Food preparation is both a skill and an art. While you may have the food safety best practices memorized for baking or pan-frying a dish, do you know the specifics of preventing contamination when you need to cook-chill, pickle, or sous vide during the preparation process?
In this blog, we’ll look at a variety of specialized cooking techniques and the food safety considerations you must keep in mind to protect the customers you serve.
Read on to learn about:
It may seem like there is a lot of overlap in instructions and best practices–because there is!
We’ll address the specific risks that arise when you use certain cooking techniques, and review the essentials of food safety along the way, too.
What precautions do I need to take when using a dry-heat cooking method?
Grilling, broiling, roasting, and barbecuing all fall into the category of dry-heat cooking methods. Each of these techniques exposes food (like meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables) to high temperatures from either above or below.
Let’s explore the food safety steps you might need to keep in mind when using a dry-heat cooking technique.
A perfectly grilled burger or steak can make your customer’s day, but only if you nail the internal temperature of the food you’re cooking! One of the greatest risks to food safety in grilling is uneven cooking. If you don’t keep a close eye on the cooking process, you can char the outside of the food without bringing the inside to the correct temperature to kill harmful pathogens.
Always use a food thermometer to confirm the foods you’ve grilled have reached a safe minimum internal temperature before you serve your customers.
Grilled foods can harbor cancer-causing substances known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals are produced as fat burns off of meat and can attach to the meat you’re cooking. Thankfully, it is easy to reduce this health risk by ensuring you or your coworkers clean the grill before and after use, shorten the flame exposure time, and shorten the total grilling time.
Unlike grilling, broiling cooks food at high temperatures from above. However, broiling shares the same risk for PAHs attaching to the meat you cook. Ensure you always use a clean, grated metal rack with slots so the fat can easily drip off of food while it cooks.
Food is cooked from all sides when you roast it. Therefore, foods tend to cook more evenly, reducing the risk of undercooking them. Often, your biggest concern with roasting foods will be cross-contamination or cross-contact. Resist the temptation to prep foods that may roast at the same temperature (like meat and vegetables) at the same time, using the same equipment. While it may seem efficient, using the same cutting board and utensils could easily transfer a harmful pathogen between foods.
Low and slow is the name of the game with barbecued foods. Similar to grilling, foods are cooked from below but tend to use indirect heat at a much lower temperature. Time-temperature abuse is generally the biggest food safety mistake when preparing foods via barbecue. Always defrost and marinate food (meats in particular!) in the fridge and use a food thermometer to ensure food has reached a safe internal temperature before serving.
Overall, dry-heat cooking techniques are used to prepare TCS foods, meaning you should always be wary of cross-contamination and confident none of the foods you’re cooking spend too long in the temperature danger zone.
What are the food safety best practices for moist-heat cooking?
Poaching, braising, cook-chill, and sous vide are all moist-heat cooking techniques. These cooking methods use liquid or steam to transfer heat to food with the goal of preserving and adding moisture to the food.
Let’s take a closer look at the food safety factors you must consider when using these moist-heat cooking methods.
This method of moist-heat cooking is ideal for delicate foods such as seafood, eggs, fruit, or chicken. It uses a relatively lower temperature (compared to boiling or simmering) to cook foods without breaking them apart.
As long as you stay vigilant against cross-contamination and time-temperature abuse, poaching is typically a pretty low-risk cooking technique–and often considered a healthier option since it doesn’t use fats or oils in the preparation process.
Cook-Chill or Snap-Freezing
This technique is most commonly used when preparing a large amount of liquid foods like soups, sauces, and gravies. The cook-chill process includes fully cooking a food and then rapidly cooling and storing it at a controlled temperature.
Cook-chilling can actually help promote good food safety practices as it can help prevent large batches of food from lingering in the temperature danger zone. It is critical to use timers and a food thermometer to keep the process on track.
