There's a variety of food safety concerns that come up when cooking, and even more if you are cooking outdoors or having a gathering. One thing you will see many people start their recipes with is "First, wash your cut of meat." Don't wash your cut of meat unless you're rinsing off a heavy coating of salt or bone fragments. Rinsing will not rinse off any of the bacteria we're cooking away. It will however wash some of those bacteria into your previously clean sink. Then you will have the risk of contaminating your fresh spinach leaves with salmonella when you rinse your salad after your chicken.
The next myth is that reheating leftovers will kill any bacteria so that dish that sat out all afternoon is still ok to eat. Bacteria like staph produce heat stable toxins that will still be in the food after reheating. These bacteria also don't cause odors or texture changes. Sniffing the left overs isn't a good way to tell if they're safe.
The most important thing you can do is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If you're seving your food buffet style use chafing dishes and trays of ice. Bacteria grow their fastest between 41F and 135F. Keep your food either above or below this danger zone as much as possible. Food shouldn't be left out for more than 2 hours without cooling, 1 hour if the air temperature is 90F or higher. Check your refridgerator temperatures and be sure it is below 40F inside.
One of the problems with BBQ is that we often have large quantities of food. If you were to pull 1 or 2 pork butts, put the meat in a large container, and put it in the fridge it would take many hours to cool to a safe temperature. When dealing with large amounts of food we need to cool it off quickly. You could pack it in shallow flat containers in the fridge like you would to cool a soup off quickly (you don't put a stock pot full of soup in the fridge either do you?). Keep the meat under an inch thick and don't stack the containers. Personally I like to pack my foods in ziplock bags and submerge them in ince water for 10-15 minutes. They are chilled to a safe temperature quickly and easily this way. It may seem like a hassle but remember that most food borne illness comes from handling issues after cooking.
So keeping in mind that most of our problem lies with how we handle our food AFTER cooking, let's examine cooking. Government agencies release sets of guidelines for final internal temperatures for different foods. These temperatures should ensure pasturization of spoileage bacteria. These bacteria are the ones that can make a piece of raw meat stink or have a slimey feel. We can kill them by cooking. Many foodies feel these guidelines are sometimes too strict. I agree but by all means do some research before you take my word for it. Personally I use:
- Whole Beef - 132F Medium Rare
- Poultry - 160F
- Whole Pork - 140 (medium for lean cuts like loin)
- All Ground Meats - 165F
Now those temperatures should cover pasteurization of any spoilage bacteria on your raw meat. You may find that you like a particular piece of meat cooked to a higher temperature. You might want to take a brisket, chuck roast, or pork butt to 200F for easy shredding. You might prefer the taste of poultry thigh cooked to 175F. Safe doesn't mean it's necessarily done cooking.
Another myth worth mentioning quickly is that mayonnaise is dangerous and often the source of sickness. Mayonnaise is acidified and not a danger. E-mailing Hellman's will get you a response back that tells you they recommend refridgeration for quality, not for safety. Don't blame the mayonnaise.
This seems like a lot of information but it really is easy to stay safe. Just remember:
- Keep hot foods hot
- Keep cold foods cold
- Wash your hands
- Be mindful of cross contamination with raw meats, their juices, your hands, and any tools/cutting boards
- Make sure you cool large amounts of food quickly