An Ultimate Guide to Food Safety Temperatures and Storage
Nothing ruins a perfectly good family dinner or neighborhood barbecue quite like a bout of food poisoning. Whether it was because you undercooked the meat, misjudged how long your leftovers had been sitting out or something completely beyond your control, spending the night hunched over the porcelain throne is no one’s idea of a good time.
Although it might seem like foodborne illnesses strike randomly, the reality is that most cases can be traced back to missteps made in home kitchens. Simple mistakes, such as thawing frozen meat at room temperature and failing to notice a tiny bit of pink in your chicken, can have unfortunate (and even deadly) consequences for you and your family.
Luckily, you can take steps to minimize your risk by getting yourself up to speed on food safety temperatures and proper storage procedures. It might sound a little intimidating, but don’t worry! W&P is here to walk you through it.
Ready to learn how to increase your food safety at home? Get the scoop on everything you need to know about keeping your food at the right temperatures — from safe thawing techniques to choosing the right food storage containers.Beautify Your Food Storage Containers
Understanding the Danger Zone
When it comes to safe cooking and food storage, the ultimate goal is to stay out of the so-called “danger zone” (cue Kenny Loggins). The FDA defines the danger zone as being between above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In this temperature range, bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella can grow rapidly, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. Eating food that has lingered too long within this temperature range can make you and your family extremely ill.
Thus, you want to keep food — and meats, in particular — out of the danger zone as much as possible. If food is kept above 140°F, the bacteria will start to die off. Below 40°F, the bacteria will go into hibernation, ceasing activity until temperatures rise.
Keep in mind that a chef’s recommendation might differ slightly as they prioritize maximizing a foods flavor, safely of course. For example, when cooking meat, they will often account for internal heat temperatures to rise another level once it is removed from the oven or stovetop. This helps ensure that the meat won’t dry out.
Follow the 2-hour rule: Of course, it’s not practical to expect people to keep their food out of the danger zone 100 percent of the time. Your groceries probably spend roughly 10 to 15 minutes sitting in your car on the way home from the store and maybe another five minutes sitting on your kitchen counter before you put them away. Leaving food out at room temperature is also pretty standard for backyard barbecues, catering events, picnics and potluck dinners.
That’s why the USDA advises throwing away perishable food that has been sitting out for longer than two hours. If it’s a blisteringly hot day (above 90°F), the time decreases to one hour. Better safe than sorry!
Methods for Thawing Food Safely
There are several methods you can use to thaw frozen food safely. Unfortunately, leaving your frozen ground beef on the counter to defrost in time for Taco Tuesday isn’t one of them. To keep bacteria at bay, use one of the following USDA-approved defrosting methods:
In the Refrigerator: This is the safest and easiest way to defrost your food, but it takes a long time — at least 24 hours for every five pounds of weight — and therefore requires you to plan ahead. Also, you’ll want to be careful with putting meat in the fridge. To prevent leaking juices, store meat in reusable silicone bags and place it on the bottom shelf.
In Cold Water: Yes, hot water would get the job done faster but it could raise the food’s internal temperature, increasing the risk of bacteria multiplying. Instead, place your meat in a bowl of cool tap water. This will decrease the total defrosting time without causing bacteria to go wild.
In the Microwave: Granted, this one isn’t the best from a flavor standpoint. Defrosting your food in the microwave can ruin its flavor and texture, so only use this method if you’re in a hurry.
It’s also generally safe to cook your food without thawing beforehand. The exception to the rule is putting frozen foods in a slow cooker. While most slow cookers reach between 200°F and 300°F — well above the danger zone — it generally takes frozen foods longer to reach these safe, bacteria-killing temperatures. Consequently, your frozen meat may spend more time in the danger zone.
Cooking to Completion: Food Safety Temperatures for Meat, Poultry, Eggs and More
Making sure that your food is cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature is vital for keeping you and your family safe from foodborne illness. For example, Listeria (a foodborne pathogen) thrives in cold environments but can’t endure extreme heat. By cooking your food to completion, you can be sure that your food reaches a high enough internal temperature to destroy any remaining bacteria.
So, how do you know when your food has reached a safe level of doneness?
First, you’ll want to get yourself an instant-read thermometer. These must-have culinary devices give a fast temperature reading of your food so you can ensure that it’s safe for consumption. (Note: For an accurate temperature reading, be sure to insert the thermometer approximately two inches into the thickest part of the meat.)
Once you have your thermometer, follow the helpful guidelines on food safety temperatures below.
If there is one type of meat you should take extra care cooking to completion, it’s ground meat. With steak and other whole meats, the illness-causing bacteria that may live on the surface of the meat are easily killed during the cooking process. But with ground meat, the bacteria get mixed into the center of the meat and won’t be killed unless you cook the meat to the proper temperature.
