Kitchen Safety

We see all the signs saying “unread is better than dead” about texting and driving. But what about texting and cooking? I have gotten into the habit of setting a timer for everything I cook or bake because it is too easy to get distracted and burn something. Focus is the key during every step in the kitchen and especially during unattended cooking time.

Want to heat a pot of water for pasta? Set the timer for 4-5 minutes. Want to cook pasta? Set the heat on the stove to low and cook 8 minutes. Most items that are baked in the oven need 20 minutes.

And when an item is done cooking, turn the oven or stove off right away (unless you work in foodservice and need to leave it on).

Here are more kitchen safety tips:

Avoid falls:

  1. Keep the floors clean and unobstructed. Mop up spills and sweep up any debris that falls on the floor right away.
  2. Mats and rugs should not slip.
  3. Sturdy stools and step ladders should be used to reach high shelves.
  4. Boxes and other items should not be on the floor or obstruct walkways.
  5. Make sure you can see your feet if you are carrying something.
  6. Get someone to help you lift a heavy load.
  7. Spray all oils over the sink or counter, not over the floor!

Avoid burns:

  1. Always use dry heavy mitts, silicon mitts, or padded oven mitts for carrying any hot pan.
  2. Set anything hot on a proper surface and then cover it with the mitts or towels and alert anyone you are working with so they don’t pick up something hot.
  3. Set the timer for anything you cook or bake.
  4. Always turn the stove or oven off when done before you do anything else. Make this a habit.
  5. Get help with any hot pot or pan that is remotely too heavy or big to carry.
  6. Be very careful whenever you are using large amounts of fat or water. Splashes are dangerous. Focus on what you are doing instead of engaging in conversation or worrying about what others are doing if you are cooking around hot fat or water.
  7. Don’t let pans hang off the edge of the table and keep pot handles turned in.
  8. Know how to put out a fire and keep a fire extinguisher handy.

Avoid cuts:

  1. Always use the safety devices on equipment and keep equipment up to date so safety guards are in working order.
  2. Learn to use knives and always focus on what you are doing.
  3. Make sure the cutting board is secure to the counter.
  4. If you are new to the kitchen wear cut-proof safety gloves.
  5. Use a sharp knife.
  6. Store your knives in a safe place so you don’t get cut reaching past them.
  7. Cut away from yourself. Don’t put anything in the knife’s path that you don’t want to cut.

Save your back:

  1. Get help carrying a heavy load or break it up into smaller loads.
  2. Stand on rubber mats if you work many hours on your feet. Good shoes are also important.
  3. Avoid fast turns and twisting movements when you are carrying heavy items.
  4. Lift with your legs, not your back. This is best accomplished by bending at the knees and then lifting.

Save your recipe!

  1. The biggest mistakes ever made in cooking or baking always involved changing a recipe. If you need to increase or decrease a recipe, do it on paper. If you double it in your head you will invariably forget to double an ingredient and your recipe will be a disaster. It is always good to double check your numbers.
  2. Measure everything first and then proceed with the instructions.




E. Coli and Raw Flour: The Risks Are Real


Food safety experts have been preaching for years about the potential risk of licking the beaters or eating raw cookie dough. Their concern was the possibility of consuming harmful bacteria in raw eggs.

Now there’s another “red flag” related to raw batter and dough.

E. coli has been linked to flour.

We don’t usually think of flour as a “risky” food and it’s rare for someone to get sick from flour, but there is a chance and it has happened. Since flour is made from wheat that is obviously grown outdoors, it does have the potential to contain bacteria. A foodborne illness from flour usually doesn’t happen because flour is primarily used in foods that are cooked and bacteria are destroyed by heat.

The concern about the flour in raw cookie dough is a deadly bacteria called E. coli.

Typically, E. coli causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and dehydration. Most people recover within 3-4 days. While even that can be a long time when you’re the person who is sick, some strains of E.coli can be much more severe, resulting in a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Seniors, young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are the most susceptible to any foodborne illness.


So, how do people get sick from eating flour? Raw dough and batters are the biggest opportunity. When using baking mixes and other flour-containing products, be sure to follow proper cooking temperatures and bake the food for the specified times.

When else might you run across an uncooked or undercooked raw flour product?

Think about other uses for flour such as thickening sauces—make sure you heat these foods completely.

