Properly Handling Food & Cooking Methods

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This will be a short chapter as, truthfully, there’s not much to say on the subject of simply moving food from point A to point B. However, you should, nevertheless, be aware of the risk of exposing edibles to pathogens at all times during the process from stocking to prepping to cooking to serving the food, and everything in between.

In the name of simplicity, we will cut this chapter down to a list of simple pointers.

Only the requisite staff should move food around the kitchen

In other words, a cook should never ask the dishwasher “Hey could you hand that to the servers for me?”

The dishwashers spend most of the day elbow-deep in dishwater, wearing thick rubber gloves covered in half-eaten spaghetti. You don’t want them handling the food, and they don’t want to handle the food anyways, they have their own job to do.

Handing a tray of food over to a server is a simple process, and should be kept simple. So if you’re still planning the layout of your kitchen, don’t do something ridiculous like putting the fryers and ovens way in the back, the prep area in the middle, and the server area up front. In short, just don’t create any extra steps, because every extra step is another chance at food being tainted.

No eating at the station

Most kitchens let their staff drink all the water, coffee or soda they please, which is fine, as that extra boost of sugar, caffeine or hydration helps keep everyone on their toes. However… very few professional kitchens will ever allow staff to eat while working. This is why we have lunch breaks.

Maybe your chef can cook himself up a little something at the end of the day, but chowing down on a cheeseburger with one hand while preparing a salad with the other is a definite no-no, and one of the quickest and easiest ways to taint food meant for the customers. Pardon the crudeness of the following statement, but your customer didn’t order Cesar salad with a side of half chewed bacon burger.

Everyone who handles food must wash their hands regularly

We told you that you hadn’t heard the last of this one. This includes the servers, the prep crew, the cooks, even the manager, should they come and inspect a dish prepared by the new recruit. As we’ve already mentioned, you want as few people handling the food as possible, but equally important is that everyone who does handle the food does so with clean hands and, if you’re the one putting the bun on the burger or the garnish on the steak, that you wear latex gloves whenever directly touching the food itself.

Everyone who handles food must be educated on proper health practices

It won’t do to have cooks, chefs, and servers who all know how to properly handle food if say, a manager or hostess doesn’t know better than to touch food items with their bare hands. It only takes one weak link in the chain to taint food between cooking and serving.

Food must always be transported in the proper containers

If someone goes to the walk-in freezer for a steak, it should be carried to the kitchen in wax paper or in the box, not simply grabbed and slung over one’s shoulder on the way back to the grill. You can easily bump into someone or drop food on the way back to the line, and it’s better to drop a box of steaks and pick it back up than it is to drop a ten dollar t-bone and throw it away.

Likewise, lettuce must be carried in a lettuce container, be it a tub, pan or baggie, and not simply scrunched up in handfuls and thrown haphazardly into the salad bowl.

Proper Cooking Methods

Let’s say that, at home, you’re a master of the culinary arts. You can replicate just about any dish just by tasting it once, you’ve perfected all of your signature meals, and your guests never leave hungry.

That’s great, but cooking safe and healthy food at a restaurant requires a number of skills that you might never learn from simply cooking at home.

Here we remind you once more of the so-called Danger Zone, that area between 41 and 141 degrees Fahrenheit. This is where pathogens thrive and multiply, and it is important that food be kept out of this range as much as possible, and furthermore, that food is never served between these two temperatures.

As is the motto of many a professional kitchen…

Hot Food Stays Hot, Cold Food Stays Cold

This means that any cold food that needs to be served, such as salads, must be kept chilled at or below forty degrees, and any food to be served hot needs to be kept stored at or below forty degrees, and then cooked to an internal temperature of one hundred sixty five degrees.

This is actually a good twenty five degrees above the danger zone, and for good reason. At one hundred fifty degrees, bacteria can, in general, no longer multiply, however, it can still survive. At one hundred sixty five degrees, though, most bacteria will perish to the heat.

So a steak or a side of pork must be kept below the Danger Zone before being cooked, and then cooked beyond the Danger Zone before being served.

Checking the internal temperature

To check the internal temperature of a food, just use a meat thermometer, stick it into the thickest part of a steak or a lamb chop or whatever you’re serving, and make sure that it’s at one hundred sixty five degrees or higher.

For particularly chunky steaks, stick the thermometer into all of the particularly chunky parts and make sure that they all register at a nice, safe one hundred sixty five degrees.

What about rare steaks?