Sous vide is a popular cooking method for tough cuts of meat, pork, lamb, eggs, and certain vegetables, like carrots or asparagus. This technique requires vacuum sealing food in a bag and then submerging it in a temperature-regulated water bath.
Pathogens that thrive in low oxygen conditions, like C. botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism), are the biggest risk factor in this cooking method. However, if you have followed safe food handling best practices during preparation and ensure you properly cooled foods before storing them, the risks will be quite low.
While the sous vide method cooks food at a relatively low temperature, the temperature of the water should still prevent foods from lingering in the temperature danger zone. The precise nature of the technique should actually enhance the food’s safety!
One final note–always make sure your kitchen uses food-grade plastic that does not use additives like BPA or phthalate (which are not safe to heat!).
How do I keep food safe when combination cooking?
Combination cooking is exactly what it sounds like: using both dry-heat and moist-heat to prepare your dishes. Braising and stewing are the two most common types of combination cooking, and they are usually used to soften tough cuts of meat through a slow cooking process.
When you braise food, you lightly fry or pan-sear the food, then slowly cook it, partially submerged in a closed container, for a longer period of time. The closed container locks in moisture, helping the food retain its full flavor.
This method of combination cooking involves cooking smaller cuts of meat and fully submerging them in liquid. Stewing also typically involves preparing the vegetables and garnishes at the same time, in the same pan, as the meat.
Cross-contamination is the biggest threat to food safety when using combination cooking methods. Watch out for any drippings from the meat you have fried or seared as you transfer them to the container or pan you intend to use to finish off the cooking process.
Where does food safety fit into flavoring techniques?
You already know food safety factors into food preparation just as much as the cooking process. But, do you know what the risks are when using flavoring techniques before or during the cooking process?
Let’s take a look at a few flavoring techniques and their food safety risks.
This popular flavoring technique involves soaking a food in a seasoned, often acidic, liquid before cooking. You typically use them on raw or uncooked meat, poultry or seafood.
When preparing foods to marinate, you must use a food-safe storage container that has a lid or cover (and avoid using metal containers as they can interact with acids in the marinade and alter the flavor of the food!). Always store marinating food on the bottom shelf of your fridge or cooler and dispose of the marinade immediately after using it–these steps will prevent time-temperature abuse and cross-contamination.
As the name implies, there are no wet ingredients involved in this flavoring technique. There are many spice mixtures that can be considered a dry rub, and you can apply them to your foods at just about any time–like right before you start cooking or up to 24 hours prior to cooking (depending on your cooking method).
The primary risk factor when using a dry rub is the temperature danger zone. Don’t get distracted and let food sit out on your prep table–apply your dry rub and get it back in the fridge or cooler ASAP!
Remember to always wash your hands before and after applying a dry rub to your food, and try to use gloves when possible–especially when preparing raw meat.
A wet rub is essentially a cross between a dry rub and a marinade. They use a mix of spices to help flavor the food and also include a wet element/ Vinegar, wine, and oil are the most common liquids used in a wet rub. However, wet rubs do not involve immersing food in liquid–only covering them. You should apply a wet rub between two to six hours prior to cooking.
The temperature danger zone and cross-contamination remain the biggest threat to food safety when using a wet rub, so make sure to store food in a temperature controlled space until it is time to cook and clean up any equipment or utensils used immediately so harmful pathogens cannot spread around your kitchen.
Smoking or Curing
Smoking food is a method of placing the food over smoke, often from a wood-burning fire. You can simply flavor foods with smoking, but you can also use variations of this technique to cook, brown, or preserve food as well.
It is essential to properly thaw any meat you want to use before you begin the smoking process. Smoking is a low-temperature process and, therefore, not an effective thawing method. Attempting to thaw foods while smoking them can leave them in the temperature danger zone for far too long.
What other techniques require food safety awareness?
In addition to cooking techniques, there are some methods of preparation and preservation that require specific care to prevent your food from becoming contaminated. Let’s look at just a few of these techniques that do not utilize heat.
