Food prep 101

Author: Canadian Living

Excerpted from Home Ec for the Domestically Challeneged by Peter Wright. Copyright 2004 by Peter Wright. Excerpted, with permission by Peter Wright. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A woman I play tennis with is a Registered Dietician, with an Honors Bachelor of Science in Home Economics. She studied food science as it relates to nutrition, which I'm mentioning because there are many educational pursuits available to people with a genuine interest in the role nutrition plays in people's lives. My aim, on the other hand, is to provide timely information that could eliminate some of the decision-making concerns new cooks face when standing slackjawed in the kitchen, wondering what to do next. It's the sort of information that comes in real handy, like when you're replacing a screw on your bike brakes and it's taking a long time: is it taking so long because it's a very long screw with a fine thread that should take a long time to screw back in — or has it taken so long because you are indeed stripping the thread, something you won't know until you're gliding down a steep hill and go to use your brakes? The difference is important. Same thing with Stuff You Should Know: one misstep with food preparation is the difference between a weekend with your pals and a weekend with the toilet.

Just to put some relevance to our ruminations, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that simply washing hands and improving food-handling practices could prevent 97% Of food-borne illnesses. So, if you want to avoid the 24-hour flu season all year long, follow these rules (there's no such thing, by the way, as a 24-hour flu: it's a mild or severe case of food poisoning. Reminds me of the time I bought some of that bruschetta topping from a local grocery store and spent the night marveling at how many orifices could eject parsley ... but, anyway ... ).

Food and Kitchen Safety
Before we start to cook any meals, though, we need to be aware of the most common kitchen mistakes that can lead to food poisoning:
• Unclean hands
• Counter-top thawing
• Leftovers left on the counter for more than 2 hours before refrigerating
• Unclean cutting board
• Same spoon to stir and taste
• Marinating at room temperature
• Marinating with contaminated marinade (what the meat has been lying in)
• Too much time between fridges (store and home)
• Raw and cooked meats on the same platter
• Shared knife for raw meat and vegetables
• Leaving canned food in the can and refrigerating

There are some fundamental things that entry-level cooks should know and I'm going to try to deal with the most obvious.

Unclean hands... It's a very tough rule, this one: wash your hands before you start meal preparation or touching food or after handling raw meats before touching other foods. Or, for good measure, after sneezing into your hand.

Counter top thawing... Is a no-no because meat thaws at a very slow pace from outside to inside, so while the inside is still merrily thawing, the outside is languishing in the (relative) heat, inviting bacteria to party — "Hey, come on over, have a seat, talk to me, just don't go downstairs — too cold." Instead, thaw it in your fridge, because, compared to your freezer, your fridge is the Bahamas, except without the harmful bacterial, growing climate your room-temperature counter has. Or, use your microwave. The only thing about the microwave is that if you mistime your thawing on the plus side, you're cooking as well — something that can totally screw up the meal you're trying to make.

Leftover law... It's easy to forget to put leftovers from dinner during parties or the playoffs into the fridge immediately, because there's so much going on. The fact is you should refrigerate hot foods as soon as possible — within two hours after cooking. If it's been standing out for more than two hours, pitch it. Don't bother trying to taste-test it, either. Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness. Date leftovers so they can be used within a safe time. Generally, they remain safe when refrigerated for three to five days. "If in doubt, throw it out." Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Very important. Bacteria can be eliminated by proper cooking and reheating — an easy way to stay out of the bathroom.

Unclean cutting board... Cutting boards are one of those things that demand faith: you have to have faith the raw chicken you cut yesterday has entirely disappeared from its surface, that no salmonella potentialetta (a new word, do you like it?) is lying in wait. It's kind of like jumping out of a plane with a parachute that looks like it's been property packed. To the untrained eye, (the eye that may be looking into the toilet later on), the cutting board looks clean because it was rinsed of visual evidence of poultry presence, but is it? Negatory. What's the best way to clean it? Antibacterial agent, then rinsed. Or the dishwasher. Or, the 30-second hot water and soap program, as long as the water is hotter than hell.

Marinating at room temperature... Most people know you can leave meat and fish out of the fridge for between 30-45 minutes while preparing to cook it. Some people, however, pull the meat out of the fridge, prepare it, put their meat/chicken/whatever into a marinade — and then leave it on the counter to marinate for hours. A BIG NG there, good buddy. Prepare your meat/chicken/ whatever, place it into the marinade, and then put it back in the fridge to marinate until you're ready to cook it (if you ever get confused about which is the verb and which is the noun, think of lemonade, which, to my understanding, is also a noun).

