As much as we all love food, it can make us very sick if it is not handled correctly. In the food service industry we have protocols and procedures to follow to ensure that the food we handle and serve is as safe to eat as possible. While not all of these procedures are needed at home, some of the most basic and important can help protect anyone who eats your food.
Food safety at home can really be broken down into three simple factors: time, temperature, and storage. Time and temperature really go hand in hand. In order to keep food it must be kept either above 140 °F or below 40 °F. Food kept at temperatures within this range have a higher chance of becoming unsafe due to bacterial growth. In other words, keep hot food hot and cold foods cold.
The second part of this equation is the time. Now it would be impossible to cook without violating the temperature rule. In order to maintain food safely it can be held at temperatures within the unsafe range for no more than four hours total. What this means is that no matter what food you prepare if it drops to an unsafe temperature for two hours your window for that food to still remain safe would only be another two hours. The only exception to this rule is when cooling food. In this case you have two hours to get the temp below 70°F then an additional four to get it below 40 °F. Together these two factors combine to be what is known as the “time temperature danger zone”.
Time and temperature controls do not apply to all foods. They mainly apply to foods which are known as potentially hazardous foods (PHF). Foods of this nature generally have moisture, contain protein and are neutral to slightly acidic. A good rule of thumb for considering what foods are PHF’s is if you would not leave it out of the refrigerator overnight then it is probably a PHF.
Another factor when considering temperature is the internal temperature of the food you are cooking. Most food when cooked to an internal temperature of 140 °F will be considered safe. However there are some meats and circumstances that require a higher temperature. Fish for example is considered safe to eat and fully cooked at 145 °F. The same is true for beef, pork and lamb. Ground meats are considered safe at 160 °F while poultry needs to be at 165 °F. Anything that is reheated must reach a temp of 165 °F.
The last thing to consider when thinking about food safety is how the food is stored. Most people don’t even think about this and just store their food where ever there is room in the refrigerator. Essentially you want to put food in an order where the most hazardous food is towards the bottom. The way we store food at work in ascending order is raw poultry, ground meats, whole meats, seafood, and cooked or otherwise ready to eat foods. At home it might be a little more difficult because refrigerators were not designed with this in mind. The idea behind storing food this way is that if anything leaks or drips onto the stuff below it, it will not affect that food since it will be cooked to a higher temperature.
Hopefully this provides a little insight into some of the steps that are taken in a professional kitchen to ensure that the food is not only delicious, but safe to eat and that you can use in your own kitchen.