Summer barbecues can be a lot of fun. You're outdoors with friends and enjoying sunny days and good eats fresh off the grill. Whether you're hosting the shindig yourself or bringing a dish to share with the group, your top priority when cooking food for others (and yourself) is that no one gets sick. Food safety might not be the sexiest topic, but it's essential.
It's especially important for young kids, older adults and anyone with a weakened immune system. But everyone benefits from food that's safe to eat. With summer barbecue season upon us, it's time to brush up on the basics and learn a few lesser known tricks of the trade, too.
1. Partially Cooking Meat Ahead of Time
Pre-cooking meat seems like a smart way to save time when grill day comes, but it can also introduce health risks. "The problem is that when you partially cook meat, you're not getting it to the right temperature," says Wesley Delbridge, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Even if you put it right back in the refrigerator, it is spending some time in the danger zone," says Delbridge, referring to the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit that promotes the growth of harmful bacteria that can make you sick. When in "the zone," bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes.
If you absolutely have to pre-cook your meat, Delbridge recommends regular temperature checks and limiting total time in the danger zone to under two hours.
2. Defrosting Frozen Food Outside
Have you ever been tempted to defrost frozen foods outdoors? It's already frozen, so it'll transport like an ice pack and warm up naturally over time, right? Except that means food is sitting out in the temperature danger zone. The absolute max time for food to be in the danger zone is four hours total, Delbridge says, but as mentioned above, he recommends two hours to be on the safe side.
"Always defrost food in the refrigerator or in the microwave, not on the counter or outdoors," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She recommends the Is My Food Safe? app from Eatright.org for any questions regarding food safety. It's free but only available for iOS.
3. Leaving Potato Salad Out For Too Long
Potato salad's reputation as a high-risk picnic food comes from a time when people made mayonnaise from scratch (which involves raw eggs). Fresh mayo or not, though, leaving any food out in the sun for more than two hours is not a good idea. "As temperature rises, the harmful bacteria multiplies," says Sheth, which means "potato salad is best enjoyed within two hours, or one hour if it's more than 90 degrees out."
Bacteria love warmth and thrive especially well between 70 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you're blessed with a warm, sunny day, keep your cold foods cold (bring along a cooler!) so they stay safer to eat for longer. And consider the total time food has been in the danger zone: prep time, travel time, cooling time and time that food's been out on a table waiting for people to dig in, Delbridge says. It adds up quickly.
4. Not Fully Cooking Meat
"Some major food-borne illnesses can happen with raw meat, including Salmonella, E.coli and parasites," says Delbridge, "so we always want to make sure we're fully cooking it." Salmonellosis from undercooked poultry and beef can lead to stomach cramps, diarrhea and fever within 12 to 72 hours. And some people develop reactive arthritis that can last months or even years.
Symptoms of E.coli appear one to 10 days after exposure and include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. And parasites such as worms in undercooked pork can cause stomach upset, fatigue and fever within days of infection, followed by a second wave of symptoms two to eight weeks later involving flu-like symptoms, face swelling and even heart and breathing problems.
5. Not Using a Food Thermometer
Each kind of meat has a different temperature at which it's safe to eat (ranging from 145 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit), and ground meat requires a higher temperature because greater surface area means more bacterial exposure.
Only a food thermometer can truly tell you when it's done. Check meat temperatures correctly by inserting the thermometer midway through the thickest part of the meat (the edges will be hotter, which won't tell you if the meat is safe to the core), Delbridge says.
Metal thermometers are an affordable option, but they need to be calibrated daily in boiling water or the freezer. Delbridge prefers a digital thermometer, which guarantees temperatures without constant calibration. One last thing: "Clean your thermometer after every check to avoid cross-contamination," says Delbridge.
6. Packing Raw Meat With Raw Fruits and Vegetables
Is it possible to pack raw meat and produce together without cross-contamination? "Absolutely," says Delbridge, "but is it worth the risk? My advice is don't risk it. I don't think you should ever do it. It's not a good idea."
Even if everything is in separate, sealed containers with produce on top, he says it's nearly impossible to guarantee that cross-contamination didn't occur somewhere in all of the packing, traveling and moving about.
And packing different meats in the same container is also a bad idea. "Chicken has to be cooked to a higher temperature than beef; so if they touch, you won't be cooking beef to a high enough temperature." If you're already in the park reading this, his advice is to cook all meat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds.
7. Not Washing Fruits and Vegetables
Remember the last E.coli outbreak? The frequency of these alerts is a good reminder that sometimes, a little bit of dirt can do a lot of harm, says registered dietitian Kelly Plowe. Washing fresh produce can minimize the bacteria from soil, but if there's a recall, throw it out.
Plowe recommends washing produce under running water and rubbing to remove any stubborn dirt, even if you're going to peel it, since slicing the skin pushes bacteria into the edible part of the fruit or vegetable.
"If you're making a salad, make sure to rinse the individual leaves, as dirt is often trapped in between, and be mindful of lemons and limes as a beverage garnish or orange slices in a sangria — the intact skin carries bacteria if not washed," she says.
8. Reusing Marinade for Sauce
Marinades are full of flavor, and it seems wasteful to toss the leftovers. Unfortunately, it's as much of a bacterial risk as whatever was marinating in it, and the same food safety rules apply. That's why Sheth says you should marinade food in the refrigerator in order to minimize time in the danger zone.
"Harmful bacteria can spread from raw to cooked food if the same marinade is used as is," she says. That pretty much rules out using marinade as a sauce at a barbecue. But at home — or if you have a full-service outdoor kitchen at your disposal — Sheth says, if you're really set on reusing the marinade, boil it before using.
9. Reusing Platters or Utensils That Have Touched Raw Meat
When you're having a good time socializing with friends, it can be easy to lose track of what's touched raw meat, especially since you can't see bacteria. Re-using cooking utensils is one of the most common mistakes. The grill may be hot, but that doesn't mean it cleaned your cooking tongs.
"Reusing platters or utensils that have been used to handle raw meat can cross-contaminate cooked food with bacteria," says Sheth. Her tip: "To minimize accidental cross-contamination, consider using different colored plates or utensils for cooking versus serving."
And remember that hands count as "cooking utensils," too. "Always wash your hands before doing any meal prep," Plowe says. "Even after your initial wash, it's important to continue while preparing different dishes for a summer barbecue, especially if you're handling raw meats or seafood or fruits and vegetables."
10. Letting Hot Food Cool
When it comes to summer barbecues, it's easy to think about food getting too warm and festering with bacteria. However, it's just as dangerous to let hot food cool down into the danger zone where bacteria love to multiply. In fact, it may be even more dangerous, since bacteria prefer the upper end of the temperature danger zone.
At home, you'd have the option to stash uneaten food in the refrigerator to be reheated whenever you wanted. But outdoors, that's not an option. Ideally, there's no lag time between when food is fully cooked and when someone is eating it. But if people aren't ready when the food is, the best option is to keep hot food on the grill, set to the side away from the coals or flame where it could overcook.