With summer and Father's Day right around the corner, barbecue season is here. Cooking and eating outside with family and friends are some of our favorite activities, but it's all too easy to make mistakes that could cause upset stomachs or worse. In fact, the rates of food-borne illness soar during the hot weather months, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). So we're offering, in no particular order, these 10 common-sense tips for a happier, more responsible barbecue. (And for additional safe barbecue ideas, check out the USDA food safety tips.)
10. The joy of coolers:
Take a cooler with you to safely transport food when you go grocery shopping. We like the soft ones, which are lightweight and easy to stash away. They're available pretty much everywhere. And no need to buy those blue ice thingies. Just throw a couple of small water bottles in the freezer. (These are also good to have on hand as emergency water in the event of a big quake. Just hope your freezer lands door side up.) We take the cooler into the store and keep all the cold stuff in it as we shop. It's best to place raw meat in plastic bags before putting it in the cooler, so the meat juices don't leak onto anything else.
9. Marinate in the refrigerator:
And speaking of raw meat, if you're planning to marinate it, do so in the fridge. Bacteria multiply quickly in raw meat left at room temperature. Also, don't reuse the marinade. Toss it and make a fresh sauce to serve with the meal. And, of course, keep the uncooked meat away from everything else to avoid cross-contamination. If you're starting with frozen meat, completely thaw it before putting it on the grill, to ensure even cooking. Experts recommend thawing the sealed meat in the fridge, unless you're in a hurry, in which case you can thaw the sealed package in cold water (although we've always found this process to be kind of a gross mess, but maybe that's just us.) You can also thaw unwrapped frozen meat on a glass plate in the microwave, as long you then immediately place it on the grill (but this sometimes affects the texture of the meat.) Use different platters and utensils for the raw meats and the cooked results. For example, if you flip the half-cooked burgers with a spatula, put that one in the sink and use a clean one to remove the finished burgers.
8. Wash stuff you don't think about:
Wash your avocados. Also your melons. Experts advise doing this, even though you don't eat the skin. Unless the fruits are from your own yard, chances are they have traveled many miles and been touched by numerous hands. They may also be coated with pesticides. (Sadly, even organic produce can get hit with pesticides carried by the wind.) When you cut through the rind with your knife, you're going to transfer the bacteria and contaminants to the inner fruit. Basically, anything that has a scrubbable skin should be, well, scrubbed. And other non-scrubbable foods, such as spinach and lettuce, can be washed in a veggie bath of cold water and white vinegar.
7. Keep washing:
You know those bags of salad that say "triple-washed"? You might want to consider doing a fourth wash. Consumer Reports tested bags of lettuce and found different kinds of bacteria in them, none of them very appetizing. We've also been known to wash bags of baby carrots, although the USDA says that's not necessary. And, in case you're wondering, yes, the government does have a page on baby carrots!
6. More considerations of temperature:
When it's time to put out the food, a good rule of thumb is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Ideally, set up the buffet in a cool spot inside, or at least in the shade outside. Put the salads and condiments on beds of ice and, if possible, the hot foods on a warmer. If you don't have a warmer, you can keep food hot in the oven and refill the serving platter as needed.
5. Desserts in the frig too:
For dessert, if you're serving something perishable, such as cakes or pastries with whipped cream, custard, buttercream -- keep them refrigerated until the last minute. And after everyone has finished dessert, put the leftovers back in the fridge. That way, you can enjoy the treats the next morning with your breakfast coffee, a practice we highly recommend.
4. And yet more fun with your refrigerator:
In general, get all leftovers into the refrigerator as soon as possible. We're not saying to yank plates out of your guests' hands, but try to put food away in a timely manner. The FDA calculates two hours as the maximum time that most foods can sit out. If it's a really hot day, one hour is about as long as you want perishable dishes to sit out.
3. Put a lid on it:
Try to keep bugs off of the buffet table, since critters can carry germs, and who wants to share a meal with hungry flies? You can use large plates or clean tea towels as shields over the food. Or you might want to consider buying some inexpensive pop up food covers, which collapse for easy storage.
2. When in doubt, throw it out:
We hate wasting food, but if you think something may have gone bad sitting in the buffet, better not to take a chance. Lots of our favorite summer foods, like potato salad or dips, can get funky pretty quickly. We love leftovers, but not if they might make us sick.
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1. Watch your kids:
Don't let kids near the grill or any fire. If you're making s'mores, please supervise. Some children love to help with meal prep, but it's best to find a job for them away from the fire and smoke. Some kid-friendly barbecue activities: frosting and decorating a sheet cake; making centerpieces for the tables; mashing avocados (tkids love to mash stuff); sifting powdered sugar into the bowl while you whip the cream. Oh, and eating.
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