As days have gotten longer and temperatures have warmed up, many of us have hauled out the grill to enjoy the flavors and smells of summer — even if it isn’t completely here yet.
Grilling season is here, but it also brings the opportunities for foodborne illness from inadequately cooked meats, cross-contamination and improperly prepared produce. As we often do this time of year, let’s take a quick look at how to guard against sickness.
Keep it clean. Take a minute first and clean up that grill. All those germs have been laying dormant all winter and are just waiting for adequate temperatures, water and time to start growing. Use a wire brush to get rid of every speck of food on the grills, wash them up carefully, then use a high temperature to finish the process. Make sure no germs remain where they can grow.
Also take care in the kitchen to make sure all the surfaces are safe for preparing food. Wash the countertop before preparing foods and sanitize using a solution of one teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water. Allow the surfaces to dry naturally, then prepare your food for grilling or the table.
Simple things become so important, particularly when dealing with potentially hazardous foods. Think about what you are serving, whether it is meat that is cooked or foods that are served with no heating. Clean and sanitize your cutting boards between the meat preparation and making that salad. Or you might choose to use two different cutting boards, one for meats and one for vegetables. That means there are fewer opportunities for cross-contamination.
Store raw meat in the refrigerator until it goes to the grill. Marinate meat in the refrigerator, not on the countertop. The same thing goes for thawing — always thaw in the refrigerator.
Use a clean platter to bring food from the grill to the table — don’t use the same platter that you carried the meat to the grill on. Heating kills the microbes, but the juices are uncooked and they haven’t reached appropriate temperatures. That can cause an unsafe mix of uncooked juices on food that is ready to eat.
Temperatures and times become very important. Different foods have different minimum temperatures to ensure safety. Use a thermometer to make sure your meat comes to a safe minimum cooking temperature. Bring fish to 145 degrees before serving. Steaks or chops need to come to 145 degrees and poultry is served at 165 degrees. Ground meat requires higher temperatures yet. Think of it this way — the more surface area that has been exposed to potential contaminants, the higher the temperature needs to be for it to be safe. All beef, pork and lamb ground meat should be brought to 160 degrees. Bring ground turkey and chicken to 165 degrees.
After the meat is cooked, keep it out of the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees. Keep it hot until served (140 or higher). It can be kept on the grill rack, in an oven set at 200 degrees or in a chafing dish or slow cooker. Keep it hot until served.
Keep cold foods cold. We are lucky here in Alaska. We don’t have that broiling sun that will start to work on your picnic foods. But it doesn’t have to be high temperatures. Anything over 40 for more than two hours should be thrown out. Serve potato salad, macaroni salad or green salad quickly, then refrigerate or nestle the bowl in an ice-filled bowl for added safety.
Remember that the temperature danger zone is 40 degrees to 140 degrees. So keep all foods hotter than this or colder than this. You’ll enjoy your meal and won’t have unintended guests in the form of microbiological growth.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org by calling 907-474-7201.