You’re a clean cook: You keep meats and vegetables separate and you wash your hands obsessively. But that may not be enough to "pass inspection," according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.
The agency polled home chefs to see how they would fare if their kitchens were scrutinized under the same food-safety standards as restaurants. Their survey, which was posted online so anyone could take it, found many the amateur chef wanting. Just over one third, 34 percent, scored an A (between 90 and 100), while 52 percent scored B's and C's (70 to 89 points). Fourteen percent failed.
The biggest mistake people made was not cooling leftovers fast enough, followed by not having a working thermometer in their refrigerator. Third was not removing jewelry or keeping fingernails trimmed when cooking.
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How would you fare? You can take the quiz here, and then follow their food-safety tips—for kitchens, restaurants or wherever you're prepping dinner.
Yes, you wash your hands after using the bathroom and before handling any food, and you wash your utensils and cutting boards in hot soapy water after they've come into contact with raw meat. But it's the little things health departments want you to pay attention to:
• Trim your fingernails. Even if you wash your hands, untrimmed fingernails, which 28 percent of respondents said they had, can transmit bacteria. While you're at it, remove jewelry before prepping food, as well.
• Wipe! Another 26 percent reported that they didn't clean cabinets. Dust your cabinets, both inside and out, regularly to keep them free of bacteria-laden dust.
• Replace that sponge! Sponges are notorious for being the germiest item in your kitchen, if not your house. You can sanitize your sponge daily by boiling it in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes, or swap those out for reusable dishrags that you can replace daily and wash on high heat in your laundry (save money by repurposing old T-shirts as dishrags).
• Clean the counter. Countertops should be sanitized before cooking and properly maintained.
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• In your grocery bags. Keep raw meats away from ready-to-eat foods and vegetables while you're shopping for food at the grocery store or farmer's market.
• In the fridge. Store raw meats below all other food in your refrigerator.
• On the cutting board. You may already do this, but it bears repeating: Use separate cutting boards for meats and for produce.
• Everywhere else. A particularly common food-safety mistake made by grillers is using the same plate that held raw meats to serve cooked burgers or grilled chicken. Use separate plates, or make sure the plate gets thoroughly washed between holding raw and cooked meats.
• Use a thermometer. Food thermometers are routinely underutilized in home kitchens. Whether baking, roasting, broiling or grilling, make sure you cook meats and eggs thoroughly to ensure you're killing foodborne bacteria (for proper temperatures, use the easy-to-read meat cooking charts at foodsafety.gov.
• Cook 'n cool. In the survey, 27 percent of people reported not storing precooked foods in the refrigerator. Always make sure food gets to the refrigerator within minutes of prepping it if you don't plan to cook it immediately, and for things like casseroles, make sure you cook them to an internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving.
And the survey says…home cooks are the absolute worst at storing leftovers! Why does that matter? According to the USDA, some types of bacteria can double in number in less than 20 minutes, when foods are in the "danger zone" of between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. You also need to maintain your fridge to prevent foods from spoiling.
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• Cool correctly. 64 percent of people responded "no" to the statement "When cooking big portions of food to serve later (e.g., the next day), I rapidly cool it (i.e., in an ice bath and stirring frequently, separating it into smaller portions, adding ice as an ingredient, using containers that facilitate heat transfer, etc.) and store it in my refrigerator." That's not good. Leftovers should be covered and refrigerated within two hours of cooking, and they should be eaten within four days (or frozen and eaten within two to three months for the best flavor). Shallow containers help the food chill faster, if you don't want to let it sit in an ice bath.
• Take your fridge's temp. Thirty-six percent of people didn't have a working thermometer in their refrigerator. For optimal food safety, buy a special refrigerator thermometer (you can buy them at pretty much any hardware store). Or put a food thermometer in a glass of water on the middle shelf, where the air temperature is most accurate. Leave it there overnight and take a reading in the morning. It should be at 40 degrees for both food safety and to save energy (any colder won't protect your food and it just drains your energy bill).
• De-clutter. Twenty-three percent of people overstuffed their refrigerator. Refrigerators do work better when they're full than when they're empty, but you should leave adequate space around food to let air circulate properly, according to the USDA.