Contaminated marinade... Some people do everything right: they've stored their meat at the right temperature, they've properly refrigerated their meat in the marinade, and then, while they're barbequing, they gleefully brush on the marinade that's had the raw meat in it for the past 4 hours. Another NG. Make a little extra marinade and use it to baste instead.

Too long in the huddle between fridges... You've got to be sensitive to how much time your groceries spend between refrigerators. If you have multiple stops to make, buy your perishables at your last stop. If you're doing your grocery shopping by public transit, ask for an insulated bag and freezer pak for your birthday, so your expensive meats and dairy products won't go to waste because the GD bus was late.

Raw & cooked meats on the same platter... This is another one of those what-the-hell-was-I thinking things. This is a very common occurrence every single barbequing season: someone buys great steaks, walks out to the BBQ, cooks them to perfection and places them back on the same plate they marched out on, which, unfortunately, contains the very bacteria cooking gets rid of. Kind of like a we're-back-to-square-one kind of thing.

Same spoon to stir and taste... This has two unsavory ramifications:
1. The person doing the stirring/tasting is sharing whatever ailments they may have with whoever they're feeding, and
2. Whatever they're tasting may not be properly cooked or warmed up yet, exposing them to the bacteria cooking or reheating would kill.

Shared knife for raw meat and vegetables... Can you say "cross-contamination"? Of course you can, and that's what you're doing. You're sharing whatever bacteria the meat has with whatever bacteria the vegetables have, and vice versa. And just who's the beneficiary of this cross-athon? Your gastrointestinal tract.

Reheating food... Some people (take my 15-year-old son, for example), are so hungry and impatient, they reheat their food to the point where it no longer is cold. I'm finally getting it through to him that bacteria = bathroom, so Make it Bubble or Steam. It's supposed to be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but let's not be entirely anal about it. Just make sure it's steaming or bubbling like a madman. Need the heat to kill bacteria.

Can-fridged canned food... If you don't finish what's in the can when you first open it, either transfer it to a fridge-worthy container, or drop back and punt. If you leave an opened tin of food in the fridge, oxidization occurs, a chemical reaction between the air and the metal — with your food an unwitting voyeur and you as the unwilling participant.

What else did Mom know that you should know?
Hamburger help... E. coli has such an ugly ring to it, and an even uglier reality. Think of ground beef as E. coli's primary means of transportation, and the only way to make sure the bus doesn't stop at your home is to ensure your burgers are property cooked. Regardless of how you like your burgers done, the safest way to cook them is until they are no longer red in the center and the juices run clear. Better yet, use a meat thermometer and cook to 160F or 71C. And don't even think of giving a child or senior a rare burger. Undercooked hamburgers cause more children to be ill every summer than swimming in Lake Erie. If you do not have a meat thermometer, don't eat ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle. Make life easier for yourself by stabbing the sucker with a meat thermometer and make sure it gets up to 160.

Do the dishes!... The best way to do the dishes, from a bacteria-prevention standpoint, is to either do them in a dishwasher, or, if you don't have one yet, put them into hot water, wash them immediately (after immersion), rinse, and let them air dry. If you put dishes in the sink, let them soak for a couple of hours and then do them, you've unwittingly created dish soup, where the food has contributed to the main ingredient: bacteria. Also, the problem with hand towels is that bacteria get spread around, joyously.

Raw poultry, fish or meat handling... Let's say you're making dinner; you take the chicken breasts out of the package, and put them in the dish for marinating. Then what? Wash your hands immediately with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. If you have a cut, best to wear rubber gloves.

Poultry, fish or meat defrosting... It's good to know that smaller items will defrost more evenly than larger ones. Keep that in mind when packaging chicken breasts and hamburger. You should cook these thawed meats immediately after thawing. Incidentally, don't thaw poultry, meat and fish on the counter; bacteria get very amorous at room temperature and multiply too quickly.

Fruits and vegetables... Don't eat potatoes with "eyes"- as they are roots that contain a natural chemical that helps the suckers grow but can actually make you (or your kids) sick.

Don't eat tomatoes that "leak" under any circumstances. The leakage says there's bacteria present that can cause stomach upset and worse (read: bathroom trip).

Do wash every single vegetable as though a passing representative from the livestock committee urinated on it.

Bread... Although this is not really a food safety issue, it really is handy: keep your bread in the freezer if you find your bread keeps getting moldy. Frozen bread is fine for toast and is great for kids' lunches because it thaws so quickly.


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Food prep 101