Do you defrost your chicken breast on the fridge’s top shelf? Are you using your dish sponge to clean the counters? Do you cut everything on a single cutting board? Oh boy, if so, you’re guilty of cross-contaminating.
It’s pretty much what it sounds like — one thing is contaminating another. In this case, it’s when food bacteria are transferred from one surface to another. Sounds harmless — except it’s not. When given enough time, the right temperature and some moisture, bacteria can grow and thrive to levels that make you sick.
The CDC identifies cross-contamination as one of the top 5 causes of food-borne illnesses — so prevention is key. Think about these 6 things to keep things clean and safe.
1) Mind Your Cutting Boards
Every kitchen should have at least two cutting boards (at least!) — one for ready-to-eat foods and one for raw meats and poultry. Try to get different colors or types of cutting boards. These dishwasher-safe cutting boards are perfect because you can designate a color for each food type. Fish could be blue, raw meats red, poultry yellow and produce green.
Make sure to properly wash cutting boards. If you don’t have a dishwasher for the plastic cutting boards, make sure you use hot, soapy water — and clean out your sink with detergent (or vinegar for a more natural alternative) often. Germs thrive in the sink. Once a cutting board has many cracks and crevices, it’s time to buy a new one. Don’t give the bacteria a place to hide.
2) Wash Your Hands!
The signs in restaurants say this for a reason. Your hands are your most useful tool in the kitchen, but they can be detrimental to your health if you don’t wash them! Wash hands before you start prepping and re-wash them after handling raw foods, going to the bathroom, taking a break or talking on the phone (or browsing that recipe on your laptop).
Proper hand washing isn’t just sticking your hands under some cold water for 2 seconds (even my 2-year old daughter knows better than that!). To wash your hands properly, first wet your hands with warm water and then apply soap. Vigorously scrub your hands, arms and between your fingers for 10-15 seconds. I tell my kids to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Then, rinse and dry on a paper towel. Be careful drying your hands on hand towels, too, as you may just re-contaminate them.
3) Watch the Juices
When you store raw meats and poultry in the refrigerator, they can drip onto fruit, veggies and other foods that require no further cooking. This is just a disaster waiting to happen. These foods should be kept on the bottom of the fridge (I put mine in the lowest drawer) and you can even keep them in plastic bags to prevent dripping.
When marinating foods, make sure you do so in the refrigerator (not the counter) in a closed container. Sauce that is used to marinate raw meat, poultry or seafood should be discarded or boiled before being used on cooked foods. (Take note, grillers!)
4) Don’t Rinse Meats
In 2005, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out with a perplexing guideline — don’t rinse your meat or poultry before using it. Seems like the USDA found rinsing causes water to splash all over your countertops and any dishes in the sink or sitting nearby (yet another way to cross-contaminate). Instead, cook your meat, poultry or fish to the proper temperatures; the heat will kill off any bacteria or germs that you might think you’re getting when you rinse.
5) Properly Rinse Produce
Cross-contamination can result from slicing open a melon! The dirt on the outside of the melon (and bacteria found in that dirt) finds its way to the inside. Best thing to do is rinse fruits and veggies in running tap water to remove visible dirt. When prepping veggies such as lettuce or cabbage, remove and toss the outermost leaves.
6) Clean All Surfaces
Use hot, soapy water with a clean cloth or paper towel to wipe kitchen surfaces and counters. Wash cloths used for cleaning in the hot cycle of your washing machine often (when was the last time you did that?). You can sanitize sponges with a quick zap in the microwave or dishwasher, but you should still replace them often since they harbor bacteria.
Also, scrub down counters and dishes every time you prep a food and before moving on to the next item. One high-power solution is a mix of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach with 1 gallon of water. Use that to sanitize surfaces and utensils.