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The Safe Temperature Zone for Food

Fine Cooking Issue 21

Close to 90% of all foodborne illness is caused by something we can control—temperature.

The range at which bacteria can survive and grow enough to make us sick is between 40° and 140°F. The extremes of the danger zone are much less dangerous than the center, however. Bacteria growth rate slows dramatically below 70°F and above 120°F. The real concern is keeping food below 70°F (room temperature) and above 120°F.

Cool food quickly so bacteria can’t grow

Obviously, we can’t avoid the danger zone altogether, or we wouldn’t be able to cook or cool food. But we can move the food rapidly through this zone by heating and cooling it as quickly as possible. Here are a few tips:

• Defrost food in the refrigerator. It takes longer but prevents the food from sitting at room temperature.

• Defrost food under cool running water (below 70°F) if you’re in a hurry.

• Cook the food immediately if you defrosted it in a microwave. Microwaves heat unevenly, and parts of the food may rise above 70°F during defrost.

• Chill food to just below 70°F in an ice bath before refrigerating. (Refrigerators do a poor job of chilling large amounts of food.)

• Divide large amounts of food into smaller batches to speed chilling.

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