Whether or not you’re even allowed to cook truly rare steaks in the first place is something you’ll need to find out by looking up the local health code. In some areas, you are absolutely not allowed to serve steaks without cooking them thoroughly. In fact, most restaurants will not serve anything less well done than a medium-rare.

If you do find that you’re allowed to cook and serve steaks however the customer likes them cooked, then you are required to give fair warning about the dangers of undercooked beef. Yes, the customer will probably get a little irked that your servers are preaching about food safety when all they want is an ice cold slab of meat, but considering that there are relatively few restaurants willing to cook a steak exactly as they want it, they should understand that it’s a small price to pay for the perfect T-bone.

Cooking Pork

The rules that apply to cooking beef or chicken also apply to cooking pork. However, the apply doubly so.

Both undercooked chicken and undercooked beef can spread salmonella or E coli. However, what people don’t always mention about salmonella, for instance, is that someone with a healthy immune system will rarely experience more than, say, a day’s worth of irritable bowels if they contract a small dose of salmonella.

We’ve all seen Rocky 1, where Sylvester Stallone drinks about eight or nine eggs out of a glass, finishing it off with a hearty belch. Well, he could get away with that because of the training and nutrition program he was on while filming the movie. If he contracted salmonella from the eggs, he was healthy enough to fight it off.

Trichinosis, however, isn’t so easy to fight off with a glass of orange juice and a few hours at the gym every week.

A parasitic disease, trichinosis comes from eating raw or undercooked pork that is infected with the larvae of the roundworm species known as Trichinella spiralis, or the trichina worm. This is why cooking pork thoroughly is so incredibly important.

Luckily, trichinosis infections are becoming more and more rare. From 1997 to 2001, a scant twelve cases on average per year had been reported in the US. This has to do with certain legislation passed with regards to feeding raw meat garbage to hogs, but more importantly, with public awareness of the dangers of undercooked pork.

However, pork isn’t dangerous for trichinosis alone. It can also carry various forms of pinworm and tapeworms, such as the Taneia solium, a tapeworm that can thrive in a human’s intestines just as well as in a pig’s.

Remember, pig anatomy and DNA is actually remarkably similar to human anatomy and DNA, and almost anything a pig can contract, a human being can contract as well. So, essentially, just go ahead and double check internal temperature when cooking pork.

Cooking Poultry

While not carrying quite as many potential health hazards as pork, poultry does, nonetheless, carry more health hazards than, say, beef or fish. Just consider for a moment that fish and beef often find their way into sushi… but who ever heard of chicken sushi?

The primary health risk in cooking poultry is in the danger of salmonella and E. coli being transmitted. Again, simply make sure that all poultry dishes have been cooked to an internal temperature of one hundred sixty five degrees.

A Word on Cooking for Vegetarians

Not putting meat in a dish isn’t all there is to cooking and serving vegetarian meals.

When it comes to vegetarian dishes, you need to be especially wary of cross-contamination. It’s usually no big deal if a drop of bacon grease finds its way onto a bacon-free hamburger, but you need to bear in mind that vegetarians do not eat meat.

Going for several years without eating meat can adjust your digestive system in several ways. What you need to be concerned with is the fact that the average vegetarian’s digestive system just isn’t capable of processing animal products.

This means that a single drop of bacon grease can actually make a vegetarian nauseous, and even having food prepared for them on the same surface that only moments ago held a meat item can transmit fats and proteins that, while harmless to an omnivore, can be quite dangerous to the well-being of a vegetarian.

So, when preparing, say, a veggie-burger, you cannot simply throw it on the same grill next to the steak burger. Rather, you’ll need to scrub that grill down before placing the veggie-burger on there to cook. Likewise, you cannot cook vegetarian items in the same fryer that you just dipped some chicken wings in.

Furthermore, if you don’t have facilities designated solely for vegetarian items, such as, say, a fryer or grill reserved just for such an occasion, you will need to let your customer know that all of your vegetarian items are cooked on the same surfaces as meat items. It may scare one or two veggies away, but it’s certainly better than making a paying customer ill.

Preparing Cold Food

Once more; cold food stays cold. The cold food should, of course, be kept in a cold storage facility, and it should be served cold. This can, in fact, be a little tricky with salads, for example.

Typically, a cold food item shouldn’t be removed from its storage or prepared until immediately before serving. As an example, in many restaurants, it’s not actually the kitchen staff who prepare the salads and cold sandwiches, but the serving staff. This ensures that the cold foods are not prepared until moments before serving, keeping them cold upon arrival.

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