This process is commonly used to help extend the shelf life of low-acid foods like vegetables and fruit, but you can also can meat, fish, and milk. The Centers for Disease Control strongly recommends only using pressure canning to ensure you are properly sealing the cans in an entirely airtight environment.1
Canning poses serious risks if done incorrectly. As we mentioned in the sous vide process, low-oxygen environments allow C. botulinum to thrive and will cause botulism if a customer eats contaminated food. Botulism is a medical emergency, so always follow canning recipes and processes to the letter to help prevent contamination.
Before you prepare and serve a food or dish that contains canned food, carefully assess the can and food. If a can is leaking, looks swollen, has bulges, or looks damaged or cracked, you should throw it away immediately, without opening it. If a can spits out foam or liquid when you open it, has a white film on top, or the food inside is discolored, moldly, or smells wrong, you should assume it is contaminated.
Do not serve or eat any canned foods you suspect are contaminated, and contact your suppliers if you suspect a can or package of cans is contaminated to ensure proper traceability and documentation for any potential foodborne illness outbreaks.
Similar to canning, pickling can preserve perishable foods, most commonly vegetables, for months. When you pickle foods, you submerge them in an acidic brine which typically produces a sour flavor.
Pickling runs the same risk for C. botulinum contamination as canning, so always ensure any pickling jars are properly sealed–and that the acidity levels do not make your food more appealing to pathogens.2
Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance, either by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms. But wait, aren’t we told to avoid bacteria at all costs for food safety?
When processed correctly, certain bacteria can be beneficial. Fermentation is used for beer, wine, and liquor, as well as kimchi, sauerkraut, cultured dairy products, and plant-based cheeses.
Fermentation poses risks for sure. According to research published on Science Direct, the risks include cases of microbial foodborne infection, contamination of raw materials, toxic by-products from the fermentation process, and inadequate storage and maturation conditions.3
However, all of these risks can be mitigated with proper cleaning of food contact and non-food contact surfaces, as well as proper temperature control processes.
Reviewing food safety basics
All of the safety precautions we’ve discussed throughout this article won’t prevent contamination if you or your coworkers aren’t following the basic essentials of food safety in your kitchen. Let’s review some of the critical practices you must follow in your day-to-day work.
You should be washing your hands frequently throughout your work shifts–before and after preparing food, after using the bathroom, and after touching your hair or face are just a few examples of key handwashing moments.
Always wet your hands, then apply soap; rub hands together for at least 20 seconds, rinse thoroughly under water, and then dry your hands completely with a clean towel.
Properly sanitize and clean food contact surfaces
A clean working space protects your ingredients from the beginning of the cooking process. First, scrape any residue off the surface you are cleaning, then wash it with a kitchen-approved soap or detergent. Next, make sure you rinse the equipment or surface thoroughly. Finally, sanitize the food contact surfaces and let it air dry before its next use.
Separate food prep
Always use different equipment and utensils when you are preparing different types of food–if enough equipment is not available, make sure you properly clean and sanitize all equipment between the ingredients you are preparing.
Make sure none of the TCS foods in your kitchen linger in the temperature danger zone. Foods that you are receiving from a supplier must be stored properly as soon as possible. Always ensure you have several recently calibrated thermometers throughout the kitchen so you can easily track the temperature of the foods in use.
Regularly review the best practices for heating, reheating, cooling, freezing, and thawing–and make sure you know the rules about how long each of these processes should last.
It’s also worth repeating that knowing the minimum internal temperature for cooking different foods is essential for safety, regardless of the cooking technique.4
Specialized cooking techniques come with their own set of unique risks to food safety, but you can easily prevent most of them by following basic food safety practices. Need to brush up on the essentials of safe food handling practices? Check out Trust20’s Food Handler Certificate Training and be confident you can help prevent a foodborne illness outbreak–no matter what cooking technique you decide to use today!