Food Safety: Which Rules Are Flexible, and Which Shortcuts Are Lazy?

Has this happened to you? You're preparing for a dinner party or other event a day ahead. You spend all night making a big pot of chicken stock or maybe chili or soup. The dish is finished and glorious, but too hot for the fridge. And then tired from hours in the kitchen, you lay down and pass out.

It's certainly unsettling to wake up and find the fruits of your labor still sitting on the stove, at room temperature and of questionable integrity. I've committed this slip more often than I'd like to admit, and I can't say I've handled the problem with any amount of consistency.

Sometimes I freak out and toss the dish, driven to a rash decision by fears of party guests with food-borne illnesses. One morning, before a party I was hosting that started early in the afternoon, I simply turned up the heat and let the soup simmer away. "That'll kill em," (the bacteria), I thought. Another time I tossed a stock in the fridge and forgot about it. I used it in its entirety throughout the week.

And to my knowledge, I've never made anyone sick.

Harold McGee wrote in The New York Times that some of the rules we've been given may at times be overkill. His article is borne out of a blog post by Michael Ruhlman, which prescribes leaving stock out at room temperature all week, as long as it's boiled properly before serving. McGee challenges this claim, citing several experts including food scientists and the FDA, which all offered various degrees of conflicting information.

For matters of personal food safety, everyone is on their own to determine what risks they're willing to take. I'm a terribly self-critical cook, and am constantly looking for ways to make the dishes I now rarely prepare as perfect as they can possibly be. Ruhlman admits in the article his process is a shortcut that yields acceptable but less desirable results saying:

I agree that I should have been clearer about the importance of the 'kill step,' a good 10 minutes at the boil," he said. "And certainly to make the freshest, cleanest stock, it's always best to strain, cool and chill it as rapidly as possible.

Like your burgers bloody, because they're more juicy that way? Ever figure out the key to a succulent roast chicken is pulling it just a touch before it reaches the USDA recommended temperature of 165 degrees F? I take risks like these because they result in food that is more desirable to eat. Leaving your stock out all week to save time, endanger your health and end up with an inferior dish just seems lazy to me.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz