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Food & Drinks

Five summer barbecue food safety tips to avoid falling ill and ruining your cookout

Summertime is high season for food-borne illnesses and barbecues are one of the main culprits. Here are five common food-safety mistakes made when barbecuing and how to avoid them

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 12:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 12:02am

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans fall ill from food-borne illness each year, and summertime is high season.

While there are myriad causes for these illnesses throughout the food supply chain, improper food handling at home is the one over which we have the most control.

Susan Jung’s recipes for barbecued lamb chops and sides

As you plan your next summer gathering, keep it truly healthy by taking note of these five common food-safety mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Basting with the marinade

A golden rule of food safety is not to let juices from raw meat, poultry or fish come in contact with ready-to-eat foods. Raw items can contain many different disease-causing bacteria, most of which are killed off through cooking.

If you baste with a used marinade, germs in it might not be cooked long enough, especially if you are basting when the food is nearly done. There are two ways to use a marinade safely as a basting liquid: reserve some in a separate container for basting when you initially prepare the marinade or, once you remove the raw food from a marinade, you can put it into a saucepan on the stove and bring it to boil.

Since even a clean marinade comes in contact with undercooked meat via the brush when basting, avoid basting towards the end of cooking and throw away any leftover basting liquid.

2. Guessing when food is done

There is a relatively small window of temperatures where meat, poultry and fish are cooked thoroughly enough to be safe to eat, but not so much that they are dry and tough. Newsflash: the commonly applied method of poking the food with a finger is not the best way to determine doneness (especially if that finger is on an unwashed hand, but more on that soon).

The only way to be sure the temperature is just right is to use a food thermometer. If you don’t have one, it is well worth the roughly US$10 (HK$78) cost of an instant-read thermometer.

The recommended safe minimum cooking temperatures as defined by the US Agriculture Department are 63 degrees Celsius (145 degrees Fahrenheit) for steaks and chops (with a three-minute rest time) and fish, and 71 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) for poultry and ground meat.

That doesn’t mean you won’t ultimately opt to cook your steak medium-rare (57 degrees Celsius / 135 degrees Fahrenheit) if that’s how you prefer it, just like you might eat your eggs with the yolks runny. But at least you will be doing it knowingly and without a dirty finger.

3. Using the same tools for raw and cooked food

Cooking food to the perfect temperature doesn’t do much good safety-wise if you are transferring bacteria right back onto that food by using the same utensils and dishes you used for the raw ingredients.

Think double when cooking out, with two sets of tongs, spatulas and plates at the ready – one designated for raw food, and another for cooked. It is even better if they are somewhat different from each other – handle colour or brand – so you can distinguish them.

4. Touching food with unwashed hands

One reason there is more food poisoning in the summer months is because more cooking and eating are done outside, away from running water, and therefore more likely done with unwashed hands. If you are hosting a cookout or pool party, keep hand wipes and sanitiser (with a minimum of 60 per cent alcohol) within easy reach of food-preparation areas.

To minimise contamination from guests’ hands, have enough serving utensils (please put a spoon in that bowl of nuts and tongs in the chip bowl) and keep wipes and sanitiser out for them, too.

Don’t think a dip in a pool, lake or ocean leaves you with clean hands. There are plenty of germs in those bodies of water that you wouldn’t want to come in contact with food. So wash your hands before cooking or eating, even after swimming.

5. Leaving food out too long

Leaving food out for more than a couple of hours at a time is the norm at garden parties I’ve attended. It seems people have no clue about the potential hazards.

Bacteria grows and thrives at temperatures between 4 and 60 degrees Celsius (39 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), so food should not be in that temperature zone for more than two hours. If it’s more than 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) outside, the limit is one hour.

It’s easy to let time slip away when you are entertaining, so set a timer when you put the food out to remind yourself of when it needs to be refrigerated. If you have guests dropping by at various times throughout the day, consider staggering the dishes you serve, putting some out at the start of the party, then replacing those with others later.

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If possible, keep cold food out on a bed of ice and warm food either on a side rack on the grill or in an oven set to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). Your guests will not only be better served with a fresher-tasting meal, they will be better off in the days to come as well.