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Safe food handling: Essential knowledge for cooking

If you’re new to cooking and not terribly familiar with safe food handling standards, make sure you learn how to avoid poisoning yourself and others. Yes, this applies even when your in-laws come over.

Just like those signs you see in restaurant bathrooms reminding employees to wash their hands, you need to wash your hands before preparing food. Going into the unappetizing details of why hands need to be washed should be unnecessary. Just make sure you wash your hands.

The next consideration for safe food handling is the make sure you keep your work surfaces, knifes, other utensils, and cutting boards clean. A clean kitchen environment limits the chance of stomach turning bacteria contaminating the food that you are preparing.

Another crucial bit of advice is to designate a cutting board specifically for the preparation of meats, fish and poultry. Your meat cutting board should be glass, stone, or any non-porous product. It is most important not to use a wood cutting board for meat, poultry or fish because the wood would soak up the bloody juices. Then the wood would become a nutrient rich haven for bacteria growth. Also, meats might have bacterial contamination on them prior to cooking and a wooden cutting board would become immediately contaminated and act as a source of further contamination. Therefore, don’t use a wood cutting board for meats, and use a separate cutting board for plant foods, so there is no chance of meat juice cross contamination to fruits and vegetables. Therefore, your kitchen will need a minimum of two cutting boards with one being a non-wood, non-porous product for use with meats.

Continuing on the subject of safe meat handling, be aware that after you handle raw meat, poultry, or fish, you should wash your hands again. This way you will prevent spreading any possible bacteria you picked up while washing, cutting, and seasoning the meat. For example, raw chicken can be a source of salmonella bacteria. After getting it ready for cooking, you should wash your hands before doing something else like cutting vegetables for a salad. This way you will not be spreading bacteria around your food preparation environment.

Meats also need to be properly cooked. Pork, chicken, or any ground meats like hamburger, sausage or turkey burger should never be consumed rare or with any bloody pink showing. Solid cuts of beef (the opposite of hamburger) may be eaten while rare or medium with pink and blood still present in the flesh. This is safe because beef is not prone to parasitic organisms like pork. Also meat grinding increases the chance of bacteria being introduced into the product, so if the beef is not ground, it should be internally safe to eat even if only cooked to low temperatures such as 140 degrees F.

Chicken and turkey need to reach at least 180 degrees F all the way through to be safe to eat.

Pork needs to be cooked until it is at least 160 degrees F inside to insure that any possible flesh parasites of the pig have been killed. Unpleasant to think about, but pork is so good and there is no need to worry as long as it is properly cooked.

If this discussion of meats has you about ready to become a vegetarian, then keep in mind that fruits and vegetables are equally prone to bacterial contaminations. All should be thoroughly washed and prepared in a clean environment. You can pick up E. coli off some unwashed greens more easily than an undercooked hamburger.

Now that you know how to avoid poisoning yourself and others, you can sigh with relief and only worry about cutting yourself or starting a fire.

Keeping your cutlery sharp is important to safety. When a knife is sharp, it performs its function well instead of slipping off the onion and slashing into your fingers. Buy a decent knife sharpener to slide your blades through regularly.

Although you might occasionally burn dinner, you do want to avoid starting a fire. The first protocol is to monitor your hot cooking appliances, especially hot grease for deep frying. Do not let cords from deep fryers dangle off the counter where they could catch on something and get pulled off the counter causing terrible burns. If the oil starts smoking, cover the pan quickly and turn off the heat. If an oil fire starts, pour baking soda on it to smother the flames and try to get a cover on the pan. If all else fails, use a fire extinguisher. This means buy a fire extinguisher and keep it handy for the kitchen.

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