Are Your Burgers Bacteria-Free? 8 Great Tips for Pathogen-less Patties

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When you walk into a newsstand and feel assaulted by the big juicy burgers gracing the covers of practically every food magazine, you know Memorial Day and Father's Day are right around the corner. Burgers are so insanely popular these days that they could be topping Mom and apple pie as the iconic symbols of America.

But talking beef also brings up some unsavory topics, such as harmful pathogens possibly lurking in the meat. Too many magazines, websites, and books gloss over the topic. OK, so you may be tired of scare stories concerning the foods you love, but I don't know anyone who relishes a night spent hugging the toilet bowl or even worse, a hospital bed. So here's the beef on eight tips you need to know before you fire up your grill.

1. Use an Instant Read Thermometer
This Father's Day, treat Dad to a gift that keeps on giving: the instant read thermometer. It's the only way to tell if your burger has reached a safe temperature. Go for digital ones; they are best at getting reads in burgers and thinner pieces of meat. We recommend the thermistor style. You should also look for one that can be recalibrated.

Related: Don't Wash Chicken Before You Cook It--And 9 Other Surprising Tips

2. The Magic Number is 160 Degrees Fahrenheit.
That's the internal temperature your burgers have to reach in order to be food-safe. The days of medium-rare hamburger have been over since the 1993 discovery of a super-dangerous strain of E. coli. Especially if you are serving to anyone who is or might be pregnant, the elderly, or someone with a compromised immune system, it's essential that you cook your burgers properly--and that means until it registers 160 degrees on an instant read thermometer.

3. Cut and Peek Won't Cut It with Burgers
At 160 degrees, you might find a few burgers with perfect pink centers, but you're more likely to find them brown all the way through. But according to USDA research, one in four burgers turns brown before it reaches 160 degrees. The upshot is, you can't judge burger doneness by its color. Again, you need a thermometer.

4. Keep that Thermometer Clean
Picture this: You've just tested your burger and it isn't at 160 F. yet. Don't stick that same thermometer into your burger a few minutes later without cleaning it first; otherwise you're just dragging uncooked juices back into the burger. Keep a small container of hot soapy water and a clean towel near your grill station.

5. Tongs: Two Are Better Than One
Cross-contamination is something to watch out for with tongs as well. When you first place your burgers on the grill, your tongs are in contact with raw meat. That's fine while the meat is still cooking. But once the outside is pretty well cooked, you'll want to wash them off. Better yet, use a new pair of tongs. The same is true of platters. Don't put your cooked burger on the same tray you used to bring the raw ones out to the grill.

See Also: The Secret Reason Fro Yo May Be Sabotaging Your Diet

6. When to Mop and When to Stop
If you want to flavor your burger with a barbecue sauce or other topping that's on the sweet side, then wait until the last few minutes of cooking before mopping it on. Why? If you put it on in the beginning, the sugar in the sauce will burn before the meat is cooked through.

If you plan on serving extra sauce on the table, keep it away from the mop sauce, in its own bowl, with a separate, clean spoon for serving.

If, however, you plan on basting your burger from the very beginning with a sauce or some spare marinade, then stop basting 3 to 4 minutes before the hamburger is done and make sure you turn the burger over at least once or twice to cook and destroy any bacteria that's either gotten on your mop brush or into your sauce/marinade when the burger was raw.

7. If Steaks Can Be Cooked Medium-Rare, Why Can't My Burger?
According to the Institute of Food Technologists, the bacteria on whole pieces of meat, such as steaks-those which have not been cut into, mechanically tenderized, or injected with anything- is on the outside surfaces. When you grill a steak you kill the bacteria on the outside. But if you take that same raw steak and grind it in a grinder, any harmful bacteria or pathogens get spread throughout the meat. If the grinder itself isn't clean, that's another source of potential trouble. That's why you need to cook your burger to 160° F.

8. DIY Grind It Yourself
There's a growing movement to grind your own meat for burgers. Many bloggers consider it a possible way to get to the medium-rare burger they crave. The thinking is: If they buy the meat from a rancher/farmer they trust and they know the small-scale processor, they feel the risks are reduced to a reasonable level. There are too many variables for the USDA to give their blessing. "E. coli can be anywhere," said Diane Van, Manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. It's up to you to figure out what risks you are willing to take.

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