It’s challenging for me to completely relax at a typical backyard cookout or pool party because I feel I have been endowed with a burdensome superpower: I see food-safety blunders. As I scan the sunny scene of revelers in shorts and sundresses clinking glasses of rosé and nibbling finger foods, the radar in my mind inevitably homes in on a hot spot. The host is basting steaks on the grill with the marinade the meat sat in for hours, so I guess I’ll be sticking with the vegetarian option.
I tend to spy several such situations at any given outdoor event, and it’s not just me being persnickety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people in the United States get sick from food-borne illness each year, and summertime is high season. While there are myriad causes for these illnesses throughout the food supply chain, improper food handling at home is among them, and the one over which we have the most control. As you plan your next summer gathering, keep it truly healthy by taking note of these five common food-safety mistakes and how to avoid them. However, consider yourself forewarned: After reading this, you may become a keen food-safety spotter yourself. To lift that weight from your shoulders and breathe easy at a summer shindig, pass this information on to everyone you know.
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 off 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. There are two ways to use a marinade safely as a basting liquid: 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 into a saucepan on the stove and bring it to a boil. Because 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.
There is a relatively small window of temperatures at which meat, poultry and fish are cooked thoroughly enough to be safe to eat, but not so much that they are dry and tough. News flash: The commonly applied method of poking the food with a finger is not the best way to determine doneness (especially if that finger is on an unwashed hand, but more on that soon). The only way to be sure the temperature is just right is to use a food thermometer. If you don’t have one, it is well worth the roughly $10 cost of 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, 160 degrees for poultry and 145 degrees for fish. That doesn’t mean you won’t ultimately opt to cook your steak medium-rare (about 135 degrees) if that’s how you prefer it, just like you might eat your eggs with the yolks runny despite government warning. But at least you will be doing it knowingly and without a dirty finger.
Cooking food to the perfect temperature doesn’t do much good safety-wise if you are transferring 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 designated for raw, and another for cooked food. It’s even better if they are somewhat different from each other — handle color or brand — so you can distinguish them.
One reason there is more food poisoning in the summer months is because more cooking and eating are done outside, away from running water, and therefore more likely with unwashed hands. If you are hosting a cookout or pool party, keep hand wipes and sanitizer (with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol) in easy reach of food-prep areas. To minimize contamination from guests’ hands, have enough serving utensils (please put a spoon in that bowl of nuts and tongs in the chip bowl) and keep wipes and sanitizer out for them, too. Don’t think a dip in a pool, lake or ocean leaves you with clean hands. There are plenty of germs in those bodies of water that you wouldn’t want to come in contact with food. So wash your hands before cooking or eating, even after swimming.
Leaving food out for way more than a couple of hours at a time is the norm at backyard parties I’ve attended. It seems people have no clue about the potential hazards. Bacteria grows and thrives at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, so food should not be in that temperature 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 of when it needs to be refrigerated. If you have guests dropping by at various times throughout the day, 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. Your guests will not only be better served with a fresher-tasting meal, they will be better off in the days to come as well.