Safety First & Forever

No matter what activities we undertake, it’s good to focus on safety first, a focus that can last forever. In the kitchen, I’m always mindful of washing my hands, cleaning vegetables and fruit, and disinfecting any surface that comes into contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. And of course, I’m careful to avoid cross-contact with gluten. I also make sure I cook ingredients to a safe internal temperature.

I grew up on a farm. Most of our meat was home grown. We fattened cows and sometimes pigs, then took them to a butcher. A 12 cu ft deep freeze in the shed held a variety of packages wrapped in white butcher paper and stamped with the name of the cut enclosed. Once the meat came out of the freezer, we were meticulous about food safety.

By that, I mean meticulous to the point that our meat was overcooked pretty much every meal. This was deliberate…for safety. As an adult, I’ve enjoyed sushi and prepared sushi-grade tuna to be eaten raw at home. I’ve occasionally gobbled up steak tartare.

But when I’m cooking, I continually have to fight the urge to cook meat, poultry, and seafood to the stage of leather. I’m not as obsessive about eggs. I love a warm, runny yolk. To resist my early training, I keep multiple meat thermometers on hand. And I use them regularly.

In spite of that, I feel an internal struggle when the thermometer registers a safe temperature, but my eyes see pink. And don’t even think about serving me a rare hamburger in a restaurant. I will send it back in a heartbeat.

My mind understands that the romaine salad on which my steak is sometimes perched could pose an equal danger of E. coli. But my visceral response is to recoil from any and all red steak. Light pink feels like a much safer option and no pink, just right – until I take a bite.d

I can’t say I regret this struggle. Erring on the safe side isn’t bad for my health, it’s just bad for the aesthetics of the food. That’s why I make a conscious effort to balance my instincts with reason and use the tools I have to determine safety first, but not instead of, quality.

If you’re uncertain of the safe minimum internal temperature for meat, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service provides a chart on its website. The temperatures vary by type and cut of meat. The charts were updated a few years ago, so don’t be alarmed if you find some of the numbers lower than you’d expect. And don’t forget to include the recommended rest times. The temperature of the meat will continue to rise as it rests.

Reviewing these charts is a way for me to relearn old habits and retrain my brain. This is a great reminder of my I like cooking. It offers so many opportunities to learn, and I love learning. But no matter how much my knowledge expands, I’ll always default to safety first!