Providing your family with tasty, safe grilled food goes beyond simply scraping down the grill grates and making sure to keep raw chicken from touching cooked. Cross-contamination from unclean or unsanitary items coming into contact with cooked food is one of the most common causes of food-borne illnesses. This includes particularly nasty germs like norovirus, E-coli, and salmonella.
If you want to make sure that every morsel of grilled food your family eats is just as safe as it is delicious, then you might want to consider some of the following best-practice for preventing cross-contamination at the grill side.
Wash Your Hands
Washing your hands is an important part of any cooking experience. Human hands can transfer an enormous amount of bacteria with just a single touch. A recent study published by the USDA found that most people claimed to have washed their hands. Yet their research found that 97% of participants who attempted to wash their hands failed to wash them properly.
Ideally, you want to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water. Then dry them with a clean paper towel rather than a terrycloth towel which might harbor germs from the last person who used it.
Keep Hand Sanitizer Near the Grill
Even once you get to the grill side with properly washed hands, there’s still a risk of transferring bacteria from your hands. Especially if you have to go in and out through a frequently used door, which might also have high-contact germs on it.
Keeping hand sanitizer near the grill will help you kill any incidental germs on your hands that you might encounter on your way from the kitchen sink to your outdoor cooking area.
Clean All Grill Tools After Using
It’s all too easy to get done grilling, load up your serving platter and forget about the grill tools. They linger outside dangling in the breeze from their tool hooks glistening with grease, leftover marinade, and other residue that invites bacteria. If they don’t get cleaned promptly, they’ll likely transfer germs onto the food you cook next time.
Investing a little extra money in grill tools that are rated to be “Dishwasher Safe” will make it easy to keep them clean. When you’re done with your normal grill scrape-down and clean-up routine just put the grill tools in the dishwasher.
Even if your current set of grill tools isn’t dishwasher safe, it’s still wise to give them a thorough hand washing in warm soapy water. Then hand dry them and store them in an out-of-the-way place.
Clean Grill Grates with the Right Type of Grill Brush
Dirty grill grates aren’t just visually unappealing and sticky. They can also transfer germs, dirt, old grease, and sometimes even rust onto the food you cook. Yet it’s often not enough to simply scrape them down as a vulgar display of power. Using the right grill brush for your type of grill grate might be more important than you think.
Certain grill grate materials, like stainless steel and chrome-plated steel, can be easily scuffed by wire brushes and steel wool. This creates a plethora of microscopic textures that can trap germs. It’s also possible for tiny flecks of metal from the grill brush to get embedded on the surface of the otherwise rustproof grill grates.
The flecks of transferred metal can then rust easily with exposure to humidity and condensation. When you go to grill again, the food sticks to the scuffed-up grates and transfers a little of that rust to the meat when you take it off the grates!
Ideally, you want to clean sensitive metal grill grates with a stiff-bristled nylon brush. Then make sure to replace the brush head, and/or clean the bristles frequently.
Use a Food Thermometer
A food thermometer is the most reliable way to ensure that your meat and large vegetables are fully cooked to a safe internal temperature. This is especially important with poultry which is only considered safe to eat once it has reached an internal temperature of 165 and pork which must be at least 145 degrees.
Use Separate Platters
When bringing cooked food from the grill to the table, make sure to use a different platter than the one you used to bring the raw foods out to the grill. If you only have one platter, make absolutely sure to have it thoroughly washed with warm soapy water and fully dried while the meat is cooking on the grill.
Don’t Cut Meat on a Wooden Cutting Board
Wood cutting boards can quickly become prone to scruffs and scrapes from repeated knife work. If you then place raw meat on them the moisture and bacteria can embed in these scruffs. Later they transfer to the vegetables or desserts you cut on the wooden board. Ideally, you want to have a plastic or silicone polymer cutting board that’s rated to be dishwasher-safe for cutting meat.
Use Separate Cutting Boards
Even if you do have plastic or polymer cutting boards, you should still never cut raw meat on the same cutting board that you cut fruits and vegetables. Not unless you have time to thoroughly sanitize the cutting board, in a dishwasher or by first treating it with bleach water.
Use Meat Shears That Come Apart
A lot of backyard chefs like to use meat shears to do things like break down pieces of chicken, or cut rashers of raw bacon into smaller strips that fit evenly on top of a cheeseburger. While this is an acceptable practice, the overarching concern is that any raw meat germs that get into the joint of the meat shears will linger. It’s nearly impossible to wash this joint and it needs to be sanitized in a dishwasher to be safe for use on any cooked foods for service.
Fortunately, grill gadget manufacturers are keen to this problem. For just a few dollars more, you can get meat shears with a detachable joint that’s easy to wash and sanitize in mere seconds.
Don’t Use a Grill Fork
It’s always a good idea to manipulate meat on the grill with a sturdy pair of tongs. Meat forks not only make holes in the meat that lets juices out, but they can also cause cross-contamination at the grill side.
Let’s say you stab into a chicken breast to flip it, and the interior isn’t cooked all the way to 165. There’s a real risk that salmonella germs are now on the tip of that grill fork. If you then stab it into a medium-rare steak to take off the grill, you could easily transfer those germs from the chicken to the 140-degree interior of the steak about to be served!