How to Keep Your Food Safe

By Joanne Camas; additional reporting by Sarah Kagan, Epicurious.com

It seems that every year there are more and more food scares-recalls of popular products, outbreaks of food poisoning at restaurants. News reports are full of experts cautioning people on how to avoid food-borne illness, but the information can be confusing, overwhelming, and sometimes unrealistic. Do you really need to cook that steak until it's well-done to be safe? Can you cut mold off cheese and then eat the rest of it?

We sorted through the conflicting advice on these questions and many others in order to bring you the real deal on food safety.

Related: Our Ultimate Grilling and Barbecue Guide

These rules apply across the board to all types of food:

  • Shop Smart
Buy only food that looks and smells in top condition-no past "sell by" dates or dented cans.

  • Avoid Cross-Contamination
At the store, put meats and poultry in an extra plastic bag so they can't drip onto other foods in your shopping cart. When you get home, store them on the bottom shelf of the fridge to avoid leaks.

  • Store Food Promptly
The USDA advises, "Always refrigerate perishable food within two hours (one hour when the temperature is above 90°F)." If you're making a few stops on the way home from the store, or the weather is very hot, keep a cooler in your trunk for meat, dairy, and frozen items.

  • Check Your Fridge and Freezer
Keep a thermometer in each place and check them often. The fridge should be 40°F or below and the freezer, 0°F.

  • Wash Your Hands
Wash them in hot, soapy water both before and after preparing foods.

  • Use or Freeze Promptly
If a product has a "use by" date, follow that. (This is different from a "sell by" date, which refers to the date by which you should purchase the product.) If there's no use-by date, use or freeze the ingredient within several days of its sell-by date. Here are time frames for when to use or freeze specific foods:

Whole meats: Three to five days
Whole poultry: One to two days
Ground meats: One to two days
Organ meats: One to two days
Fresh sausage: One to two days
Cooked refrigerated sausage: Three to four days
Dried sausage (unrefrigerated): Six weeks (unopened), three weeks (opened)
Cured (but not fully cooked) ham: Five to seven days
Fully cooked ham: Seven days (three days for sliced once opened)
Deli meats: Two weeks (unopened); three to five days (opened)
Bacon and hot dogs: Two weeks (unopened); one week (opened)
Eggs: Three to five weeks
Cooked foods: Three to four days

See also: Blue-Ribbon Chicken Dishes
  • Thaw Safely
You have several options for thawing frozen meats. The safest is in the refrigerator; meats thawed this way can safely be refrozen. If you're in a hurry, meat can also be thawed in the microwave or in a pan of cold water. (Change the water every 30 minutes and never use hot water-this could raise the temperature of some parts of the meat into the "danger zone," where bacteria grow quickly.) Meat thawed in the microwave or water must be cooked immediately. Never thaw meat on the countertop, which could allow dangerous bacteria to multiply.

  • Practice Safe Handling
When preparing raw meat, poultry, or seafood, it's important to keep any bacteria that might be on these foods from contaminating other ingredients. The USDA advises, "Always wash cutting boards, dishes, countertops, and utensils with hot soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood." It's also a good idea to use separate chopping boards for meats and fruit/vegetables. Monica Reinagel, chief nutritionist for NutritionData.com, says, "I also prefer not to use a wooden cutting board for meat because it's harder to sanitize. In professional kitchens they often color-code the cutting boards. Red is for meat, green for produce, and sometimes they save the yellow ones for foods like garlic and onions, so that you never get that faint onion smell in your fruit salad."

  • Cook Properly
We'll go into more detail on safe cooking temperatures in the individual ingredient sections. A good general rule is to use a thermometer rather than relying on just your eyes and nose to check doneness. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, and be sure it doesn't touch bone. Reinagel also recommends: "Calibrate your thermometer by submerging it in a glass full of chipped ice and water and adjusting the nut on the back so that the thermometer reads 32°F. This is more accurate than using boiling water to calibrate. Thermometers should be recalibrated every month."

  • Separate Raw and Cooked Items
Once food is cooked, it should never go back on a dirty plate or board that's held raw ingredients, and utensils should not be used for both raw and cooked foods without being washed in between. This principle applies to marinades as well: If you want to serve a marinade that you've used on raw food, be sure to boil it for three minutes to kill any pathogens.

  • Refrigerate Leftovers
The two-hour refrigeration rule for raw ingredients applies to leftovers and prepared foods as well.

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