Food safety is one of the most important aspects of cooking. Before learning technique, flavour profiles or how to pair food and drink - the most critical thing you can learn is proper food handling.
Regulations and standards are different in every country, and often even differ regionally and/or culturally. I've built out a guide to food safety for home cooks that follows the guidelines of the USA Food & Drug Administration. Check your own national and regional rules and regulations for the most pertinent and up to date information on best food practices to your region.
This guide to food safety and sanitation is part of a larger project I'm running to build out a curriculum for a home cook to be trained to be closer to the standard of a professional chef - at least to be able to create exceptional food with confidence. The Home Cook to Pro Cook Curriculum can be found here.
The 4 Pillars of Food Safety
Beyond being a pillar for culinary knowledge, proper food handling ensures that you and the people you cook for remain healthy and avoid the threat of illness from improper handling. Food safety, for the most part, can be neatly broken into 4 categories:
Wash your hands and surfaces often. Do so with soapy water for hands and dishes. You may opt for a bleach based sanitizer for surfaces.
How to Properly Wash Hands
- Wet your hands with warm running water
- Lather your hands with soap for 15-20 seconds. Can't remember how long that is without counting? Sing the chorus to "I Want it That Way" by The Backstreet Boys.
- Rinse off hands thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel.
- Use the paper towel to turn off the faucet.
How to Properly Clean Equipment
Use hot soapy water or a homemade bleach solution to sanitize surfaces, taps, sinks, equipment and appliances before and after each use. Allow them to air dry before using - or if using a hand towel to try, ensure it is clean and washed often (daily or more if using on potentially dirty surfaces).
You can make a homemade bleach based sanitizer by mixing 1 teaspoon (5mL) of household bleach with 3 cups (750mL) of water. This solution can be used to soak cutting boards, utensils and dishes before using - make sure to let them air dry before use.
How to Clean Produce
- Before handing fresh fruit or vegetables, make sure that both your hands and any surfaces are cleaned and sanitized.
- Cut out any bruised or damaged parts of the produce - make sure to thoroughly clean your knife after this step.
- Wash fresh fruit and vegetables under cool running water. Do so even if you plan to peel them.
- Refrigerate fresh fruit and vegetables within 2 hours of cutting them - throw out pieces of cut fruit or vegetables that have been left out longer than two hours.
Other Tips for Cleaning in the Kitchen
- Clean jars and cans before opening them to avoid getting surface contaminants into the container.
- If you're cleaning produce with a rough exterior (melons, coconut, etc...) use a rough kitchen sponge to clean the surface before cutting or opening the fruit or vegetable.
One of the best ways to avoid contamination is to have a separate area of the kitchen (and different tools) for different types of products.
Keep Raw Meats, Poultry and Seafood Away From Other Foods
- Use a separate cutting board for meats/seafood than for everything else. Make sure your meat cutting board is plastic as wood can store bacteria.
- Use separate plates and utensils for cooked and raw foods. Don't store raw meats in the same direct area as cooked meats.
- Never use the same plate for cooked foods that was used for raw meats before cleaning and sanitizing them.
- Store raw meats at the bottom of your fridge so there's no drip down (see graphic below).
- When storing meats in the fridge, never store them uncovered. Always use a Tupperware, plastic wrap or other form of cover.
- Soak all equipment used to handle raw meats in a bleach cleaning solution (1 teaspoon of bleach to 3 cups of water) then dry thoroughly with a clean cloth or paper towel.
- When shopping, store meat/seafood/poultry in a different area of the cart than everything else. If available, place the meat in a plastic bag to keep the contaminants away from other foods.
How to Organize the Fridge for Food Safety
Top Shelf: prepared foods, pickled foods, condiments, fruits
Second/Middle Shelves: leftovers, portioned food, bread
Third Shelf: eggs, cheese, milk, deli meats
Bottom Shelf: raw meats, poultry and seafood
Crisper Drawers: vegetables
Food becomes safe enough to eat when the internal temperature is high enough to kill the bad kind of germs that can cause illness or food poisoning.
Required Temperatures for Food Safety
Though many experienced chefs can tell the doneness of a piece of meat by look or texture, the way to be most confident is with a reliable meat thermometer. I've been using a ThermoPro for years and it's a very reasonable price and has treated me incredibly well.
Below is a chart I put together based on the food temperature safety guidelines from the Government of Canada
How to Handle Food After Cooking
Cooked food becomes a dangerous breeding ground for bacteria between 40°F - 140°F (4°C - 60°C). The best practice is to keep food out of this "danger zone" and maintain a temperature of at least 140°F (60°C) in a slow cooker, heating tray or chafing dish.