Take extra care when it comes to children. Kids love to play with food like raw pizza dough, pie crust and cut-out cookies.  Kids tend to put everything in their mouths, and in this case, that behavior could lead to an illness. There are also lots of recipes and ideas for craft projects, glue, or “clay” that could expose you and children to uncooked flour.

Cross contamination is also a possible problem. Flour dust spreads easily. Do you empty and completely clean the flour container when you buy new flour? Do you always wash your hands and work surfaces and utensils after handling flour?

I know I’m being a “spoilsport” and this is not something most of us usually think about… but maybe we should.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

Here’s a free printable food safety handout that outlines the highlights of this post!

flour e coli

And here are a few of the newest resources to hit the Nutrition Education Store!

The Trials We Face as Educators

It’s time for a little venting session.

My family thinks that I’m obsessive when it comes to food safety. They get upset when I get up from a dinner table and start to put food into the refrigerator and I always hear them say things like, “it’s OK to leave those beans out,” or “this is still hot, let’s let it set out for a while.”

Here are a few examples.

The Family Reunion: For a recent gathering, my cousin made his favorite baked beans recipe. It included sausage, hamburger and hot peppers, and he prepared it the day before and put it in the refrigerator. The day of the reunion, at about 1 p.m. he brought a small slow cooker, overflowing (at the point that the lid didn’t even close) with these cold baked beans and turned it on. We were going to eat at about 3 p.m!

First off, leftovers shouldn’t be re-heated in a slow cooker.

Second, this was way too full.

To make things a bit safer, I took action. When everyone else was outside, I took the baked beans out of the slow cooker and heated them on the stove to 165 degrees F. After that, I washed out the slow cooler and then put the beans back in on low.

Last Thanksgiving: For our celebration last year, we went to a friends’ home with my mother for the holiday weekend. The plan was for them to get the turkey, then I would cook it.  Unfortunately, we arrived Wednesday evening to find the frozen bird in a cooler. Yikes!

As I was looking a little upset about this turkey situation, my mother said “It’s alright, honey.”

It isn’t alright.

Could I save the turkey? My first thought was about the temperature, so I put a thermometer into the cooler. Luckily, my friend had added some ice packs. The temperature was below 40 degrees F, and the turkey was still mostly frozen. I put it into the refrigerator ASAP and no, we didn’t have to cancel Thanksgiving.

At the same Thanksgiving, the daughter-in-law of the host brought homemade pumpkin pie, at room temperature. I heard her say: “I just make it last night, it doesn’t need to be in the fridge.”

In my opinion, there was no saving it. It may have been safe because of the amount of sugar added, but how can you be sure with a homemade custard pie? I whispered to my husband, “don’t eat the pie.”

Maybe I should have been more forceful with the rest of the family. After all my mother was there.  She and our friend are both over 80 years old and more susceptible to foodborne illness. The last thing they need is to get sick.

If this were a class, I’d call it a teachable moment. However, being the educator at a family event can be hard. How do you not be the “Grinch that ruined the special occasion with your family?”

Well, look at the consequences. Diarrhea or barfing all night would definitely spoil a holiday.

I’ve heard other food safety educators talk about this topic. Some don’t eat at their mother-in-law’s. Others won’t go to pot luck dinners.  Many of their spouses also know that “I-wouldn’t-eat-that-if-I-were-you” look.

I just wanted to share with other educators… it’s not just you! 

I’m not sure that I have any good advice on this topic. I guess we just have to keep trying to be good role models and do the best we can to educate, even educating those that are the closest to us.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

To help you teach about food safety, I’ve also made a new printable food safety handout with lots of tips and “dos and don’ts.” I hope you like it!

Food Safety TipsheetAnd here are some other educator resources that can make your work easier…

Food Safety and the Slow Cooker

RIMG6853 RIMG6873The food safety nerd in me just had another (as my husband would say) “food safety fit”.

This was the result of a post on Facebook, shared by a friend who thought it looked like a good idea: 31 slow cooker freezer meals.

Actually I like the idea. The post looked promising — planning meals ahead of time (wow, that’s a concept), buying all the ingredients for 31 meals at one time, doing all the chopping and prep work at one time and then freezing what was left. This isn’t really a new theory, but what makes this specific post or collection of recipes unique is that it the food is eventually cooked in the slow cooker.

What gave me the fit was the thought of the frozen food going directly into a slow cooker on low. The recipe author says that she looked up the food safety procedures and does not recommend putting frozen food directly into the slow cooker. Most of the recipes say to thaw in the refrigerator overnight before putting them in to cook.

