Food matters are supposed to be very simple to humans since food has been with humans for as long as we have existed. Take for instance the ever confusing question of whether we should wash meat before cooking.
The modern world comes with the luxury of variety and choices. The way we receive and consume our meat varies from place to place.
What is common is the fact that meat handling needs high standards of hygiene due to its susceptibility to microbial spoilage.
Why the Urge to Wash that Steak Before Cooking?
Most people will see the word “hygiene” and straight away associate it with washing. That is why most people in the kitchen feel the urge to wash everything including meat.
They ignore the fact that the meat is about to be subjected to high temperatures that would kill most of the microorganisms.
The urge to wash meat before cooking also comes from the assumption that the harmful microorganisms are only found on the meat surface.
If your meat is not hygienically handled from the source, your worries are valid and the meat surface could be highly contaminated.
So, you might be thinking, should I just ignore the bacteria and trust my meat vendors on hygiene and sanitation?
Hold that thought. We will deal with it as we go along.
In the modern world where the food delivery trend is becoming the preferred way of shopping in urban areas, most people will have their meat delivered when wrapped in packages.
In most cases, you will see some red blood-like liquid in the meat package. As a person who is obsessed with hygiene, you will assume it is blood; and according to you, blood is very dirty and should be washed off the meat.
Well, I am here to surprise you that you are overthinking. The red liquid in your package is actually not blood. In food science, we call it a ‘purge,’ and it is just a mixture of water and animal proteins (myoglobin) coming out of the meat and is actually very nutritious. So why wash it off?
But… I wash Fruits and Vegetables Before Cooking; why not Meat?
The answer is simple. Meat, unlike fruits and vegetables, is highly susceptible to spoilage microorganisms.
To be a bit technical here, the bacteria of concern in meat handled in an unhygienic condition is the Campylobacter. It is what causes food poisoning for most meats.
Washing meat thus accelerates the spread of this bacteria from the meat to other surfaces in the kitchen resulting in cross-contamination.
Just imagine how tiny bacteria is and how many could be present in a visible drop of water!
Now imagine how washing your meat under a fast running tap splatters those droplets all over the kitchen sink, utensils, surfaces, and other groceries as you try solving the small hygiene concern that is unnecessary at that point.
I say “unnecessary at that point” because food science tells us that Campylobacter and most other food spoilage bacteria cannot survive temperatures higher than 100 ℃ (212 ℉).
Unless you belong to the cat family, you do not want to eat meat that has been cooked below that temperature especially if you doubt your sources.
If you are not sure about the temperatures, it is important to get a simple food thermometer. This is particularly important when cooking or roasting large chunks of meat.
The food thermometer will help you tell the core temperature of your meat with accuracy.
The Problem with Food Bacteria
You might be thinking that this is another sensational paranoia created by food scientists to dismiss your traditional practices. Think about how far humans have come in scientific research.
A long time ago people died of the Black Death pandemic because they thought it was a curse spread through aerial spirits. It was until the late 19th century that the real cause was established; at the cost of millions of lives.
Bacteria can be very cunning. They can ‘play dead’ when in an unfavorable environment only to resurrect in favorable conditions.
This is why washing meat from the freezer or the fresh meat from the butchery will spread the inactive bacteria on surrounding surfaces and utensils.
If these surfaces are not properly cleaned and sanitized, the bacteria will easily multiply and spread with time in the ambient conditions.
The cunning bacteria can quickly turn from inactive to poisonous in a matter of hours.
The only sure way of getting rid of bacteria is denaturing them in high temperatures. High temperatures kill bacteria completely and is more effective than washing them away with water.
This is why you should not ignore this research by the USDA on why not to wash meat before cooking. A change in your meat handling could be the difference in the number of trips you will have to make to the chemist or hospital this year and beyond due to stomach upsets.
What to do if you Really have to Wash your Meat Before Cooking
It is possible that you might find yourself with meat that may need some washing. It could be meat that you have slaughtered the animal yourself and ended up accumulating some dirt or maybe you spotted some bone fragments on your purchased meat that you need to get rid of before cooking.
In summary, you need to do the following to avoid cross-contamination:
- Ensure meat is covered and is not in contact with other foods such as vegetables, salads, and fruits
- Start preparing vegetables and salads before handling meat
- Keep raw meat covered in a refrigerator when not in use.
- Use separate chopping board for raw meat and other vegetable
- If very necessary, wash meat in slow-running water avoiding splattering water droplets
- Wash your hands, surfaces, sink, and utensils thoroughly after washing your meat
- Separate meat utensils and other utensils in the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination
- Cook your meat to the right temperature
The first step to food safety is you. You have the money, so you should make the rules on what and where to purchase your meat from. If you are not satisfied with the hygiene standards of your meat vendor, walk out like the boss you are with no apologies since they will never accompany you during the hospital trip.