VICE Guide to Life

How to Cook Without Giving Anyone Food Poisoning

You're probably going to be fine, but let's cover the basics just in case.

by Munchies Staff
21 September 2018, 9:00am

Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.

According to the FDA, over 48 million people get food poisoning every year. Of those cases, the Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that well over a third of them come from home-cooked foods, rather than in restaurants. Don’t be another statistic! If you’re the kind of person who likes to play fast and loose with cleanliness in your apartment (hello, friends who haven’t washed their sheets in two months, we’re talking to you) or if you’re new to the whole world of cooking at home in general, familiarize yourself with some of the most basic basics of at-home food safety. From how to not cross-contaminate your raw veggies with potential E. coli from your raw steak, to how to know when it’s *really* time to throw out that carton of eggs, here are some rules of thumb for how to keep your food safe and save you money. (Because the more you throw away, the more cash you’re throwing away, too.)

Safe Cooking Prep

  • Use a separate, plastic cutting board for raw meats and fish, and clean it well when you’re done. Cross-contamination from raw meats is an easy way to end up with a surprise case of food poisoning, so spring for one extra piece of kitchen equipment for the sake of safety.
  • Wash your freaking hands, you goblin. More often than you think you should. Rubbed your sweaty face while chopping veggies? Probs best to wash your hands. Touched raw meat? Definitely wash your hands before touching any other ingredients or your cooking utensils again. This is not rocket science, you’ve been told this since you were a little kid for a reason.
  • Don’t run raw meat under water. This only serves to spread the potential for contamination all over your sink, which you probably won’t remember to scrub down after you’re done cooking. If your recipe calls for it, pat raw proteins dry with paper towels and throw them away.

Check Your Temps

  • Fridges should be held at a consistent 40°F or below, and freezers should be a steady 0°F. If you’re worried about the temperature of your fridge, pick up a thermometer from a hardware store, and let it hang out in there for a day, and check on it every few hours to see if the temperature is fluctuating wildly or if it's consistently below a safe level.
  • If you’re putting something into the fridge that is still hot, spread it out evenly on a sheet tray to let everything come down to a safe temperature quickly. The longer it takes for a food to cool down in the fridge, the more chance there is for bacteria to take hold. (The “danger zone” in which hot food has the potential to grow bacteria is between 40°F and 140°F, so the faster you get your food from 140°F to 40°F, the better.) If you’re putting hot soup, for instance, in the fridge, put it in a wide, shallow pan or Tupperware to allow the larger surface area to help cool it down faster, then transfer to a smaller storage container if necessary. In general, your food should go from 140°F to 70°F in two hours, then down to 41°F or cooler within four hours of reaching 70°F. Letting something cool on the counter, especially if it’s hot in your kitchen, might not be enough. Invest in a thermometer!
  • Store dairy products in the rear part of the fridge, where it’s more consistently cold. It might be easier to get to your milk carton if you keep it in the door, but that is typically the warmest part of the refrigerator, because you’re opening and closing it, causing the temperature to fluctuate.
  • Butchered chicken (standalone thighs or breasts) should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. If you’re roasting a whole chicken or, say, a turkey for the holidays, the whole bird should reach 180°F when you insert a thermometer into the thigh, as close to the bone as possible. (These are the USDA's numbers. Most chefs will tell you to take breasts to 150° and thighs/whole birds to 165°.)
  • Beef should be cooked to a minimum of 145°F, which is medium. Which is why menus advise that “raw or undercooked” beef can cause food-borne illnesses. (125°F is rare and 135°F is medium-rare, but we didn't tell you that)
  • Pork should be cooked to 160°F. (Trichinosis, however, dies at 145°F)

Has This Thing Gone Bad? (According to the USDA and FDA)

  • Eggs—These will keep longer than you think they will. When kept at a consistent temp in the fridge, they’ll keep for up to five weeks from the date you bought them. The “sell-by” date on the packaging will likely be sooner than that five-week window, so mark the carton with a Sharpie if you think you might forget. If you’ve cracked an egg open and are only using either the whites or the yolks and saving the unused part, don’t keep it more than two or three days in an airtight container. You can freeze them though! (This was news to me, too.)
  • Fish—Fish should not have an overwhelming fishy smell upon unwrapping a raw cut. A fishmonger’s general rule of thumb is that if it still smells like the ocean, it’s fresh. Whether lean or fatty, raw fish is really only safe for up to two days.
  • Canned Goods—Check the canned goods you buy before you leave the store for any dents, which is an indication that the seal on the can might have been compromised, and the risk of bacteria starting to grow and create botulism inside is increased. If a can on your shelf is showing signs of bulging, it’s time to toss it, as that’s another sign of botulism.
  • Dry Goods—If you’re storing your flours or grains in air-tight containers, they should keep for up to a year. If you’re using fresh-milled flour, with the germ from the wheat still in the mix, you’ll have to keep it in the fridge or freezer, and it will only hold for a few months. (Although if you’re the kind of person who chooses to buy and bake with raw flour, you probably already know this.) The most common sign of flour or grains going “bad” is the presence of flour bugs, which look like teensy weensy brown beetles. If it smells rancid, which is an indication that too much moisture got into your storage container, it’s time to toss it. If you use whole wheat flour, just know that its shelf life is significantly shorter than white all-purpose flour, so check on it more often.
  • Ground Meats—As soon as raw beef or pork or any other protein is processed in a meat grinder, there is an infinite number of new nooks, crannies, and air pockets in which bacteria can live and start to wreak havoc. Keep ground meats in the fridge for only a day or two, and if you don’t plan to cook it immediately, freeze it. Graying ground beef doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but if it’s gray and smells funky, it’s past its prime. Whole pieces of raw meat can keep in the fridge for up to five days, but raw poultry is only good for two. Cooked meats and poultry will keep, when properly cooled and stored, for up to four days.

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

  • Wash and replace cloth kitchen towels regularly, and make sure it has a proper chance to dry between uses. (Don’t leave it crumpled up on the counter—lay it flat or hang it where air flows around it freely.)
  • Replace your sponge at least once a month, if not more frequently than that. You can microwave a well-rinsed sponge, or run it through the dishwasher on a heated dry setting to kill some germs if you’re really concerned about daily germ accumulation and prefer to extend the life of what is almost a single-use plastic.
  • Clean your counters regularly, and be sure to get the whole surface, not just the area you *think* you were working in. Odds are, things have splashed and squirted in a radius around your cutting board that you haven’t been paying attention to. Corners and tile grout can collect some nasty stuff over time, too.
  • Store your raw meats or fish on the bottom shelf of your fridge, well wrapped. If by some chance any liquid from the Styrofoam containers leaks, it won’t drip or come into contact with other raw foods or containers.

Wondering about other basic food safety issues we didn’t cover here? Then head over to our friends at Tonic, and peruse their “Asking for a Friend” column, where you can find answers to more of your burning questions, like whether or not the “5 Second Rule” is really a thing, or if it’s safe to eat food that a fly landed on.

This article originally appeared on Munchies US.

food safety
food poisoning
food borne illnesses
food storage
raw meats