Kitchen safety and food safety should be at the very top of your priorities for reasons that you will very soon discover. Ignoring them can possibly kill you as it kills 3,000 people each year in the US. Yes you read that right. These are statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This article will inform you about safety rules that can save you from becoming the next statistic.
You will also learn about the facts concerning grilled meat and cancer. This is another crucial topic that you should know about if you are a grilling enthusiast. The facts will surprise you.
But first, here is a look at food borne illnesses and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones.
Food Safety and Kitchen Safety: How to Protect Yourself from Food Borne Illnesses
As they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is not just a cliché or shibboleth that can be ignored especially as far as food safety is concerned. For the statistics forwarded by the CDC concerning food borne illnesses are devastating.
According to the CDC, no less than 48 million Americans get sick each year due to food borne infections. Of these, 128,000 have to be hospitalized.
A staggering 3,000 people die each year from these illnesses. We have a Pearl Harbor on our hands each year.
You should keep yourself and your loved ones safe from microbes, viruses, spores and other nasty pathogens by implementing the best practices for food hygiene.
Most Important Food Safety Rule
The most important thing that you can do is to wash the meat that you grill thoroughly and then cook it to a high enough temperature.
There is no other way to kill off all pathogens in the meat besides cooking. Freezing, salt, alcohol, vinegar and lemon juice are not strong enough to pasteurize food. They can hamper growth, they can even kill a few pathogens but they are nowhere close to being safe for you.
Chlorine is also not good enough for sterilization. However, it is a good choice for cleaning up countertops and cutting boards.
So the only way to safeguard yourself from bacterial contamination is to cook the food thoroughly to a safe temperature.
The best way to do this is to use an instant read meat thermometer. Not only does this instrument make your food safe for eating, it also allows you to cook consistently well all the time.
Pasteurization is a heating process to eliminate all or almost each bacteria. Even if there are any survivors, the number is so small that they do not pose a threat to your immune system.
Pasteurization is carried out above 130 degrees F. With higher temperatures, the germs are killed more quickly. But at 130 degrees F, it will take around 2 hours to kill all the germs in a chicken. The good news is that the rate of pasteurization increases rapidly with small temperature increments. At 165 degrees F, it takes just 2 seconds to kill all germs.
Other Food Safety and Kitchen Safety Steps
Here are the steps that you can take to further reduce the risk of infection.
- Remember to always keep raw meat refrigerated since bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature. The dangerous E-coli for instance, doubles every hour at room temperature. Therefore, if you are shopping, then buy meat at the very end. You don’t want your meat to lie around in your car at room temp only to multiply bacteria. When filling up your shopping cart, put meat right at the end to minimize exposure to room temp.
- If your home is more than 30 minutes away from where you purchase meat, consider purchasing an insulated iced cooler to keep the meat cold.
- Always refer to the expiry date. Never rely on the color of the meat because this does not indicate freshness at all. Even stale meat can look bright red and fresh thanks to coloring agents and additives. Never buy an opened packaged even if it is within the expiry date.
- Uninformed cooks and cooking enthusiasts often tell you to let refrigerated meat ‘rest’ at room temperature so that it becomes warm. This is very bad advice. Do not follow it. This will only multiply the bacteria. There is no advantage to be gained. Your food won’t taste any better if you follow this bad advice.
- When you purchase a new grill, complete the ‘curing’ process before cooking for the first time. Let the grill burn for an hour at max temp to burn off all the oil and grease which can contaminate your food.
- Keep checking the temperature of your fridge on a weekly basis at the very least. The fridge should be about 33 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezer should be below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use the FIFO principle for all of your meat packets. FIFO means ‘first in first out’. So if you buy one packet on Monday and another packet on Tuesday, then take out the Monday packet first. Mark each packet with an indelible marker to show the date when you purchased it.
- If you find moths in your pantry, then discard everything because there is no telling where these pests have laid their eggs. And be warned that once found, getting rid of moths is not easy.
- Always keep marinated and brined meat in the fridge. Never leave it outside. Don’t follow any bad advice to allow the refrigerated meat to reach room temp before cooking. You are just allowing bacteria to proliferate and run riot in the meat.
- Always use bleach solution for any object that has come in contact with raw meat. You can use bleach solution on all things except food itself. You can use bleach for meat grinders, knives, cutting boards, countertops and anything that you cannot put into your dishwasher.
- Know that sponges are the most heavily contaminated items in the kitchen. So every week, you should put a wet sponge for 2 minutes in the microwave to pasteurize it.
