Preparing and cooking food safelySee all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
Good food hygiene means knowing how to avoid the spread of bacteria when cooking, preparing, and storing food. Foods that aren't cooked, stored and handled correctly can cause food poisoning and other conditions.
4 steps to food safety
There are 4 basic steps to food safety at home, these are known as the four C's:
- cleaning - making sure your hands, surfaces and equipment are clean before, during and after cooking
- cooking - making sure food is cooked throughout to kill harmful bacteria
- chilling - making sure foods are stored at the correct temperature to prevent growth of harmful bacteria
- avoiding cross-contamination - preventing the spread of bacteria to surfaces and ready to eat food
The bacteria that cause food poisoning can be found in many places around your kitchen. Unless you take care to clean your hands, surfaces and utensils properly, this bacteria could end up in your food.
Wash your hands
You should always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water:
- before you prepare, cook or eat food
- after handling raw food such as raw meat, uncooked eggs and unwashed fruit and vegetables
- after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose or touching your pets
There's a right way and a wrong way to wash your hands. To do it correctly:
- Wet your hands and apply soap.
- Rub your hands together to make a lather.
- Scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
- After 20 seconds of scrubbing, rinse your hands well with warm water.
- Dry your hands thoroughly using a clean towel.
Wash worktops, utensils and chopping boards with warm, soapy water before and after food preparation to prevent bacteria from spreading. This is especially important if you've been preparing raw meat, raw eggs or unwashed vegetables.
If possible, use different utensils and chopping boards for raw and ready to eat foods, or wash them thoroughly between tasks.
As an extra precaution, you may wish to use a disinfectant to kill any harmful bacteria. Make sure you follow the manufacturers instructions to ensure you apply it to the surface for the specified time and if the product needs diluted before use.
As dirty and damp dishcloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed, wash dishcloths and tea towels regularly and let them dry before use.
You should wash dishcloths and tea towels using the hot cycle of your washing machine.
Cooking and reheating food
Harmful bacteria are killed by cooking and reheating food at the right temperature for the correct length of time. Always follow the cooking instructions on the label and check the food is steaming hot in the middle.
Cooking meat and poultry
Chicken, duck, pork and offal
Chicken, duck, pork and offal should always be cooked through until the core temperature reaches 75°C, there is no pink meat and the juices run clear. This will kill any harmful bacteria.
These type of meats should never be eaten pink or rare.
Beef and lamb
Beef and lamb steaks and whole joints (not rolled joints) can be served rare as long as the outside has been properly cooked (sealed), to kill any bacteria present on the surface.
Always cook burgers and sausages made from these meats all the way through. This will kill harmful bacteria - including E. coli O157 - that might have been present on the surface of the meat and then mixed through after mincing.
If possible, use a thermometer to ensure that the internal temperature reaches 75°C and make sure there's no pink in the middle and the juices run clear.
How to tell when meat is cooked
If you have a food thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 75°C.
If you don't have a food thermometer, the meat:
- shouldn't be pink in the middle
- juices should run clear
- should be steaming hot throughout
To check whole birds, pierce the thickest part of the leg. For thicker joints, pierce the centre.
Cooking fish, shellfish and crustacea
Although most fish and some shellfish (oysters) can be eaten raw, cooking will kill any bacteria present. If you choose to eat raw fish, make sure that it's been frozen first as the cold temperature will kill any parasites present.
Raw shellfish should always be cooked alive but never cook any shellfish if the shell doesn't close.
How to tell if fish, shellfish and crustacea are cooked
Fish, shellfish and crustacea are cooked if:
- fish flesh will turn opaque (loses its transparency) and flake easily with a fork - cook fish until it reaches 62°C with a food thermometer or fish flesh
- shrimp and lobster flesh will turn opaque
- scallops will become firm and turn opaque
- mussel, whelk and oyster shells will open - never eat shellfish if the shell remains closed after cooking
Cooking on a barbecue
Undercooked foods and cross-contamination are the greatest risks when using a barbeque. Cooking food in the oven before finishing on the barbecue is a great way to ensure food is cooked all the way through.
