Can't you just feel the heat from the coals lighting up across the land? Summer is here and mmm, there's nothin' better than a good ol' fashioned barbecue. From juicy burgers to savory vegetable kebabs, summer means good grilled food, but if you're not careful, it can also mean food-borne illness.
Undercooking food and cross contamination remain the top two problems when it comes to food safety. Failure to properly refrigerate foods is also an issue during the hot summer months.
Don't store meats and other potential contaminates in the same ice chest you are using for beverages.
Meat should be refrigerated or kept in an ice chest up until the time it is prepared. All perishable food should not be left out for more than two hours.
When barbecuing away from home, bring cleaning supplies, such as paper towels, disposable utensils, pump soap and a sanitizer (one gallon of water with one tablespoon of bleach).
"Undercooking of meats seems to be the main problem," says Charles Easterberg, sanitarian at the University of Washington Environmental Health and Safety Department. E coli can survive in the middle of undercooked hamburger, while salmonella and other organisms can be found in improperly cooked chicken.
"You need to cook things hot enough to kill [these organisms]," says Easterberg. Cooking food thoroughly and to 165 degrees Fahrenheit should do the trick.
A meat thermometer is one way to check that your foods are properly cooked. Keep in mind that the run-of-the-mill thermometer only gives the average temperature for the particular area of the meat you are testing. Easterberg prefers a thermocouple, a thermoelectric device that measures temperatures more accurately than a thermometer. Thermocouples run about $140.
If you're a little gun-shy (or is that thermometer shy?) about tossing that much cash into your barbecue fund, a good compromise is a $35 thermistor, which still gives a more accurate temperature read than a thermometer. Both the thermocouple and the thermistor can be purchased at electronics stores.
Proper refrigeration is another big issue in the summer. Take that tub of potato salad, for example. Easterberg recommends that you cook everything (eggs, potatoes, mayonnaise) the night before and store it in the refrigerator. You don't want to let potato salad sit out to cool. There is less chance of spoilage when you get it into refrigeration right away.
Another common barbecue mistake is using the same platter or utensils for raw food as for cooked food. To avoid cross contamination, put the utensils and platters that you used for the raw meats immediately into the dishwasher. "You can also stick a fork in the coals and that will sanitize it," says Easterberg. "That's a real quickie."