- Never use blade tenderizers. These mechanical devices puncture meat to tenderize it. In doing so, they also drive bacteria from the surface into the meat. If you insist on using it them make sure that you heat the meat above 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You will need to use a meat thermometer.
- While handling meat, you should wear latex gloves. When taking off these gloves, grab them from the cuff and peel them off making sure that your hand does not touch the contaminated exterior of the glove.
- If you want to cook food with bare hands, make sure you wash and rinse your hands for 20 seconds.
- Even if you intend to peel your fruits and vegetables, you should still wash them well because they can contaminate other objects in contact.
- The cooking temperature should be above 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Whether its water, oil, or your oven, the temperature should be more than 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
- No matter what chefs or any other uninformed people tell you, the color of the meat cannot tell you if it has been cooked to safety. Temperature is the only reliable indicator. So use a meat thermometer to check if the meat has been cooked to safety.
- Never put cooked meat on a platter that carried raw meat. All brushes, tongs, knives or dishes that came in contact with raw meat should be put in the dishwasher. If you don’t have that then use hot soapy water.
Does Smoking and Grilling Meat Cause Cancer?
The intense and shrill hype that grilling causes cancer is so pervasive and vociferous that it is almost impossible to miss it. No wonder everyone is concerned.
So what’s the truth? Does grilling really cause cancer? Or is it just rumor mongering?
Unfortunately, a lot of reports published about health by the mainstream media are written by journalists with little or no medical training. The problem is that we consider these reports to be perfectly credible, authentic and legitimate even though they are published by the scientifically challenged.
You should delve deeper into the information source itself to ascertain the veracity of pop science wisdom.
Here is the bottom line: grilling at higher temperatures does indeed pose higher health risks. It does not matter whether you are grilling indoors or outdoors. However, you can lower the risk if you don’t overcook the meat.
But there is one catch. Frying is far worse and can lead to formation of even more dangerous compounds.
PAHs and HCAs
Grilling can produce two compounds that are thought to be hazardous to health. They are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). It is believed that these compounds can cause DNA damage in rodents. There is no conclusive proof that these compounds alter human DNA or cause cancer.
Here is the USDA statement about the relationship between grilling and cancer. According to the USDA, certain research studies suggest that high temperature cooking methods like broiling, frying and grilling can increase cancer risk. On the basis of modern research findings, the USDA is of the opinion that consumption of moderate amounts of grilled meat – that is not charred – cooked to safe temperatures is not problematic. The USDA also says that there “may be cancer risk”. The use of the word ‘may’ here is important. It implies that the risk of cancer is not yet established. The USDA also does not specify the level of the cancer risk that is possible. It just says that there may be a chance. For ‘moderate amounts’ the USDA says there are no problems.
In its statement, the USDA has described in detail how HCAs are created in charred meat. Besides being unhealthy, charred meat is unpalatable and catastrophic for your culinary reputation.
As far as grilling is concerned, the best tasting recipes are those where you cook the food at relatively low temperatures for most of the grilling duration. For most of the recipes provided on this website, you only need to grill the food at relatively low temperatures that are nowhere close to charring. And as you know by now, charring is what creates these potentially dangerous compounds. After cooking meat over indirect heat, you often follow it up with quick searing.
Besides charring, there is another way that PAHs and HCAs develop. When you cook over an open flame or very hot surface (such as a gas grill or a charcoal grill), the juices, grease and fat drip into the flames below. The scorching surface or open flame singes these dripping fluids to give off vapors of PAHs and HCAs.
But with the methods described in the recipes of this website, you almost never cook over an open flame or scorching hot surface. Even when you carry out quick searing over high temperature (direct heating), the exposure time is minimal. The bulk of the grilling is done at low temperatures which according the USDA are not problematic. The juices, grease and fat do not drip over an open flame or scorching hot surface. Hence, PAHs and HCAs cannot form. Quick searing is done only at the very end for minimal time. By contrast, the meat drips large amounts of fat over burning hot coals in a charcoal grill due to which large amounts of PAHs and HCAs are generated.
National Cancer Institute
Here is what the National Cancer Institute has to say about HCAs. HCAs are formed as a result of the reaction between creatine, sugars and amino acids at elevated temperatures. Creatine is a kind of protein found in muscle tissue. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of complex protein molecules.
The longer the reaction time, the higher the HCA production.
According to the lead researcher on this subject, Dr. Rashmi Sinha, the relationship between carcinogenic compounds and very high temperatures is clear.
Dr. Sinha advices cooks to avoid charring meat in order to minimize the development of these dangerous compounds. Thankfully, this advice is exactly in line with our culinary taste and preferences since we can all agree that charred meat tastes awful.
