What you don’t know about cooking outdoors can make you sick—or worse. The next time you’re at a barbecue and that little voice inside your head whispers, “Don’t eat that” as you approach that bowl of potato salad basking in the sun, take heed. Bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and other organisms multiply like crazy in warm, humid conditions, and every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people (one in six Americans) contract a foodborne illness. Injuries result during cookout season, too—and not just burns.
We asked Peter DeLucia, assistant commissioner of the Westchester County Bureau of Public Health Protection, a noted authority on food safety (and frequent guest on The Dr. Oz Show), how we can protect ourselves.
1. Wash your hands—a lot. “Having clean hands is the number-one most important thing when it comes to food safety,” DeLucia says. “Thoroughly wash with hot, soapy water, before, during, and after food handling. If your thumb touches raw chicken juice, it can contaminate the next surface [or food] that you touch”—like the plate for the cooked chicken.
2. Spread the love, not the bacteria. It’s important to start with clean surfaces and utensils and to clean them after each use—but wiping with any old sponge or cloth just pushes germs around. “In restaurants,” says DeLucia, “we require wiping cloths to sit in a sanitizing solution: one teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water. At home, rinse cutting boards and surfaces, then spray or wipe with sanitizing solution and let air dry.”
3. Use a meat thermometer—always. “People may press or puncture meat to ‘see’ if it’s done. That’s not adequate,” says DeLucia. “Insert the thermometer at least an inch into the thickest part of the meat and let it stay there for 10 or 15 seconds until the temperature is steady. Poultry should be cooked to 165ËšF; ground beef, 158ËšF; steak, 140ËšF; and pork, 150ËšF.”
4. Wash your fruits and veggies. Many foods can make you sick if not properly washed, including leafy greens (the number-one culprit, according to the CDC), fruits and veggies (especially those with rinds, like cantaloupe), and frozen burgers (E. coli can survive in the freezer!). “Rinsing produce under cool, running water, using a colander or salad spinner, will wash away funky stuff.”
5. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Refrigerate cold food until use, or store in a cooler filled with ice to transport. Hot foods are trickier: “The ‘hot-holding’ temp is 140ËšF,” says DeLucia. “When you get to the barbecue, as long as it’s been less than two hours, you can rapidly reheat [from 140ËšF] to 165ËšF.”
6. Boil—or toss—marinade. “If you’ve kept raw meat in a marinade, [the sauce] may contain salmonella or E. coli,” says DeLucia. “If you want to reuse it, bring it to a boil, and then you can baste cooked food or use it as a dipping sauce.” Or just use a separate marinade to baste and dip.
7. Use pre-chilled ingredients. “Cook potatoes or macaroni for cold salads, then chill before combining with other chilled ingredients,” says DeLucia. “Wait until they’ve cooled a bit to put in the fridge; hot foods will boost the fridge temp and the food will not cool down enough.”
8. Don’t par- or pre-cook. “If you do, you’re warming food to a point where it’s more hospitable for bacteria to grow. Cook to completion or cook to serve.”
9. Make sure your equipment is in good condition. The CDC has reported a rash of injuries from ingestion of metal bits from wire grill brushes, from punctures of soft neck tissue to gastrointestinal-tract perforations. “Make sure grilling surfaces are clean and debris-free,” says DeLucia, “and that brushes are new, with bristles intact.”
10. When in doubt, throw it out. The longer food sits out of temperature, the greater the chance for bacteria to multiply. “An hour is about as long as food can sit outdoors,” says DeLucia, but that’s just a guideline. If you’re not sure, toss it. Do you really need the leftovers?