How to Reheat Leftovers
To avoid foods being in the "danger zone" for too long, it's best to reheat items fully and fairly quickly.
When heating in a microwave, follow the instructions on any pre-packaged foods. If a label says to stir, cook in batches and allow to cool - this is all to ensure there are no cold spots. If you're unsure, the safest bet is always to take the temperature of the dish and ensure it has reached a temperature of 165°F. If you're reheating leftovers in the microwave, it's best practice to stir the food halfway through the reheating to ensure there's even heat distribution.
When reheating on the stove, bring soups, sauces, gravies and liquids to a boil to ensure all bacteria is killed off in an environment that is too hot for it to survive. If it isn't liquid, ensure the food has reached a minimum temperature of 165°F (74°C).
When reheating food in the oven, set the oven temperature no lower that 325°F (164°C). Heat thoroughly and when in doubt, take the temperature to ensure the centre (the coldest part) of the dish has reached a temperature of 165°F (74°C).
When reheating in an Air Fryer, set the Air Fryer to no lower than 325°F (164°C). Heat through and take the temperature with an instant read thermometer, ensuring the food has reached 165 in it's coldest spot (usually the centre). Here's an article from My Budget Recipes with all the info on reheating food in the Air Fryer.
When reheating in an Instant Pot, set the Instant Pot to a low heat/pressure setting. Follow guidelines for the specific meal you're reheating, but always check that the internal temperature is 165°F (74°C). For further Instant Pot reheating, check out Miss Vickie's guide to reheating meat in the Instant Pot. Keep in mind pressure cookers need liquid to come to pressure so this isn't appropriate for all dishes.
NOT RECOMMENDED! Re-heating food in a slow cooker, warming tray or steam table. This allows food to stay in the dangerous range of 40°F - 140°F (4°C - 60°C) for too long and significantly raises the risk of bacterial growth.
Bacteria that's harmful to humans is most common between 40°F - 140°F (4°C - 60°C) - this means that's it's important to bring the temperature of foods below that temperature as quickly as possible when placing in the fridge or freezer.
- Your refrigerator should be set below 40°F (4°C). The best way to be sure is to use an appliance thermometer like this one here.
- To ensure foods are not at the danger zone temperatures for too long, leftovers should be promptly stored in the refrigerator. The best way to store is in shallow containers so they chill evenly and quickly.
- Leftovers should be placed in either the fridge or freezer within 2 hours of being cooked. If the temperature is exceptionally high (like a hot car) they should be refrigerated within 1 hour.
- When storing leftovers, it's best to mark on the storage container with a piece of tape what the food is and when it was stored. At this point, you can use a cold food storage chart to determine if the food is still good.
- If you're unsure how old a food is, it's best practice to look/smell/taste the food to see if anything seems off. If you aren't sure, it's best to throw out the food. Better yet, it's best to freeze food before it has the chance to go bad.
- It's best to let your foods cool slightly before placing in the fridge. Otherwise, the hot food may raise the temperature of the fridge and harm the other foods.
- Your freezer should be set to 0°F (-18°C). The freezer can be set colder than this, but should not be warmer.
- Freezing food to a fully frozen state and then thawing it without cooking it will not kill the bacteria. It will, however, keep it safe until it is thawed and cooked at a later date.
- When placing leftovers in the freezer, allow them to cool a bit so they don't lower the freezer temperature and cause other foods to thaw/melt.
Other Fridge/Freezer Tips
Thaw or marinade foods in the refrigerator only - do not do so on the counter. It allows the temperature to be in the danger zone for too long. It's best to thaw foods slowly at a cold temperature to ensure there's no or minimal bacteria growth.
When grocery shopping, start with non-perishable foods and finish with frozen, cold and perishable foods last. Get home as soon as possible and try and keep the car cold if you can in order to minimize the time the food is in unfavourable conditions. Ideally, get the foods home and in the fridge or freezer in 1-2 hours maximum.
Resources & Further Reading
Food Safety - Health.Gov.On.Ca
Food Safety Resources for Consumers - USA Food & Drug Administration
Food Safety at the Home - Canadian Public Health Association
Four Steps to Food Safety - Food Safety .Gov
Step 1: Clean (Food Safety Quick Tips) - USA Food & Drug Administration
Step 2: Separate (Food Safety Quick Tips) - USA Food & Drug Administration
Step 3: Cook (Food Safety Quick Tips) - USA Food & Drug Administration
Step 4: Chill (Food Safety Quick Tips) - USA Food & Drug Administration