It’s pretty much a given that you’re going to undercook, overcook, under-season, and over-salt your foods at least once while you’re first learning how to cook. Potatoes that are still too hard to mash? Scrambled eggs that were intended to be an omelet? Broccoli that’s cooked to the point of mush? Yeah, those are all gonna happen. (Psst...learning these 15 essential cooking terms may help you find your way.)
These cooking mishaps, though frustrating, are mostly harmless; the most damage they could do is disappointing your taste buds. But not all “oopsies” in the kitchen are so chill. Some mistakes can have big consequences. And we’re not just talking about starting a fire on the stove.
Foodborne illnesses cause 48 million infections, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some infections are beyond your control, handling food properly in the kitchen may help prevent unnecessary illnesses and doctor visits.
Mistake: You put cooked meat back on a plate that previously held raw meat.
Cross-contamination is a big no-no. Raw meat, seafood, and eggs carry pathogens that can sit on surfaces like your cutting board, chef’s knife, kitchen counter, plates, and—of course—your hands. Anything that touched raw meat should NEVER touch cooked meat, so use separate plates and utensils. Every. Single. Time.
Mistake: You thaw or marinate foods on the kitchen counter.
Even if the food is frozen in the beginning, it doesn’t take long for meat to fall into the 40 to 140°F range. Bacteria on food can rapidly multiply in those temps, so the CDC recommends not leaving food out of the fridge for more than two hours (or one hour in the summer). Instead, plan ahead and thaw frozen meats in the fridge. Or, you know, defrost in the microwave.
Mistake: You wash your meat before cooking.
Washing fruits and vegetables: good. Washing raw meat: NO.
When you wash raw meat, the water can spread and splatter the infection-causing bacteria around your sink and countertops. This can easily end up on your other food (or your hands) and risk cross-contamination. No rinsing needed—simply put the meat directly in the pan or marinade. Which brings us to the next mistake...
Mistake: You put your meat marinade back on cooked food.
Marinades are a great way to intensify flavors in food without frying or adding a ton of salt. (Here’s a chef’s favorite French-inspired marinade that’s great with salmon.)
But if you want to drizzle the marinade back on the cooked dish—stop. The marinade contains pathogens from sitting with the raw meat. Here’s one way you could salvage it: Heat up the marinade in a pan. Once it reaches a rolling boil, any pathogens will have been killed off and it is safe to eat again. Another option is to set aside some marinade in the beginning that never touches the raw meat.
Mistake: You use taste, smell, or color to tell if meat is cooked.
Color is not a reliable indicator for doneness—and taste-testing is even riskier. The CDC recommends using a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your chicken breast or pork loin. Here are the temps you should aim for in your meat dishes, according to the CDC:
145°F for whole beef, veal, lamb, pork, ham, and fin fish
160°F for ground beef, veal, pork, and lamb, as well as egg dishes
165°F for all poultry dishes (whole or ground), as well as casseroles and leftovers.
Mistake: You eat leftovers until they “smell bad.”
A sour smell or a fuzzy mold can be obvious tip-offs that your food has seen fresher days, but dangerous bacteria can begin forming long before those signs appear (and not all bacteria will cause a smell). Finish off your leftovers within a week (or freeze them) to avoid bacteria overgrowth on your leftovers.
Mistake: You skimp on hand washing.
Washing your hands is arguably the most crucial way to prevent food poisoning (and it also happens to be the easiest). Obviously, wash your digits before and after cooking, but you should also wash after any of the following tasks, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
Touching raw meat or its packaging
Touching raw eggs, including just the shell
Throwing items in the trash
And touching knives, cutting boards, plates, etc, that raw meat has touched
It’s tempting to do a quick rinse, but don’t take shortcuts here: If your hands are poorly washed, you may spread harmful bacteria to the kitchen towel. For a proper wash, use soap and warm water, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
Are your other habits up to safety codes as well? Test to see if a doctor would approve of your hygiene habits.