Dr. Sinha also cautions chefs against flare ups which are caused by fat burning on an open flame or very hot surface. Again, this word of advice is in accordance with good taste since flare ups do nothing to improve the taste. Instead, they deposit soot on the meat which can give it an acrid taste.
Overcooking and undercooking are both hazardous for health. The best way to know when your food is ready is to use a food thermometer. You will cook perfectly done food each and every time. This website shows you how to select the best instant read meat thermometers.
According to the National Cancer Institute, HCA formation depends on 4 factors: time, temperature, cooking method and food. HCAs develop in cooked meats. Other sources of protein like tofu, milk and eggs generate almost no HCAs when cooked. Organic meats like the liver also generate very few HCAs as a result of cooking.
As it turns out, temperature is the most important parameter for HCA formation. Barbecuing, broiling and frying generate the biggest quantities of HCAs due to cooking meat at very high temperatures.
The NCI also states that those who consume their beef either well-done or medium-well had more than 3 times the rate of stomach cancer than people who consumed medium-rare or rare beef. You should also know that well-done meat is drier and tougher. You should be aware that meat tastes way better when cooked with indirect heat or lower cooking temperatures.
It’s now time to consider the PAHs. The EPA states that PAHs are generated by the incomplete burning of materials like garbage, gas, oil and coal. The incomplete combustion of meat drippings, wood and charcoal can also generate PAHs.
Smoke can have as many as a hundred different compounds from ash, creosote, char and combustion gases like polymers, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide. It can also have liquids like phenols. Complete combustion gives off a much smaller amount of PAHs and smoke compared to incomplete combustion, that is, smoldering.
Since smoked meat is cooked with hot gases from incomplete combustion, it has low amounts of HCAs but high amounts of PAHs.
Propane grilling is one of the most popular ways of cooking barbecue in the US. Propane combustion generates almost no smoke. A charcoal fire can generate smoke initially but once the coals are fully lit, there is very little smoke. Food drippings can lead to smoke. However, this smoke is very different as compared to the smoke produced by hardwood fire. Even then, grilling is so quick that substantial amounts of PAHs do not build up in the meat. Therefore, the amount of PAHs is small.
The kind of smoke that you would be interested in for the best flavor is blue smoke. Thankfully, it is produced by complete combustion and not by smoldering.
PAHs have a lipophilic nature. This means that they are unable to penetrate fat such as the beef brisket fat cap and the natural casings on hot dogs and sausages.
At this point, you might be wondering about the exact definition of high heat. However, there is no universal agreement over this. Since the research is quite recent, there is no mentions of any temperature threshold in the literature for high heat.
One guideline to keep in mind is this. The risk keeps rising gradually as the temperature rises above 350 degrees F.
Grilled Meats vs. Smoked Meats
Most research papers that discuss the cancer risk from meat are concerned with smoked meat. Grilled meat is different from smoked meat.
You can smoke meat in two main ways. One is hot smoking while the other is cold smoking.
During cold smoking, the temperature remains very low. Cold smoking is done via smoldering wood. Hence, it produces higher levels of PAHs. Curing agents are also applied to smoked meats. These substances have high amounts of preservatives and salt. In the US, processors licensed by the USDA make cold smoked meats using hardwoods. Some research papers dealt with health effects of meat cold smoked with softwoods that are known to be deleterious to health.
Cold smoked meats are not easy to cook. Very few Americans have the expertise for cooking cold smoked meats. Cold smoking is not recommended since it is carried out at very low temperatures. This means that there is not enough heat to kill off all pathogens.
As its name implies, hot smoking involves higher temperatures than cold smoking. The popularity of hot smoking is growing in the US as can be seen in the massive appeal of Texas beef brisket and Southern barbecued ribs.
Seasoned pitmasters are cognizant of the fact that blue smoke produced from complete combustion imparts a much better taste than white smoke that comes from incomplete combustion or smoldering. Since blue smoke comes from the complete combustion of hardwood, it has fewer PAHs.
At this point, grilling enthusiasts should realize that the relationship between PAHs, HCAs and cancer risk is still not completely clear. The nascent research still has long way to go before there can be any conclusions. For now, you should know that you won’t be doing your health any favors with burnt steak.
There is one further fact about today’s grilled meat research that you should be aware of. Much of the studies are epidemiological surveys. Since they are basically surveys, they are not particularly accurate. Their main role is to reveal promising research avenues. Hence they are far from conclusive.
This treatise on food safety and kitchen safety is NOT exhaustive. You should do further research to find out more about these critical issues.