To ensure food is safe to eat:
- defrost meat thoroughly before cooking - ideally in your fridge
- keep meat and ready to eat foods - such as salad and bread - separate
- regularly turn and move around to cook evenly
- use separate utensils for raw and cooked meats
- don't use a sauce or marinade for cooked food that has had raw meat in it
You'll know when your barbeque is at the right temperature for cooking when the coals are glowing red and have a powdery grey surface. Never cook food over flames as the outside will burn, but the inside will be raw and unsafe to eat.
Reheating cooked food
When reheating food make sure that it's steaming hot and heated all the way through to 75°C.
Use chilled food within 2 days of cooking. If the food has been cooked, frozen and then defrosted, reheat within 24 hours.
You should only ever reheat food once. The more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning.
Storing and chilling food
Your fridge can help to keep foods fresh and safe to eat for longer as the cold temperature slows the growth of bacteria.
To keep your food safe:
- keep your fridge at the right temperature (between 0°C and 5°C)
- keep food out of the fridge for the shortest time you can
- don't overfill your fridge
- don't keep leftovers for longer than two days
- cool cooked food as quickly as possible (ideally within 1 to 2 hours) then place in the fridge - splitting cooked food into smaller portions can help it to cool quicker
What you can store
Cooked dishes and foods labelled with a 'use by' or 'keep refrigerated' label can be stored in the fridge. This includes:
- dairy produce - such as milk, cheese and butter
- raw and cooked meat
- fresh fruit and vegetables
- ready meals
Eggs are best stored in the fridge as they are kept at a constant temperature. You can safely store a boiled egg in the fridge for a couple of days.
You can also freeze boiled and raw (unshelled) eggs.
Most types of foods can be frozen, however, the extreme cold can affect the quality of foods with a high water content - such as fresh fruit and salad vegetables (cucumber, tomatoes). These foods are still fine to cook with but are better eaten from the fridge.
As the cold air will cause foods to dry out, always store frozen foods in airtight containers or freezer bags.
Freezing meat and fish
You can freeze all types of meat, fish and poultry as long as:
- it's within its use by date
- you wrap it properly to prevent damage from dehydration and oxidation - known as "freezer burn"
Frozen meat and fish will keep and be safe to eat for a long time, however, you should try to eat these foods within 3 to 6 months as the quality can be affected. Adding a label and date to frozen meat and fish can help with this.
You should defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking as partially defrosted food may not cook evenly meaning harmful bacteria may survive. Defrost the food in a sealed container at the bottom of the fridge, to prevent it from becoming too warm or any liquid contaminating other foods in the fridge. If you intend to cook it as soon as it's defrosted, then you can use the microwave on the defrost setting.
Once defrosted food needs to be eaten or thrown away within 24 hours.
Raw meat, fish and poultry can't be frozen again after they've been defrosted.
Cooked meat, fish and poultry can be frozen as long as they've been cooled. You should only refreeze these foods once after cooking as the more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning.
Foods stored in the freezer, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, should not be returned to the freezer once they have thawed.
Cross-contamination is the spread of bacteria from one object to another, for example when raw food touches or drips onto cooked foods, utensils or surfaces. You can avoid it by:
- keeping raw meat and unwashed vegetables separate from ready to eat foods during storage and preparation
- using different chopping boards, plates and utensils for raw and cooked food or washing them thoroughly between uses
- washing your hands, worktops and utensils thoroughly after touching raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs
- keeping raw meat in a sealed container at the bottom of the fridge
- never washing raw meat
- using separate shopping bags for raw and ready to eat foods
Handling fruit and vegetables
As the environments that fruit and vegetables grown in can sometimes carry bacteria, when handling raw fruit or vegetables it's important that you:
- always wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them to remove any surface dirt or bacteria (peeling or cooking can also remove these germs)
- avoid cross-contamination when washing raw vegetables by rubbing them in a bowl of fresh water to reduce splashing
- keep unwashed fruit and vegetables separate from ready to eat food
- wash your hands after handling unwashed fruit and vegetables
- check the label, as unless the packaging says it's ready to eat then you must wash, peel or cook them before eating
Don't wash meat and poultry
You should never wash raw meat or poultry before cooking as this can spread bacteria around your sink, work surface and utensils. Washing doesn't get rid of harmful bacteria, but thoroughly cooking will kill any bacteria present.
04 January 2023
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