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Cooking Tips

Food Safety 101: Temperature Guidelines & Best Practices

Guidelines and resources to help mitigate the risk of foodborne illnesses at home.
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Published Dec. 12, 2023.

Many of our meat, egg, and fish recipes’ doneness temperatures represent our assessment of palatability weighed against safety. We think it’s worth taking the small risk to enjoy a rosy steak or pork that isnt tough.

But if you have a weakened immune system, or are cooking for someone who does, youll want to adhere to different temperature guidelines. (Weve noted in the headnotes of recipes where this applies.) And every home cook should be cognizant of food safety basics, including how to shop for, store, and even defrost certain ingredients.

We’ve collected some food safety information and resources so you can mitigate risks at home and feel confident in the food you prepare.

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Food-Safe Cooking Temperatures

In most cases, the temperatures we call for in our recipes align with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended food-safe temperatures. But there are a few notable exceptions, especially in regard to ground meat. (If safety is your primary concern, you don’t want to eat rare burgers.)

These are the temperatures and rest times recommended by the USDA, which are part of its comprehensive food safety guide.

IngredientMinimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time

Beef, pork, veal, and lamb steaks, chops, and roasts

145° Fahrenheit and allow to rest at least 3 minutes.

Poultry (including ground poultry)

165° Fahrenheit

Ground meats

160° Fahrenheit

Eggs

160° Fahrenheit

Fish and shellfish

145° Fahrenheit

Storage Tips

It’s important to store your food properly so it doesn’t spoil before you’re ready to eat. A refrigerator thermometer will tell you if your fridge and freezer are working properly. Check the temperature of your refrigerator regularly to ensure that it is between 35 and 40 degrees; your freezer should be below zero degrees.

Here are some tips for keeping your refrigerated food at a food-safe temperature.

  • Keep refrigerator (and freezer) doors closed tightly at all times. Dont open the doors more often than necessary and close them as soon as possible.
  • The back of a refrigerator is the coldest area, while the door is the least cold. Dont store perishable foods in the door.
  • Ready-to-eat foods (such as dairy items and already-cooked meats and sauces) should go on the top shelf of the fridge.
  • Raw proteins should be stored well wrapped and never on shelves that are above other food.
  • The temperature of the storage bins in the door fluctuates more than the temperature in the cabinet. Eggs should be stored in the carton on a shelf.
  • If you’re not going to eat raw meat within two days of buying it, transfer it to the freezer. Package it correctly to prevent freezer burn.

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How to Maintain a Safe and Clean Kitchen

Depending on factors such as moisture, temperature, and surface porosity of the surfaces in your kitchen, microbes can live for hours—or much longer, if the conditions are right. But you dont need anything special to clean a kitchen—for the most part, we rely on old-fashioned soap and hot water or a bleach solution.

  • Wash Your Hands: Wash before and during cooking, especially after touching raw meat and poultry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water, which is about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.”
  • Sanitize Your Sink: Studies have found that the kitchen sink is crawling with even more bacteria than the garbage bin. The faucet handle, which can reintroduce bacteria to your hands after youve washed them, is a close second. Though weve found that hot, soapy water is amazingly effective at eliminating bacteria, for added insurance, clean these areas frequently with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach per quart of water.
  • Clean Your Sponges: A wet sponge is an ideal host for bacteria; whenever possible, use a paper towel. If you do use a sponge, disinfect it. We tested myriad methods of cleaning a sponge, and lab results showed that microwaving and boiling were most effective. Since sponges have been known to catch fire in high-powered microwaves, we prefer to boil them for 5 minutes.
  • Keep em Separated: Keep separate sponges and towels for different purposes; don’t dry your hands with the same towel you dry dishes with or wipe the counter with the same sponge you use for washing dishes.
  • Clean Your Cutting Boards: While bamboo and wood boards do have natural antimicrobial properties that help kill off bacteria, cutting boards of all materials should be scrubbed thoroughly with hot, soapy water after each use. To sanitize cutting boards, use a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Flood the surface with the bleach solution and allow it to stand for several minutes. Rinse with clear water and air dry or pat dry with clean paper towels.

Related Resources

How to Avoid the Danger Zone

Within the “danger zone” of 40 to 140 degrees, bacteria double about every 20 minutes. As a general rule, food shouldnt stay in this zone for more than 2 hours (1 hour if the room temperature is over 90 degrees).

