How to prepare and cook food safely

Studies show that the kitchen contains the most germs in the home. One study found that the kitchen sink contains 100,000 times more germs than the bathroom.

Germs such as E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella enter the kitchen on our hands, raw food and through our pets. They can rapidly spread if we're not careful. 

If food isn't cooked, stored and handled correctly, people can become ill with food poisoning, colds, flu and other conditions.

This page covers:

Washing hands

Storing and preparing meat

Cooking

Cooking meat on a barbecue

Washing fruit and vegetables

Cleaning up

Washing hands

Our hands are one of the main ways that germs are spread, so it's important to wash them thoroughly with soap and warm water before cooking, after touching the bin, going to the toilet, and before and after touching raw food.

Storing and preparing meat

Raw meat, including poultry, can contain harmful bacteria that can spread easily to anything it touches. This includes other food, worktops, tables, chopping boards and knives.

"Lots of people think they should wash raw chicken, but there's no need," says food hygiene expert Adam Hardgrave.

"Any germs on it will be killed if you cook it thoroughly. In fact, if you do wash chicken, you could splash germs on to the sink, worktop, dishes or anything else nearby."

Some people believe that freezing chicken kills germs such as Campylobacter. The freezing process does reduce Campylobacter levels, but does not eliminate it completely.

The safest way to kill all traces of Campylobacter is by cooking poultry thoroughly.

Read more about why you shouldn't wash raw chicken.

Take particular care to keep raw food away from ready-to-eat foods such as bread, salad and fruit. These foods won't be cooked before you eat them, so any germs that get on to them won't be killed.

"Use different chopping boards for raw and ready-to-eat foods," says Hardgrave.

When storing raw meat, always keep it in a clean, sealed container and place it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can't touch or drip on to other foods.

Cooking

Cooking food at the right temperature will ensure that any harmful bacteria are killed. Check that food is steaming hot throughout before you eat it.

The foods below need to be cooked thoroughly before eating:

  • poultry
  • pork
  • offal, including liver
  • burgers
  • sausages
  • rolled joints of meat
  • kebabs

When cooking burgers, sausages, chicken and pork, cut into the middle to check that the meat is no longer pink, the juices run clear and it's steaming hot throughout.

When cooking a whole chicken or other bird, pierce the thickest part of the leg (between the drumstick and the thigh) to check there is no pink meat and that the juices are no longer pink or red.

Pork joints and rolled joints shouldn't be eaten pink or rare. To check when these types of joint are ready to eat, put a skewer into the centre of the meat and check that there is no pink meat and the juices run clear.

It's safe to serve steak and other whole cuts of beef and lamb rare (not cooked in the middle) or blue (seared on the outside) as long as they have been properly sealed (cooked quickly at a high temperature on the outside only) to kill any bacteria on the meat's surface.

If you've cooked food that you're not going to eat immediately, cool it at room temperature (ideally within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge.

Putting hot food in the fridge means it doesn't cool evenly, which can cause food poisoning.

Read more about storing leftovers safely.

Hardgrave's advice is to store food in the fridge below 5C (41F). "If your fridge has an internal freezer compartment that is iced up, the fridge could struggle to maintain its temperature," he says.

Cooking meat on a barbecue

The safest option is to fully cook food in your oven and then put the cooked food on the barbecue for a short time, so the flavour can develop.

This can be an easier option if you're cooking for a lot of people at the same time.

If you are only cooking on the barbecue, the two main risk factors are:

  • undercooked meat
  • spreading germs from raw meat on to food that's ready to eat

When you're cooking most types of meat on a barbecue, such as poultry (chicken and turkey, for example), pork, burgers or sausages, make sure:

  • the coals are glowing red with a powdery grey surface before you start cooking, as this means they're hot enough
  • frozen meat is properly thawed before you cook it
  • you turn the meat regularly and move it around the barbecue to cook it evenly

Remember that most types of meat are safe to eat only when:

  • the meat is steaming hot throughout
  • there is no pink meat visible when you cut into the thickest part
  • any juices run clear

Don't forget that disposable barbecues can take longer.

Some meat, such as steaks and joints of beef or lamb, can be served rare (not cooked in the middle) as long as the outside has been properly cooked. This will kill any bacteria that might be on the outside of the meat.

However, food made from any type of minced meat, such as pork sausages and beef burgers, must be cooked thoroughly all the way through.

Washing fruit and vegetables

It's advisable to wash fruit and vegetables under cold running water before you eat them. This helps to remove visible dirt and germs that may be on the surface.

Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove these germs.

Never use washing-up liquid or other household cleaning products, as they might not be safe for human consumption and you may accidentally leave some of the product on the food.

Cleaning up

Wash all worktops and chopping boards before and after cooking, as they can be a source of cross-contamination.

The average kitchen chopping board has around 200% more faecal bacteria on it than the average toilet seat.

Damp sponges and cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed. Studies have shown the kitchen sponge to have the highest number of germs in the home.

Wash and replace kitchen cloths, sponges and tea towels frequently.

Page last reviewed: 28/11/2014

Next review due: 28/11/2017

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