It is National Food Safety Education Month, because everyone knows that the best way to deal with a serious issue is to give it its own month. We also love giving out National Days (yesterday was National Cream-Filled Donut Day, today is National Felt Hat Day), but those were invented (we're almost certain) by monkeys throwing darts at a wall of random objects.
But unlike National Hot Breakfast Month, this one is actually important. In fact, it is so important that it often gets in the way of good cooking. The U.S. government is more concerned with foodborne illness than they are with a dry turkey breast, and you definitely won't find a recipe for how to make your own sour cream on the FDA website. Actually, their food safety site is in many ways an Orwellian guide to overcooking, and a manifesto on the virtues of pasteurization. That is why proper cooking and careful work habits should go hand in hand — the goal isn't just survival, but enjoyment too. Turn the page for our Top 10 Kitchen Safety Tips:
10. Refrigerate All Foods Labeled: “Keep Refrigerated”
It might seem obvious, but this was listed on an Ontario-based food safety website as a tip for avoiding botulism. Most botulism seems to come about via improper canning — so never eat from severely dented or swollen cans — but it can also be acquired through many other means, like having eaten German sausages in the 1730s.
9. Don't Compound Your Mistakes
If you drop a piece of meat on the floor and no one is there to see it, does it still collect dirt and bacteria? Yes. It does. And for the record, wiping it on your apron doesn't fix the problem either. Wash and dry it very thoroughly. That chicken that Julia Child picked up off the floor? That was television.
8. Better Ingredients Decrease Risk of Death
Monty Python taught us many things, but perhaps most importantly, they taught us that we really shouldn't use canned salmon to make a salmon mousse. Also, you know that brown ground beef at the market that is on special because it goes bad today? Don't use it to make steak tartar on Sunday. Using high quality, fresh ingredients will allow you to make proper dishes without getting sick (or dying).
7. Don't Serve Someone Food That They're Allergic To
This one is actually rather difficult, especially in Los Angeles, where you can go to see a doctor, who will tell you that you're allergic to wheat, vodka, tomatoes, and marijuana, even though you've been getting high and making penne alla vodka for years. But with the school year starting up, real problems, like nut allergies, should be treated with the utmost respect.
6. Don't Cross-Contaminate
Don't scramble an egg with a fork, then use it to toss a salad. Don't chop jalapeños then rub your eyes, and don't keep using the same dirty tasting spoon while you cook. Keeping separate cutting boards for meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables is a good preventative step. We'd also tell you not to grill veggie burgers on the same spot where you've just grilled a hamburger, but your vegetarian friends already tell you that every single time they come over.
5. Make Sure That Your Refrigerator and Freezer Actually Work
If your beer doesn't seem cold enough, even though you put it in the fridge days ago, you should probably think twice before eating that package of Trader Joe's chicken liver pâté. Refrigerators are supposed to be kept between 40ºF and 32ºF, and freezers at 0ºF or lower. Also, temperatures on home appliances are often inaccurate. Buy a thermometer.
4. Thaw Frozen Foods Properly
There are really only two good ways to thaw something: put it in the refrigerator, or keep it under cold water. Running it under hot water, or just leaving it on the counter, will give any pre-freezing bacteria an excellent, and dangerous, opportunity to multiply. We suppose you can use the microwave to thaw your chicken breast too, but the little white layer that starts to cook around the outside is, honestly, pretty disgusting. Planning ahead by putting your frozen goods in the refrigerator the night (or days) before is the most effective.
3. Wash Your Hands
Just because line cooks never wear gloves, it doesn't mean that your hands are naturally clean and sterile. Wash them frequently, and especially after you've been texting on your less-than-sterile iPhone. This is one of those rules we often take for granted, right up until we make someone incredibly ill.
2. Don't Get Salmonella
Salmonella, to most people, is a far worse thing than an overcooked egg. But the only people who hate salmonella more than consumers, are the corporations held responsible for giving it to them. That's why the signs over even the freshest, organic farm eggs at Whole Foods tell you to make sure that they are cooked all the way through. So where do you draw the line between safety and a good brunch? That's up to you. Just take special care with infants and young children, for whom salmonella is especially dangerous. You should also avoid washing raw chicken before prepping it. Cooking heat will kill bacteria, but a wet cutting board or counter top will help spread it onto everything else.
1. Food Still Goes Bad During Emergencies
You and your friends may pull together during tough times, but food doesn't. In fact, bacteria continues to exist, even during natural disasters. Try to keep canned foods on hand, and if the power is out, don't stare into the freezer and say, “There's nothing to eat.” Keeping your fridge and freezer closed during power outages will help your food to stay safe for much longer. Also, drink the good stuff immediately. You never know.