There were lots of comments from folks who were either for or against this process.

Several mentioned that the USDA does not recommend the direct-from-freezer-to-slow-cooker process. Yeah!

Several others commented that they’ve been putting frozen meat in the slow cooker for years… and they’re still alive. (You know how I feel about that one).

The reality is that putting frozen food in a slow cooker provides an excellent opportunity for bacteria to grow as the food and the slow cooker make their way slowly through the temperature danger zone (TDZ) to a safe minimum internal temperature.

One reader commented that she took the bag of frozen food out of the freezer and threw it in the sink while getting dressed in the morning, then just put the frozen food in the slow cooker. Thawing at room temperature and then putting on low temperature to cook is just asking for trouble with bacteria growth.

Other comments revealed more unique ideas on this topic. One suggested leaving the food in the zip-top freezer bag and popping it directly into the slow cooker, like a slow cooker liner. That’s another recipe for trouble. Remember: while freezer-quality bags are great for freezing, they are not designed to for long-term heating.

Another person suggested freezing directly in the slow cooker liner bags. Again, these liners were not designed for this purpose and using them this way may result in loss of quality.

I really do love the idea of planning ahead and doing some “mass preparation” to save time and have food ready to go when needed. So, what would make these recipes a little more appealing and safer?

Check out the recipes you’d really like and start with only a few meals. Make sure your family likes the outcomes and that many slow cooked meals before you get a freezer full. This will also eliminate the possibility of overloading the freezer.

Then, freeze the vegetable/seasonings and meat in separate bags. This would allow you to brown the meat before putting it in the slow cooker in the morning. Taking the time to do this can provide better color and flavor to the final product and also it helps speed the meat through the temperature danger zone.

Most of the recipes say to take the bag from the freezer the night before and allow it to thaw in the refrigerator.  While thawing in the refrigerator is the best method, one overnight may not be enough, so you may need to plan ahead a little more.

Use the appropriate packaging materials and then use them for their intended purpose.  There’s no reason that you can’t use slow cooker liners for easy clean-up, they just aren’t intended for freezer storage.

As you’re getting ready in the morning, start the food off on high and then turn it to low before you leave the house. This helps jump start the temperature in the slow cooker and rushes the food through the TDZ.

And above all, don’t listen to “know it alls” “old wives tales” and “we’ve always done it this way” that you’ll find in the comment sections on Facebook. Check out the evidence and researched-based references on food safety.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

Here’s a handout with the highlights of slow cooker food safety!

Slow Cooker Safety

Check out these additional kitchen safety resources…

Temp That Burger!

Thermometer and BurgerMy brother-in-law always teases me about “temping” food. I’ve never heard it called that, but what he loves to joke about is my use of a thermometer when I’m cooking.

It’s true — I can’t resist “temping.” I even use my thermometer when I’m cooking on the grill.

Yes, there are lots of ways to judge doneness, but they’re not equally effective. I know that many people use the meat’s color as their guide, but you can’t really rely on meat’s appearance to tell whether it’s done. The color of cooked ground beef can be quite variable. At 160 degree Fahrenheit (F), a safely-cooked patty may look brown, pink, or somewhere in-between. When a patty is cooked to 160 degrees F throughout, it can be safe and juicy, regardless of color.

How do I know this?

Well, recently I was cooking burgers on the grill and using their appearance as my guide to “doneness.” Honestly, I thought they needed more time. I pulled out my thermometer to check, and I found that the burgers had already surpassed the recommended 160 degrees F. I could have easily overcooked those burgers!

Anyway, the moral of the story is that, when it comes to cooking meat, you can’t always tell doneness by the color.

The only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that may cause a foodborne illness is to use an accurate instant-read thermometer.

Thermometers and a BurgerHere’s exactly how to do it…

  • For ground meat patties, insert the thermometer at least ½ inch into the thickest part of the patty near the end of the cooking time.
  • If the burger is not thick enough to check from the top, the thermometer should be inserted sideways.
  • If you’re not sure if you got into the center, you can take a second reading in a different part of the burger.

All ground beef, veal, lamb or pork patties should be cooked to 160 degrees F. If you’re making a ground turkey or chicken burger, ensure that the patty reaches 165 degrees F.

I know lots of people will disagree with this. How many times have I heard people insist that they like their beef burgers rare or cooked below 160 degrees F? This is a personal choice that you can make, but know that you are putting your own health at risk when you eat those burgers. You’re also endangering anyone else who might eat one of your undercooked creations. I especially don’t consider this an acceptable option for poultry burgers.

