We reached out to a USDA food safety hotline staffer to find out exactly how to make your kitchen safer and less germ-ridden.
Barbecue season is about to roll in, bringing with it all the chicken kebabs, steaks, deviled eggs, and ice cream sundaes of your dreams. But with warmer weather tends to come an increased risk of food poisoning, so we reached out to Marianne H. Gravely, MS, Senior Technical Information Specialist at the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA, who staffs the meat and poultry hotline. Here are her top tips for ensuring a more sanitary kitchen this spring and year-round.
1. Spring-clean the fridge!
“People have spring cleaning in mind,” says Gravely, so “we have this little campaign going about cleaning out your fridge, your pantry, and cleaning everything to start fresh.” Use hot, soapy water to wash everything in your kitchen down, including the fridge, and if you like, use a diluted bleach solution (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water). As you go through refrigerator shelves, ensure items aren’t past their dates. “Pull everything off, and get everything sticky off there. When you put things back, try to have a plan so all your condiments are together and leftovers are together,” says Gravely. That way you avoid “losing” things that will eventually grow mold.
2. Reduce countertop clutter
Every part of your kitchen is your food-handling workspace, so Gravely suggests you look around and see if there’s just too much stuff in the way of your cooking. “That makes it not only harder to cook, but cross-contamination can happen, too. If you’re squeezed in a corner and you’re slicing up meat or something, it’s harder to [clean].” Again, wash everything down with hot, soapy water, and if you want to be extra-clean, go over surfaces with a diluted bleach solution.
3. Clean off your pantry shelves
It’s so easy for flour, nuts or rice to leak out of their packages, not to mention sugar, so wash down those shelves to help avoid having pests discover your pantry.
4. Change washcloths and towels frequently
“Kansas State University did a study recently and found that the kitchen towel is the dirtiest part of the kitchen,” says Gravely. “We recommend changing them [and washcloths] frequently, washing them in hot water.” If you don’t have your own washer and dryer, she adds, “you might want to just switch to paper towels.”
5. Don’t forget the handles!
“If you’re going through and cleaning everything,” says Gravely, “don’t forget handles!” Consider the faucet handles, the fridge door, the oven door, the whole enchilada—so to speak.
6. Stop washing your chicken. Really.
“We do not recommend that consumers wash poultry,” says Gravely, who pointed us to an eerie Drexel University site demonstrating how bacteria on the chicken can splash all over the kitchen. “It can spread up to two feet away… onto the dish rack, counter, even the soap.” She adds, “Some bacteria are easily washed off. Others cling so tightly that you could wash it 50 times and it wouldn’t get rid of it.” Since cooking chicken will kill that bacteria, she points out, why risk it?
7. Replace sponges frequently
“We’re not a big fan of sponges,” says Gravely. “We recommend that you replace them often, or wash them in hot water frequently.” She wouldn’t say how often to replace sponges, but suggested you err on the side of caution, and that people usually know when a sponge is done.
8. Be sure that cleaning solution is food-safe
It’s easy to take a cleaning solution from bathroom to kitchen, but keep in mind that some of them are not food-safe. Check the label, suggests Gravely, to be sure it’s meant for kitchen use.
9. Watch out for “groovy” cutting boards
The USDA recommends two cutting boards if possible—one reserved for meat and poultry, and one for vegetables—but it’s fine to have one, even if it’s wooden, so long as it isn’t deeply grooved. That’s where bacteria could live and escape even a rigorous cleaning with hot soapy water.
10. Use a meat thermometer
Accustomed to checking to see if chicken juices run clear to see if it’s done? (Me, too!) Well, um, it’s not advised. “The most important thing to do for your kitchen is probably to buy a food thermometer,” says Gravely. “We strongly recommend [it] because it’s the only way to tell that a food has reached a safe temperature.” She adds that the USDA site is peppered with recommended temperatures. “If you’re cooking on the grill, it’s good to have a thermometer out there with you,” she adds. (I’m a fan of the ThermoPop I just bought.) Note that some chefs and home cooks decide to risk it, including those who like their meat rare and medium-rare, so it can be a personal decision.
11. Watch out for the danger zone
You’ve grilled your chicken, checked that it registers 165 degrees, and set it out for the kids. There’s plenty extra, and it’s a beautiful summer day. Even though you’re tempted to forget about it, this is a dangerous time for meat. “Food shouldn’t sit in a danger zone for more than two hours, and if it’s 90 degrees higher, one hour,” warns Gravely. And although we often see recipes that suggest letting meat marinate at room temperature for several hours, “if you let it sit out and there’s any bacteria on there, [after] two hours, that’s enough time for [the bacteria to reach] dangerous levels—some bacteria can multiply and produce toxins you can’t kill by cooking it.”
12. Keep cold food cold, too.
Sure, it’s outdoor party season, but “it’s really important with cooked food to keep it hot, above 140 degrees, or cold on ice,” says Gravely. “If you can’t do that, set a timer and replace the food every hour, hour and a half or so; set out small portions of food and then replace the whole plate and serving spoon.” If you can, she says, try to set up a hand washing station for guests, too.
13. Make sure there’s room in the refrigerator for leftovers!
It sounds obvious, but after a few beers in the sun, you might scoff at the idea of fussing over putting away leftovers. “Make it easy on yourself to have a safe kitchen,” suggests Gravely. “Make sure there’s room in the fridge to put the leftovers away.”
14. Yes, you can put hot food in the fridge.
One of her most frequent calls? “People made a large quantity of food and left it out on the counter to cool down, and they forgot about it,” says Gravely, so “it sat out overnight.” It’s actually not dangerous to put hot food in the fridge, since the refrigerator will quickly bring it to the proper temperature, but you have to spread out the hot items in the fridge. She suggests pouring soup into a 13” x 9” pan so it will cool faster, or setting smaller bowls all around the fridge. Got a roast turkey? Break off a leg to help it cool down faster. And (see #13!) if you haven’t overstuffed your fridge, you’ll have room to do things like this.
15. Get in the habit of wiping down the area around your sink regularly
Wipe the whole sink area well with hot, soapy water, including those faucets and handles. “I think that’s where a lot of [bad] stuff happens for us,” says Gravely.
Do all these things, and you’re likely to have a happier, healthier BBQ season.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.