Meat is at risk to develop dangerous levels of bacteria from the time you bring it home from the market until the time you serve it up. Your job is to catch the bacteria before it has time to grow. Here are 8 ways to stop bacteria in its tracks.
Step 1: Purchasing
Be strategic about when you head to the market — leaving raw meat sitting in the back of your car on a hot summer day is dangerous. So either plan your shopping trip for your last errand, or keep a cooler in the back of the car and pack it with ice.
Step 2: Storing
Unload your car and place the raw meats directly into the freezer. If you’re planning on using it within a day or so, place it in the fridge. Never place it on top of ready-to-eat foods like fresh produce. Remember to always wash your hands after handling raw meat.
Step 3: Defrosting
Never (yes, NEVER!) defrost your meat by leaving it on the countertop — you’re asking for trouble. Besides giving bacteria a perfect environment to grown and thrive, all those meat juices can get messy! To properly defrost meat, think ahead: Place meat in the refrigerator on a plate or in a large bowl the day before. If you’re defrosting enough for a crowd, give it two days.
Step 4: Marinating
Marinating meat helps make it tender and those acids in marinades (wine, citrus juice, vinegar) minimize bacterial growth. Marinate meat for at least 30 minutes and always keep marinated meat in a covered container in the refrigerator. Uncovered marinades can get messy — my husband marinated meat in an open bowl, and it spilled all over the fridge, contaminating several ready-to-eat foods. The leftover marinade should either be discarded or boiled before serving with cooked food.
Step 5: Precooking
Precooking your meat in the microwave, stove or oven cuts down on cooking time. Just remember to do it immediately before putting food on the grill. Bacteria loves to reproduce on partially-cooked meats.
Step 6: Cooking
To make sure your meat is cooked thoroughly, check the internal temperature with a thermometer. Checking the color of the juices or the inside color of the meat doesn’t usually work (they’ve done studies to check and most of the time, folks were wrong). If you don’t own a thermometer, use our guide to find one. You’ll also need to know correct cooking temperatures, which you can find here.
Another important thing to remember when cooking is to keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separated. This means separate plates for raw and cooked meats as well as separate utensils like tongs, spatulas, forks and knifes.
Step 7: Holding
One of my biggest pet peeves? A host grills up a massive amount of meat, then leave it sitting out for hours. After a few hours, more folks arrive at your barbecue or want a second helping and take from that old pile of meat. If it’s a hot day outside (over 90 degrees F), it’ll take just one hour for the bacteria to multiply to levels high levels to make you sick. Your best bet is to grill up the meat in small batches. If you’d rather grill up everything at once, keep the leftovers covered in the oven (set it at around 250 degrees F.
Step 8: Storing Leftovers
If meat has been sitting out for more than two hours at room temperature, toss it. On a hotter day (above 90 degrees Fahrenheit), make that one hour. If you haven’t exceeded the time limit, then place the meat in a shallow pan being careful not to over pack it. Cover and place near the top of the refrigerator. Eat within a few days or toss.
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Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »
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