- Ground beef, pork, veal and lamb: 160°F
- Ground turkey: 165°F
- Ground chicken: 165°F
Fresh meat may have a lower risk than ground meat, but it still needs to be cooked to completion.
- Poultry: 165°F
- Pork: 145°F
- Fish: 145°F
- Ham, raw: 145°F (rest time three minutes)
- Ham, precooked (to reheat): 140°F
- Rabbit and venison: 160°F
When ordering fish from a restaurant, it’s not uncommon for waiters to ask customers, “Is a little pink in the middle okay?” Many chefs aim for an internal temperature of 125°F (medium) because cooking the fish all the way through can dry it out. However, the USDA recommended safe internal temperature for fish is 145°F or until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily.
- Shrimp, lobster and crabs: cook until the flesh is pearly, white and opaque
- Clams, oysters and mussels: cook until the shells open up
- Scallops: cook until the flesh is opaque all the way through and no longer mushy
Eggs and Egg Dishes
Sorry cookie dough lovers, but there’s a reason why experts say you shouldn’t eat dough or batter made with raw eggs. Some eggs may contain Salmonella bacteria, and the CDC warns that eating them in a raw or undercooked state can open you up to a nasty infection.
To avoid getting sick, always make sure your eggs are properly cooked. You’ll know when the egg is done because the yolk and white will be firm.
Additionally, egg dishes — a category that includes egg-based sauces and custards — should reach an internal temperature of 160°F, per the USDA.
Storing Food Safely: 8 Must-Know Refrigeration and Freezing Tips
Now that you know how to thaw and cook your food safely, it’s time for us to dish out a few simple food storage hacks that will help maximize your food’s safety, freshness and flavor.
1. Promptly Put Refrigerated Items Away
In other words, try not to dilly dally on your way home from the grocery store. If you need to run some additional errands, be sure to save the grocery trip for last or bring along an insulated cooler to keep your foods out of the danger zone. And once you get home, promptly put your groceries away.
2. Store Meat, Fish, Eggs and Dairy on the Bottom Shelf
In many households, tucking a carton of milk in the fridge door is par for the course. But as it turns out, that’s actually the worst place in the fridge to put highly perishable items due to temperature fluctuations caused by the constant opening and closing of the door. Instead, you should store meat, fish, eggs and dairy on the bottom shelf, which is the coldest spot in the fridge.
3. Get a Fridge Thermometer
If your refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in thermometer, do your future self a big favor and get one. Ensuring your fridge is at the ideal temperature is key to slowing the growth of bacteria and keeping food fresher for longer.
4. Freeze Foods Before They Expire
Can’t get through all of your food before it expires? No biggie — just stash them in the freezer before they go bad. Granted, not every food can be frozen (looking at you, avocados). But many foods can be frozen with no issues, and some even taste better in a frozen state. Case in point: yogurt. Before your yogurt expires, try dolloping it into freezer cubes and sticking popsicle sticks in them. Allow the cubes to freeze overnight, and voila — the perfect summertime treat!
5. Divvy Up Food Before Refrigerating
Generally, you don’t want to put a big bowl of piping hot stew or a cooked whole turkey fresh from the oven into the fridge right away. These hot foods can potentially act as space heaters in the fridge, raising the internal temperature and putting perishable food items in the danger zone. To keep your food safe, consider dividing your food into smaller portions (our freezer cubes are also ideal for this, by the way) before stashing them away in the fridge.
6. Use Moisture-Proof Freezer Containers
Have you ever left frozen food in the freezer for so long that it started to develop ice crystals? That phenomenon is called freezer burn, and while it’s not dangerous to your health, it can make your food extremely unappetizing. To keep your frozen foods at peak quality for longer, stock up on freezer storage containers that seal in flavor and keep air out.Shop Premium Freezer Storage Containers
7. Time and Date Your Leftovers
Jotting down the time and date on your leftovers takes seconds to do and can save you hours (maybe even days) of pain and agony if you can’t recall how old your leftovers are. You don’t even need a fancy labeling machine. A piece of masking tape and a marker will do the trick.
8. Use the Cup-Quarter Hack in Case of Power Outages
Put a cup or small bowl of water in the freezer and freeze it solid. Then, put a quarter on top of the frozen water. Should the power go out when you’re not home, the ice will melt and the coin will sink to the bottom, letting you know that the contents of your fridge aren’t safe.
If in Doubt, Don’t Eat It
When it comes to food safety, one of the most effective rules to remember is this: if in doubt, don’t eat it. The truth is, food can go bad sooner than we expect, especially when it’s shoved out of sight in the back of the fridge. There are a few tricks to help reduce food waste. For example, if you often find yourself throwing out produce, place them in clear storage containers or bags so that their easily visible and there’s a chance you’ll eat them before they go bad! Of course, if there is a slight possibility that your food is spoiled, don’t risk it. Throw it away or even better, compost it ASAP. Trust us — you’ll be glad you did!