Here’s why.

Rare hamburgers are far riskier to your health than a rare steak. If any pathogens are present on the outside of a whole piece of meat — like a steak — the high heat that sears and cooks the outside will destroy the dangerous bacteria. But when meat is ground up, any bacteria on the surface are mixed throughout the meat. Therefore, heat needs to get all the way into the middle of the burger to destroy these harmful bacteria.

The real concern here is a foodborne bacteria commonly known as E. coli. This bacteria and the illness it causes have been linked to the consumption of undercooked ground beef. Don’t let E. coli stay in your food — cook it out!

Oh, and here’s a special word of caution: while a healthy adult may not feel the effects of an undercooked burger, guests or other family members may be more at risk. The very young, the very old, and those with immune systems that have been weakened by cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses are the most vulnerable to sicknesses associated with contaminated food. This is especially true with E. coli. These bacteria have been known to cause long-term illnesses including potentially fatal kidney failure.

Why take the risk?

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

Here is a free step-by-step food safety handout for grilling ground beef.

Grill Ground Beef

There are lots of food safety resources in the Nutrition Education Store!

Food Safety Poster: Safe Cooking Temperatures

Food Safety Handout and PowerPoint Set

Food Safety Poster

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

I just can’t take a vacation from food safety. We recently took a wonderful trip to Europe, and like all good foodies, I had to check out the markets and grocery stores to get a feel for what the locals were buying and eating. At a fabulous market in Spain, I took these photos of a gentleman cutting a watermelon for display and sale.

Spanish Market

What’s wrong with this picture?

Cut Melon

Or this one?

There are several potential food safety concerns in just these two photos: Did the man wash his hands before cutting the melon? Was the outside of the melon washed before it was cut? Was the knife clean? What about the cleanliness of the surface? Did he store it on ice after it was cut? From what I observed, none of these precautions were taken in this particular situation.

Washing melons or other fresh fruit before cutting reduces bacteria that may be present on the surface. These bacteria could be from the soil in which the product grew, or perhaps on the hands of the person who picked it. They could also be on the hands of the shipper, or in this case, the market owner. Some people think that since you don’t eat the rind of a melon, it’s not necessary to wash it, but if the rind is not washed before cutting, any bacteria that might be on the rind could be transferred to the moist center of the fruit — where it could easily grow and multiply. I had similar concerns about the cutting surface and the knife (how many unwashed melons were cut with the same knife that morning?) Also, cut fruit should be refrigerated; it should have been placed on ice. Needless to say, we didn’t buy this melon.

While this photo was taken in Spain, I’m sure that that wasn’t the only market where food wasn’t treated as safely as it should have been.

This is one of those situations when the consumer needs to be alert and use caution. If you’re shopping at farmers’ markets or grocery stores that sell sectioned or fresh-cut fruit, make sure you choose a place that keeps food safety in mind. When you’re tempted to taste a sample or purchase something, look around and made sure that the person offering the sample or selling the item is using good food safety practices. These practices include: washing the produce before cutting it, wearing clean gloves, using a clean knife and keeping items cold as necessary.

Don’t take risks with food safety.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

We’re here to help you look your very best, right now, so don’t miss these marvelous food safety resources from the Nutrition Education Store

Food Safety Poster

Food Safety PowerPoint and Handout Set

Healthy Kitchen Poster Set

And here’s the best part — a free food safety handout that you can share with your clients!

Market Safety

Not the Time to Be Creative

I know chefs and home cooks love to be creative. Adding a little of this and a little of that to a recipe to make it your own is part of the fun of cooking. But there are times when creating and doing something new could be dangerous.

Food_SafetyOne of the main times that shortcuts or adjustments can be bad for your health is when you’re preserving food at home.

I’m talking specifically about canning. This includes making pickles, jams, jellies, and tomato sauces. Please follow tested recipes from reputable sources.

Food preservation recipes and techniques are constantly being studied and revised. Just because “you’ve always done it this way” or this is how your mother (or grandmother) taught you, doesn’t mean that that technique is the safest and most up to date.

Stay Safe:

Make sure you have up-to-date recipes from a reputable source. When I say reputable, I mean one that has a food science and research background. Just because you found a recipe on the internet or saw it on a cooking show on television does not make it safe.

If you have an old recipe from your grandmother or an older canning book, it’s OK to keep it for sentimental or historical reasons, but please don’t use it to for processing instructions or cooking times.

