The time to start thinking about food safety for your next cookout starts as soon as you leave the grocery store. Get raw meats and other perishables into the refrigerator or freezer as quickly as possible.
When thawing frozen protein, put the package inside another container to avoid leakage and place it on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. Be certain that meats are completely thawed before grilling or you’ll risk uneven cooking. Plan ahead and thaw a day or two before you intend to cook.
Despite what our parents may have done through our childhoods, under no circumstances defrost meat on the counter. Room temperature presents an opportunity for dangerous bacteria to thrive.
Keeping things separate
The kitchen becomes a chaotic place before any gathering, but it’s particularly important to stay vigilant about cross-contamination. Keep raw meat away from foods you plan to serve uncooked, especially during cookouts where meat is often prepped alongside cold side dishes, fruits and veggies. Always use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and make sure to wash them in hot soapy water after use.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s plea to stop rinsing chicken under running water, as it can cause potentially deadly bacteria to splash all over your sink, counters, walls and clothes. Chicken often needs to be trimmed and seasoned — so some treatment is needed. Pat the meat with paper towels, if necessary, then continue prepping. The goal is to get raw meat out of the package and to a cooking vessel or grill with as few opportunities for cross-contamination as possible.
Poultry can marinate, refrigerated, for up to two days before cooking. You have a little more wiggle room with refrigerated pork and red meat — up to five days before cooking. Keep in mind that longer isn’t necessarily better, as acidic marinades and salty brines will eventually cause the texture of meat to deteriorate. Always refer to the recipe for suggested timelines. If you plan to also serve a marinade as a sauce, it must be boiled first.
Use a separate cooler for raw meat, poultry and seafood, and fill it with ice or ice packs to keep the interior temperature below 40 degrees. Try not to open coolers more frequently than necessary, as this lets the cold air out and warm air in. Don’t take raw meat out until you’re ready to grill it. Bring dedicated bags of ice for beverages instead of using ice that may have been contaminated by food and dirty hands. If you won’t have running water at the cookout location, bring a few jugs for cleaning utensils and hands. Also bring hand sanitizer and extra paper towels.
If you’re responsible for grilling, gather the proper tools, including silicone basting brushes, which are perfect for slathering on sauces and glazes without worrying that bristles will melt or fall off into the food. A handheld instant-read meat thermometer will enable you to take quick temperature checks as food cooks.
If you’re slow-smoking larger cuts of meat, a probe thermometer is even better. It stays in the meat to monitor the internal temperature without requiring you to constantly open the grill. These days, many have Bluetooth functionality so that you can monitor progress from your smartphone. Some thermometers come with dual probes, one to stick in the meat and another that you can place near the grill grates to monitor the temperature inside the grill.
I’m a stickler for having some sort of thermometer on hand, because some critical numbers for food safety are useful to know. The grill or smoker needs to be at least 250 degrees to safely cook food. Per the Department of Agriculture guidelines, poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Pork, beef, lamb and veal steaks, chops or roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees. All ground meat should be cooked to 160 degrees.
It’s imperative that cold dishes stay cold; in particular, those made with uncooked eggs (such as homemade mayonnaise). You’ll want to avoid letting food sit out in the sun, so find a shady area for the buffet table. Even better, set cold side dishes inside a bigger pan filled with ice to help keep them cold longer.
Likewise, hot dishes need to be kept hot — warmer than 140 degrees. To do this outdoors, you can utilize disposable chafing dish buffet kits, which will keep food piping hot. A set of pans, wire racks, and fuel tins to keep two dishes hot will set you back a mere $10 to $15. Once you’re finished grilling, you can also keep food hot by setting aluminum pans on the cooler side of the grill. (Just avoid putting the pan over hot coals, which would cause it to overcook or, worse, burn.)
Whether cold or hot, food should not be left out at room or outdoor temperature for longer than two hours. If it’s warmer than 90 degrees outside, that expiration is shortened to one hour. Beyond that time period, there’s a greater likelihood for bacteria to grow. So instead of letting the food sit out until it’s gone, as soon as guests have made their rounds, wrap or cover all dishes, and place them in the fridge (or coolers packed with ice to keep food below 40 degrees until you get home).
This brings us to the last phase of the cookout. Assuming you took the preceding precautions, properly refrigerated leftovers should be consumed within three to four days, tops. Always be sure to thoroughly reheat hot food in the microwave or oven until steaming.
Although it may be a bit of a drag to take on the role of cookout safety monitor, knowing better means doing better. So be as annoying as it takes, and refer folks to this article if they try to give you a hard time about inspecting chicken with a thermometer or putting those leftovers away a little earlier than usual. Ensuring your guests are served food that’s safe to eat is just as important as how it tastes.