Independence Day – more than any other holiday – begs to be commemorated outdoors; warm weather, outdoor picnics and fireworks are exactly how our Fore Fathers would have wanted us to celebrate. But, you don’t have to wait until the Fourth of July to pack up an ice chest full of your favorite eats and head for the hills. Here are three tips to help your family outing stay safe and delicious, no matter what the date.
Keep cold food cold
Cold food should be kept at 40°F or colder to prevent bacterial growth. This can be difficult when you’re trying to squeeze lunch for four (or more) into an ice chest. Consolidate space by making your own ice packs using milk cartons or plastic containers. Frozen gel packs are also a great idea when you’re trying to make room for granny’s potato salad.
Place cold foods in water-proof containers or wrap them in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Completely immerse them in the ice (or homemade ice packs) inside the cooler. Never set containers of food on top of the ice and call it good.
When packing up for the picnic, consider this: The trunk of your car can reach temperatures in excess of 150°F, so it’s best to transport coolers in the passenger area of the car. When you arrive at the site of the celebration, put a blanket over the cooler and place it in a shaded area to help maintain cold temperatures.And just like a hot oven loses heat every time you open the door, your cooler will lose its chill factor every time you reach in for a cold beverage. Keep your cooler closed as much as possible until you’re ready to eat.
Bring along a digital fridge/freezer alarm thermometer (like the RT801) and give yourself an added layer of protection against harmful bacteria. The low-cost thermometer is perfect for coolers. An external probe will let you know the internal temperature of your ice chest and high, low alarms will tell you when you’ve dipped into the danger zone.
Keep hot food hot
Hot foods should be held at 140°F or hotter to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. This requires the transport of hot foods just as they are coming off the heat at home, or the reheating of food items at the picnic.
Transported food should be wrapped in a towel, then newspaper and placed inside a box or heavy paper bag inside the car to slow down the cooling process. When you’ve reached the picnic site, keep the food items warm over a lit grill, however, they’ll need to be consumed within the hour to quell any bacterial uprising.
A leave-in meat thermometer (like the TW362B) is an ideal temperature tool for monitoring the internal temp of your hot food items. The flexible, braided cable can be snaked through towels and bags and provide you with a real-time internal temperature reading. When the food gets dangerously close to the 140°F mark you’ll know it’s time to eat, or reheat!
Cooking at the picnic
If outdoor cooking, over an open flame, is more your style, keep in mind these few food preparation tips. Always wash your hands before touching food. Dirty hands can lead to physical and biological contamination. Wipe down all work surfaces and make sure your utensils have been sanitized.
Also, it’s important that you never partially cook your food with the intention of continuing the cook later. Don’t start baking chicken at home and plan on finishing it on the grill. Partially cooked food is a hot bed for bacteria and allows for the possible formation of toxins. Some toxins are not destroyed by cooking, so reheating food later will not make it safe.
Always have a super-fast thermometer, such as the Thermapen, on hand to temp whatever you’re cooking. Use the thermometer the same way you would at home, probing the thickest parts of the cut and allowing the meat to reach a safe internal temperature. If you’re not sure about what constitutes a safe internal temp, consult a temperature chart.