have stored, prepared and handled the dishes with care! That will minimize the risk of any potential hazard! Here is a safe food chart provided by the Health Department:

Poultry -- chicken, turkey, chicken patties -- 165ᄚ F (74ᄚ C)
Ground Meats -- hamburger, meat loaf, sausage, gyros -- 155ᄚ F (68.5ᄚ C)
Eggs not eaten right away -- custard, scrambled eggs served buffet style 155ᄚ F (68.5ᄚ C)
Non-ground meats -- steak, roasts, pork chops, corned beef -- 145ᄚ F (63ᄚ C)
Fish & Seafood -- salmon, halibut, shrimp, mussels -- 145ᄚ F (63ᄚ C)
Eggs eaten right away -- eggs over easy, scrambled eggs, poached eggs -- 145ᄚ F (63ᄚ C)

Any food cooked in a microwave oven must be cooked to 165ᄚ F (74ᄚ C), stirred at least once during cooking and then left to stand covered for a minimum of two minutes prior to serving!!

Parasites are tiny worms or bugs that live in fish and meat. They can be killed if frozen long enough or cooked long enough. Food items like sushi, sashimi, ceviche or carpaccio are prepared by freezing the fish, seafood or steak long enough to kill the parasites. Unlike parasites, bacteria and viruses are not always killed by freezing! They will survive and start growing again under the right conditions. Not all bacteria and viruses are the same! Some make you sick by growing inside your body. Others make you sick by producing poisons in food if the food is not kept at the right temperature. It is important to understand that when food is contaminated with germs, the food will usually look, smell and taste fine!! Germs are alive and need different conditions to survive and thrive. But in general they need the following conditions to grow: food, moisture, temperature and time. Foods that are moist and high in protein support very rapid bacterial growth. For this reason they are called potentially hazardous foods. Examples include eggs, milk, meat, fish, poultry, sliced melon, refried beans, potato salad, rice, soups, gravy and sauces.

Here are some tips for reheating and cooling foods properly:

* Foods reheated for immediate consumption can be reheated to any temperature, however, if you are going to have a party and you want to reheat the potato gratin and serve it in a chafing dish during your party, make sure that it is reheated in your oven to 165ᄚ F (74ᄚ C) before placing it in the chafing dish!! Never reheat food in a chafing dish!
* Cooling is usually the riskiest step in food preparation! Germs grow quickly in cooling foods. Therefore, for large solid food items like meatloaf, turkey or roast, cut them into smaller pieces and spread it out on a tray, placing it into the refrigerator with plenty of room for circulation!
* Foods you can stir like large batches of soups, refried beans, stews or pasta sauce setting it up in an ice bath or placing it into smaller containers will help reduce the cooling time!
* Foods should never be left out to cool at room temperatures! As soon as a hot dish falls under 130ᄚ F (54.5ᄚ C), then it should be cooled in the refrigerator or in an ice bath!
* If you are preparing an egg salad or potato salad, make sure that the eggs and potatoes are properly cooled before mixing together with the mayonnaise and/or sour cream!
* Whatever your method of cooling, food must be cooled to 71ᄚ F (22ᄚ C) within the first 2 hours and down to 41ᄚ F (5ᄚ C) or less within another 4 hours! Anything not cooled to 41ᄚ F (5ᄚ C) or less within 6 hours should be discarded!!

Take food safety seriously!!

Some of this information was taken directly from the Maricopa County Health Departments Food Safety Manual! For a copy of the manual go to:

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