  • Defrost in the Fridge: Defrosting should always be done in the refrigerator, not on the counter, where the temperature is higher and bacteria can multiply rapidly. Always place food on a plate or in a bowl while defrosting to prevent any liquid it releases from coming in contact with other foods. Most food will take 24 hours to thaw fully. (Larger items, like whole turkeys, can take far longer. Count on about 4 hours per pound.)
  • Cool on the Counter, Not in the Fridge: Dont put hot foods in the fridge right after cooking. This will cause the temperature in the refrigerator to rise, potentially making it hospitable to the spread of bacteria. The FDA recommends cooling foods to 70 degrees within the first 2 hours after cooking, and to 40 degrees within another 4 hours. If possible, chill foods rapidly with cold or ice water rather than leaving them on the counter. Dividing large volumes of food such as soups and leftovers into smaller storage containers while they’re hot will help them cool faster.
  • Reheat Rapidly: When food is reheated, it should be brought through the danger zone as rapidly as possible—don’t let it come slowly to a simmer. Bring leftover sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil and make sure casseroles reach at least 165 degrees, using an instant-read thermometer to determine when theyre at the proper temperature.

Related Resources

How to Handle Foods Carefully

Raw meat, poultry, and eggs may carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, or E. coli. Cooking kills off these bacteria, but it’s critical to be careful about how you handle raw foods in the kitchen in order to avoid cross-contamination.

  • Separate Raw and Cooked Foods: Never place cooked food on a plate or cutting board that has come into contact with raw food (meat or not), and wash any utensil (including a thermometer) that comes in contact with raw food before reusing it.
  • Put Up Barriers: Items that come in contact with both raw and cooked food, like scales and platters, should be covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap to create a protective barrier. Once the item has been used, the protective layer should be discarded—taking any bacteria with it. Similarly, wrapping your cutting board with plastic wrap before pounding meat and poultry on it will limit the spread of bacteria.
  • Season Safely: Though most bacteria can’t live for more than a few minutes in direct contact with salt, they can live on the edges of a box or shaker. To avoid contamination, we grind pepper into a clean small bowl and then mix it with salt (using a ratio of 1 part pepper to 4 parts kosher salt or 2 parts table salt). We reach into the bowl for seasoning without having to wash our hands every time. Then the bowl goes in the dishwasher.
  • Dont Recycle Used Marinades: It may seem economical to reuse marinades, but used marinade is contaminated with raw meat juice and is therefore unsafe to consume. If you want a sauce to serve with cooked meat, make a little extra marinade and set it aside before adding the rest to the raw meat.
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Food-Safety Shopping Tips for Meat, Fish & Seafood

Your food is only as safe as the ingredients you start with. Here’s what to look for when shopping for meat and seafood.

Meat

  • Pay Attention to Temperature: Meat should be stored under 40 degrees. On especially hot days, use insulated shopping bags (or pack an insulated cooler bag—the type used to keep lunches cool). You can also keep a cooler in the trunk of your car. If you have a lot of items on your grocery list, make the meat counter one of your last stops so that the meat stays cooler until you can get it home.
  • Looks Matter: Meat should look moist but not sodden. An excessive amount of juices inside a meat package, also called purge, can be an indication that the meat has been on the shelf too long. As for color, red meat will appear mahogany or purplish when butchered but the flesh will turn bright red or pink once exposed to oxygen. Meat that has turned brown all the way through is on its way to spoiling. Avoid meat that has green spots—this is an indication of spoilage and bacteria. Additionally, examine a meats texture when shopping: It should have a tight, even grain. A broken grain can indicate poor handling.
  • Use Your Nose: Truly fresh meat should have little aroma. Any strong off-odors or sour odors indicate spoilage.


Fish and Seafood

  • Clean Smell: The seafood (and the store or counter) should smell like the sea, not fishy or sour.
  • Shiny Surface: Fillets should look bright and shiny; whole fish should have bright, clear eyes.
  • Firm Texture: Fresh fish is firm. Ask your fishmonger to press the flesh with their finger; it should spring back.
  • Advice: Ask your fishmonger whats freshest that day, even if its not what you originally had in mind.

Additional Resources

There’s a lot to know about food safety. We’ve collected some helpful articles that address common questions and concerns.

Beef


Fish and Seafood


Eggs


General

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