Have you ever wondered if the food you were preparing at home was safe? Have you ever wished you had a friend, a mom, a grandma to call and ask a food question? Have you ever resorted to calling your county’s Extension Agent to ask a question about safe food handling? Have you ever thrown something away, boiled it extra long, or turned meat into a hockey puck because you just weren’t sure?
One of the most important rules to serving safe food is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. The temperature range in which bacteria multiplies rapidly and can cause disease is known as the Temperature Danger Zone. This range is from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not advisable to leave any potentially hazardous foods in this temperature zone for more than four hours total. Because the foods we eat and prepare are usually not in our possession from the time it was a plant or an animal to the time it is on our plate (this time-line is known as “farm to fork” in the restaurant world), it is recommended that we reduce the time food is spent in the temperature danger zone as much as possible.
A meat item may have been left out at the butcher for 30 minutes before it reached your house. This means that the total time left for this meat item to be in the temperature danger zone is now 3 hours and 30 minutes. It might also have been left out at the grocery store for another half hour. This means it only has three hours left to be safe. Because we, as consumers, cannot be sure how much time is left for our food in the temperature danger zone, it is best to keep hot food hotter than 140 at all times, and cold food colder than 40 at all times.
It is important that we consumers have full awareness at all times of whether our food is in the temperature danger zone. We can achieve this by purchasing a metal stem thermometer from a retailer such as Wal Mart or K Mart. These types of thermometers are acceptable pieces of equipment by every Environmental Health Department in America, and usually cost less than five dollars.
It is important to check the calibration of the metal stem thermometer. This is easy to do. Fill a glass to the top with ice, and then put water to the brim. Leave for five minutes. After five minutes, place the metal stem thermometer in the ice water. The thermometer should read 32 degrees, give or take 2 degrees. If it doesn’t, there is a bolt right underneath the dial-face of the thermometer that can be turned with a pair of plyers until the thermometer reads 32 degrees. Now, the thermometer is calibrated and the temperature readings you get can be trusted. It is important to repeat this calibration test periodically on your metal stem thermometer to ensure you are getting proper temperature readings.
Test the food in your refrigerator with the metal stem thermometer. It is advisable to wash it, then sanitize it before and after testing with a bit of rubbing alcohol on a soft cloth or a paper towel. Put the thermometer into the middle of soft food, such as yogurt or cheese, or you can put it into milk or juice. Make sure your food is not above 40 degrees in the refrigerator. If it is near 40, you may want to turn your temperature down in the refrigerator. It has been proven that food stays fresher longer with a “deep chill” of 33-37 degrees. In any case, if the food in your refrigerator is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you are correctly holding cold food to ensure safety.
You can use the metal stem thermometer to test hot foods as well. Just stick it into the thickest part of a cut of meat, or place it into the middle of a hot dish to make sure the food is at least 140 degrees.
Maintaining proper holding temperatures is the number one way to keep yourself or someone you love from getting sick from a food source.