Food editor J Scott Wilson walked readers through a typical grilling experience and took a look at where the danger lies and some simple ways to avoid it:
By far the biggest culprit when it comes to any sort of outdoor cooking and eating is lack of attention to food temperature. Basically, your mission is to keep your food out of the "bacterial danger zone" of between 45 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Within that range, bacteria can grow at increased rates and increase the risk of food-borne illnesses dramatically. In just three to four hours, a food such as potato salad can become a big bowl of unpleasant bathroom adventures for you and your guests.
The same holds true for meat you’ll be grilling. The time to put your meat out next to the grill is NOT when you start lighting the charcoal. Yes, beef which has been allowed to rise to room temperature grills better, but that doesn’t mean you should set your steaks out to get a tan while your briquets get properly lit.
The most dangerous meat when it comes to temperature sensitivity is chicken. Chicken does not need to warm before cooking, and needs to go from fridge to grill pretty quickly. If you’ve got the whole clan over for a big cookout and you’re doing multiple batches of chicken, make sure each batch is either eaten or put into a warm oven until mealtime. What I like to do, if grilling leg quarters, is to pull the first batch slightly underdone and put it in a very low (200 degrees) oven while I cook the next batch. That way, the first batch won’t be cooked to dust when the last one is finished.
I shouldn’t need to tell you how fragile all types of seafood are when it comes to temperature. Fish and seafood of all types should go straight from refrigerator to grill, with a brief stop at the cutting board for seasoning if necessary.
Cross-contamination occurs when cooked food comes in contact with raw food, either directly or by the use of improperly cleaned tools.
There are a few easy ways to guard against cross-contamination. They may add a step or two to your cooking process here and there but the lack of bathroom/hospital/being dead time makes up for it.
Cutting boards may be fantastic for chopping veggies for a salad, but lay a chicken on it and you’re begging for trouble. Meat juices permeate wood and lodge in all the little nooks and crannies. They are almost impossible to clean completely, and even a soaking in bleach water can leave organic matter that will breed bad bugs. Stick to a good, cheap plastic cutting board for your meat. I like having two: one for raw and one for cooked.
Do be careful about putting rocket-hot hunks of meat down on your plastic board. A cooling session on a plate can keep your steak from getting hydrocarbon from melted plastic.
Just as I’ve got two cutting boards, I like to duplicate everything else, within reason. Two sets of spring-loaded tongs are a must, and separate platters for raw and cooked.
For really expensive tools like a chef’s knife, a good hot-water washing followed by passing through a diluted bleach solution will make it safe. In the restaurant business, hand dishwashing takes place at a three-compartment sink: wash, rinse and sanitizing. You can get the same effect by filling a pitcher or tub with a bleach solution and giving each tool that’s moving from raw to cooked a 10-second soak.
The basic idea here is to keep your raw food away from your cooked food. Thus, you need to pay careful attention to your zones. No tool from the raw "zone" goes into the cooked "zone" unless it’s properly sanitized and vice versa. I’ve had friends who even bought different color utensils to help them keep track of which was which, or put bits of colored tape on handles.
Leftovers In Peril
And, finally, let’s talk leftovers. The temperature danger zone also happens to be the one in which most food is edible. So you get done eating, get up from the table and play a brisk game of post-meal football … or grab a brisk post-meal nap. And your food sits. And sits. And bacteria find it, and it is good, and they are fruitful and multiply.
Next thing you know, that leftover steak you were saving for a wicked good steak sandwich is teeming with more microorganisms than a college dorm room.
Even if all you do is throw some plastic wrap over the serving platter and toss it in the refrigerator, getting your leftovers under refrigeration immediately after the meal will ensure safe midnight snacking and day-after sandwich creation.