When you’re in the kitchen, safety is obviously pretty important. That’s why you don’t plunk down raw meat right onto your kitchen counter or use expired ingredients. It’s also probably why your mom warned you not to eat raw cookie dough. But no matter how much you think you know about food safety, it’s easy to make some pretty gross food prep mistakes without even realizing it. Unfortunately, some of the mistakes you may be making when you’re preparing or cooking your food can make you and your family sick.
Even the best home cook may be guilty of messing up on food safety. And we’re not talking about using milk that smells fine, but is a day or two past its use-by date. (Seriously, everybody does that.) Unfortunately, there are some bigger mistakes that you may be making. Mistakes that can ruin your food and perhaps even send you to the emergency room. Read on to find out what you should avoid, and to make sure that you — and the family members who trust you to feed them — aren’t going to be the next victims of a foodborne illness or runaway bacteria growth.
1. Undercooking your food or ignoring cooking time
Food52 reports that most common wisdom about preventing foodborne illness is misguided. People worry about germs and parasites inside food. But more than 80% of food poisoning cases in the United States are caused by fecal contamination on the outside of food.
The Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture recommend safe cooking temperatures to kill bacteria. But they ignore cooking time, the other crucial part of the equation. You can either cook your food to an FDA-recommended temperature for a second or two to kill the bacteria, or you can maintain lower temperatures for a longer amount of time. Use a sous vide water bath, for instance, to maintain a constant temperature for a longer cooking time.
2. Not using a food thermometer
Even if you decide, for instance, to cook a piece of meat for longer at a lower temperature rather than more quickly at a higher temperature, it’s important to ensure that it achieves the goal temperature to kill the bacteria. The FDA advises that color and texture are unreliable indicators of safety. Using a food thermometer is the only way to safely cook meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products. If you want to be confident that these foods are cooked adequately and aren’t going to make you sick, you need to use a food thermometer.
3. Serving raw or undercooked food to someone with a compromised immune system
As Food52 explains, “[G]ood hygiene and cooking techniques lower the germ count enough that a normal immune system can take care of what remains.” But if you or someone in your family is immunocompromised, you’re going to need to make some adjustments. You should never serve food cooked at low temperatures to people with compromised immune systems. According to guidelines from the Ohio State University’s medical center (PDF), foods like sushi, eggs with runny yolks, or homemade Caesar dressing are a no-go for anyone who’s immunocompromised. It’s crucial that you follow the dietary guidelines carefully if you’re feeding anyone with a weakened immune system.
4. Neglecting to keep foods at their proper temperature
The guidelines from Ohio State University also note that it’s important to keep foods at the appropriate temperature. Hot foods should be kept above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold foods need to be below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. If you cook a meal and know you’ll have leftovers, refrigerate only as much as you’ll use within three to five days, and freeze the rest within two hours of cooking. Reheated foods should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, or a rolling boil, before eating. Foodsafety.gov notes that it’s also important to thaw and marinate foods safely. That means in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave, not out on your counter.
5. Not washing your hands often or thoroughly enough
Another crucial piece of advice from Food52? Washing your hands properly is one of the best defenses against foodborne illnesses, no matter what you’re cooking. Don’t settle for a cursory rinse or a lazy soaping-up when you start to cook, or after you’ve handled ingredients like meat. “Treat the kitchen like an operating room, and scrub up like you’re preparing for surgery,” Food52 advises. “Use a brush to get under your fingernails, and wash your hands with soap under running water for a full 30 seconds.”
6. Failing to thoroughly clean your kitchen
You probably wash your dishes regularly and thoroughly. But chances are that you haven’t properly cleaned your kitchen in a long time. You should scour your sink regularly. (Food52 recommends mixing a gallon of water with a tablespoon of Clorox Bleach, and making sure it stays in contact with the surface for at least two minutes. Then, let it air dry.) You should microwave your sponge for one minute, or put it in the dishwasher with the dryer setting on. Wash your cutting boards and other equipment between each use. If produce, for instance, is infected with pathogens, it can leave germs on your cutting board and knife.
7. Neglecting to wash produce
You might think that you don’t have to wash your produce. Particularly if it’s been washed, bagged, and sealed. But as Food52 notes, the majority of recent food illness outbreaks have been traced to raw fruits, nuts, or vegetables. You should always wash your produce, no matter what promises the packaging makes about the product’s cleanliness.
Food52 advises using a solution of water with 10% vinegar (a 10:1 ratio). Or, you can use a store-bought, organic solution that’s made specifically for the purpose. Ohio State University’s medical center also says that you can run your produce under running water and rub with friction for 20 seconds. Just make sure that you don’t set unwashed produce down on your cutting board, since any pesticides or germs will then be able to contaminate the cut produce.
