Fearless Cooking: Food Safety Made Simple

By Linda Knittel, Senior Editor

I used to get a little nervous in the kitchen. Not from the actual cooking part of meal preparation, but I would worry about food safety. Can I cut the mold off a block of cheese and still eat the rest? Is it safe to let my son lick the spoon while we are making cookies? How many days do leftovers keep? Fear was holding me back, and causing me to throw out a whole lot of good food. Of course, it’s always better to be safe than sorry—I live by the “If you don’t know, throw” rule. That said, by arming myself with a few guidelines to food safety and sanitation, I was able to save a lot of food and restore calm to my time in the kitchen.


The Basics

Since you can’t see, smell or taste the harmful bacteria that can cause illness, it’s essential to follow these four simple steps: clean hands and surfaces often; refrigerate food promptly; keep foods separate when uncooked; and cook to the right temperature. The USDA calls it Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. Adhering to these practices will go a long way toward keeping your meals safe, but the additional tips below will help you navigate the nuances of food safety. For even more dos and don’ts, check out these sheets on food myths and mistakes.

Safety While Shopping

Unless you are growing it yourself, you can’t control exactly how your food was raised, handled and packaged, but you can use these best practices to choose your food wisely.

Fresh Produce: Take the time to look at fresh fruits and vegetables—especially those precut or packaged—and skip any with signs of rotting. Don’t confuse ugly or dirty produce with rotten. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just fresh.

Meat, Fish, Poultry: Uncooked animal products should never look or smell funny, feel warm to the touch, or have tears or leaks in their packaging. When buying fish, there are specific tips depending on the variety, but a good general rule is seafood shouldn’t smell fishy; it should smell like the sea.


Eggs: According to the FDA, eggs should be bought clean, refrigerated and without cracks. If buying unrefrigerated eggs at a farmers’ market, talk to your supplier about freshness and cleanliness.

Canned and Packaged Foods: Expiration dates actually refer to the quality and freshness of food, not its safety; so even if a food item has passed its expiration date while in your fridge, it could technically still be safe to eat. That said, when purchasing, check the “sell-by” or “use-by” dates and avoid items with dents, bulges, tears or other signs of damage.


Storage and Preparation

Although the list below might look like a lot of information, don’t feel that you have to memorize it all today. Think of it as a reference guide you can refer to when you have questions.

    • Always refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours—1 hour when it is hot out.

    • Use this FDA refrigerator and freezer cheat sheet to learn how long foods will keep. Items in the freezer at 0°F or below will stay safe indefinitely. The recommended “use-by” dates for freezer food refer to taste, not safety.

    • Cook or freeze fresh fish, poultry and ground meats within 2 days, and other cuts of beef, veal, lamb or pork within 3–5 days.

    • When storing meat, fish and poultry in the fridge or freezer, wrap securely to maintain quality and prevent juices from reaching other food.

    • Wash all produce before cutting, peeling and cooking, unless it is labeled “prewashed.”

    • Never wash chicken. Rinsing raw poultry and other meat will spread bacteria around your sink and counters.

    • Use separate cutting boards for each protein and for produce. Clean each thoroughly after use with warm, soapy water.

    • Marinate meat and poultry in a covered dish in the refrigerator.

    • Slowly thaw meat and poultry in the refrigerator, making sure juices do not drip onto other food. For faster thawing, use a microwave, then cook; or place meat in a leakproof plastic bag and submerge in cold tap water. Change water every 30 minutes. Cook immediately.

    • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C) as measured with a food thermometer. Ground meats should reach 160°F (71.1°C), while poultry should get to an internal temperature of 165°F (73.9°C).


Even with a laundry list of tips like this, you might still have questions. If so, the USDA provides a response system all day, every day. As for my culinary questions, I now know that leftovers should be used within four days, that sometimes you can safely cut around moldy cheese, and that while the FDA recommends cooking both the egg white and yolk until they are firm, if creating a recipe with raw eggs, they suggest pasteurized eggs are best. Hello, raw cookie dough!