Food preservation methods, recommendations, and instructions have changed over the years. This includes the guides and instruction sheets that came with an older canner. Make sure you have the latest information available.

The Consequences:

CookIf the food wasn’t processed safely, then it might spoil on the shelf.

Serving that food to people could make them sick, especially if the food has developed molds, yeasts, or bacteria and pathogens.

One of the deadliest bacteria that can thrive in imperfect canning conditions is Clostridum botulinum, commonly known as botulism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness.” If not treated, some cases of botulism can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Why take a chance?

Evaluating Recipes: 

One of the best reference books available is So Easy to Preserve, a recipe and instruction book from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

Many recipes and research-based food preservation information is also available at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Another great reference is the latest (2009) edition of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Complete Guide to Home Canning. This book can be found completely online at

Looking at a different collection of recipes? Here are some key elements that many reputable sources have in common.

  • It comes from a university, cooperative extension, or USDA source.
  • The recipe recommends using a boiling water bath for fruits, jams, jellies, and pickles.
  • The recipe recommends pressure canning/processing for low-acid foods such as vegetables, meats, and fish.
  • The recipe recommends adding an acid (usually citric acid or lemon juice) to canned tomatoes.

Bonus Tip: Check the dates on the recipes and resources; it’s best that they use the 2009 USDA Guide to Home Canning as a resource. Anything older than that should not be used.

If you’re unsure whether a recipe is safe, then it’s best if you don’t use it.

If you really want to be creative and invent something or preserve something in a new way, then your best bet is to freeze it instead of canning.

There is no sense in spending the time, money, energy, and good produce on a bad product. Worse yet, you could make someone sick.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

PS The images in this post come from the Food Safety section of the free clipart library. Browse great (and free!) illustrations today.

Food Safety Poster

Food Safety PowerPoint Show and Handouts

Healthful Kitchen Poster Value Set

Walk the Food Safety Talk

June is Safety Month! Are you preparing and serving foods safely?

I’ve talked with sanitarians that don’t eat away from home. I know food safety instructors that won’t eat at pot luck dinners. I personally have been known to not eat something because I had a concern about the safety of the food. As dietitians and health educators, we know too much! 

However, it is important for us to use our knowledge for good.

Avoiding conditions that make us question the safety of the food doesn’t change the situation. In fact, other people might become sick because of our silence. This point was really brought home to me at a couple of recent events in my community…

The first was at my gourmet dining group. At this group, we develop menus and eat at several different homes each month. The goal of this group is to expand our horizons when it comes to preparing and eating foods. There are also tons of fun social aspects. 

I was recently involved in a planning session that featured two recipes with raw eggs. I didn’t object to the foods themselves, but I was very assertive when I stressed that we needed to use pasteurized eggs in these recipes. I volunteered to purchase the pasteurized shell eggs and deliver them to the appropriate cooks. As I stood on my soapbox, the members of this planning group looked at me like I had grown horns. I, on the other hand, saw it as a teachable moment. People in my community know that I teach about food safety. If I let this slide and didn’t mention my concerns, I would be being irresponsible.

My husband found himself in a similar situation. He says he knows too much, too, just from living with me. 

My husband belongs to a local service club that prepares and sells food several times a year as a fundraiser. He watched their practices for a while and finally felt that he needed to say something about the food safety and sanitation of the operation. When talking with the group, he stressed both their liability and the fact that they really didn’t want to get a customer sick. He brought in thermometers and plastic gloves, offering some basic food safety recommendations (he had some help at home before he went to that meeting).

Some of his concerns fell on deaf ears, since many people felt that safety precautions were unnecessary. They said, “this is the way they’ve always done it” and no one has gotten sick yet. Other people recognized the risks and encouraged their dissenting peers to change their practices. My husband continues to emphasize the importance of correct practices at these events. For many, old habits are hard to break.

Sometimes we find ourselves in awkward positions. We do know too much. Let’s share this knowledge. We have to walk the food safety talk.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

For some helpful food safety education resources, check out the selection at the Nutrition Education Store

Food Safety Poster and Handout Set

Kids’ Kitchen Savvy Program

Food Safety Bookmarks

Food Safety PowerPoint Presentation

Now it’s time for a bonus! Here’s a free food safety handout, uploaded just for you. You can email it to your clients, distribute it at your next wellness fair, or make it a part of a display or bulletin board. The possibilities are endless!

Food Safety Handout