8. Washing meat or poultry
You should wash your fruits and vegetables, but you should never wash meat in the sink. It may seem like a good way to get rid of some of the bacteria lingering on the outside of the meat — but it’s actually a pretty bad idea. According to Foodsafety.gov, washing meat or poultry can spread dangerous bacteria to your sink, to your countertop, and to the other surfaces in your kitchen. Just think about how easy it is to splash water out of the sink and onto the surrounding walls, cabinets, cookbooks, and appliances. To be safe, just don’t wash meat, poultry, or even eggs in your sink.
9. Buying food that’s already compromised
When you wash your produce, you probably inspect it to make sure that it doesn’t have bruises, holes, or signs of insect damage. You should also inspect your food when you’re buying it to avoid purchasing something that’s already compromised and may make you sick. That’s important when you’re buying produce, but also when you’re buying refrigerated, canned, and frozen foods. The FDA advises shoppers, particularly those shopping at surplus stores, not to buy cans that are swollen, since bulges might indicate dangerous bacterial growth. Don’t buy cans that are dented or rusted along the seams. Also, don’t buy anything in a torn package, or frozen packages with food stains.
10. Cooking with or eating food that should have been thrown out
If you haven’t been to the grocery store in a week, it can be tempting to throw a meal together with whatever’s left in the fridge. But that’s a bad idea if you’re cooking with or eating food that should have been thrown out. At the top of the list of Foodsafety.gov’s list of dangerous food mistakes is tasting food to see if it’s still good, since you won’t be able to taste, smell, or see the bacteria that cause food poisoning. But eating even a tiny amount can cause serious illness.
The solution? Familiarize yourself with safe storage times for the foods you have in your refrigerator. Things like meat, especially, are safe for shorter amounts of time than you might think. So don’t cook with anything that should be thrown away.
11. Reusing plates, utensils, or even marinades that touched raw meat
You’re probably careful when you’re handling raw meat, but you may (wrongly) assume that you’re out of the woods once that meat is on the stove or in the oven. Quite to the contrary, you may be making some dangerous food safety mistakes by forgetting to be vigilant about everything that touched the raw meat. When you’re grilling, for instance, don’t put cooked meat back onto the same plate that held it when it was raw. And definitely don’t use a knife that you chopped your raw chicken with to cut anything else, or use the same tongs that handled raw meat once it’s cooked.
12. Cross-contaminating foods when you buy or store them
It’s important to be careful when it comes to raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs before you start cooking. Foodsafety.gov cautions that these foods can spread illness-causing bacteria to foods that are ready to eat. To stop cross-contamination, keep meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods in your basket or cart at the grocery store. And at checkout, make sure that you place them in separate bags to keep them from dripping onto other foods. When you get home, make sure to store these foods in containers or sealed plastic bags that can keep them from leaking. You’ll want to ensure that they’re kept in a separate section of the refrigerator.
13. Not cleaning your grill before and after use
As Daily Burn points out, there are some serious health hazards associated with grilling. In addition to all of the mistakes that are easy to make when you’re handling meat, no matter how you’re cooking it, there are some that are specific to grilling. Not marinating your meat can mean foregoing an important barrier to dangerous grilling byproducts. Choosing fatty cuts of meat will increase flareups and expose you to carcinogens, while neglecting to preheat the grill for 20 to 30 minutes means exposing your food to leftover bacteria and pathogens. And failing to clean the grill after you use it will encourage bacteria growth.
14. Forgetting to follow best practices for canning and preserving
If you have a big garden or a membership to a produce co-op, you may be tempted to can, pickle, or preserve. But you’ll need to pay close attention to what you’re doing if you don’t want to get sick. Food52 notes that foodborne botulism is famously caused by the ingestion of improperly canned and preserved foods. For low-acid foods that are likely to host botulism, you should turn to pressure canning. And even once you’ve taken the proper precautions to kill botulism causing bacteria at the time of canning, you’re not out of the woods. Once you’ve opened canned food, don’t keep it for more than three or four days. If you’re still nervous, start out with highly acidic or high in sugar foods that you can safely preserve with a simple boiling water bath.
15. Letting perishable ingredients sit on the counter when baking
As Shape reports, the number one baking-related food safety tip that everybody knows is to avoid eating raw cookie dough (or other kinds of unbaked batter). But just as important are the other things that you do when you’re baking. Always wash your hands with warm water and soap after handling eggs. Sanitize your counters before rolling dough out onto them. And don’t let perishable ingredients sit out on the counter while you’re baking. You may want to keep your milk and eggs within reach, but it’s not worth the risk of letting them rise to room temperature.