Is “Cooler Corn” Safe?

Is “Cooler Corn” Safe?

A friend of mine recently shared with me a few recipes for what is known as “cooler corn.” As the name implies, it’s a way of cooking a large amount of corn on the cob all at once inside a cooler, thereby saving time and grill and/or stove space.

At first I was intrigued. I had never heard of this cooking method before and my own personal curiosity was piqued. However, as a certified food safety instructor, I was also immediately horrified. As I reviewed several recipes for this “perfect way to make corn for a crowd,” I became increasingly alarmed. There were so many proper food safety practices violated, it nearly turned my stomach.

Cooking food in a cooler is an unsafe cooking method. Coolers are not designed to withstand the high temperatures required for cooking and cannot adequately hold foods at safe temperatures for prolonged periods of time.

For the record: Cooking corn in a cooler is UNSAFE. The safest ways to cook corn are in a stockpot on the stove, in the oven, or on a grill.

Here are the top four reasons this cooking method is not a good food safety practice:

empty cooler

Cooking food in a cooler is an unsafe cooking method. Coolers are not designed to withstand the high temperatures required for cooking and cannot adequately hold foods at safe temperatures for prolonged periods of time. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy, UF/IFAS Extension)

1. Coolers are not designed to be used for cooking. The plastic used in coolers is not meant to withstand continued exposure to boiling water and will start to degrade over time. The plastic can also be easily scratched or gouged, providing the perfect place for foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and E.coli to hide and grow. Think of the other things coolers are used for: storing fish or game after fishing or hunting, keeping drinks cold, storing raw meat or poultry for a picnic, etc. There are so many other opportunities to contaminate the cooler before it is used for cooking corn, even thorough cleaning and sanitation may not be enough to eliminate pathogens. Always keep cooking utensils and tools CLEAN to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.

But what about the boiling water? Won’t that kill any pathogens? Well, yes and no. See #4 below.

And NO, having a cooler dedicated only to cooking corn will not solve all the problems stated above. The bottom line is COOLERS ARE NOT SAFE TO COOK FOOD IN.

2. One of the conveniences of this method, as celebrated in the various recipes, is that people can just reach into the cooler and grab a perfectly cooked ear or two whenever the mood strikes. Allowing people to reach in and grab food like this – especially with their bare hands – is a very unsafe practice. People may forget to wash their hands properly before reaching in, thereby adding dirt and bacteria to the water and thus the food. This type of “germ-sharing” is called cross-contamination and is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness. Always keep things SEPARATE. This includes keeping raw food separate from cooked food, using separate utensils for each food, and reducing or eliminating bare hand contact with food.

3. Stacking dozens of ears of corn in a container and submerging them in boiling water does not ensure that all of the corn will be cooked evenly. The ones in the middle may not be cooked all the way through and there may also be temperature fluctuations in different areas of the cooler because of the way the food is stacked. There may be hot, warm, and cool spots, which can lower the overall temperature to an unsafe level and promote the growth of pathogens. Always COOK foods to the proper minimum internal temperature. In the case of corn, this is 135 degrees F. This can be measured by inserting a properly calibrated food thermometer between two cooked ears of corn and waiting until the needle stops moving.

4. One blog post about the wonders of Cooler Corn stated, “You can leave the corn in there for quite a while after it’s done cooking to keep the ears warm. Since the temperature naturally drops over time, the corn doesn’t get mushy.” When I read this, my mind screamed, “DANGER!” in flashing red letters.

Boiling water is a good sanitizer. However, a lot of what makes it effective for killing pathogens has to do with proper contact time with surfaces AT THE APPROPRIATE TEMPERATURE. Most coolers are not designed to keep boiling water that hot (212 degrees F) for any significant period of time. Even quality coolers will not hold the temperature long enough to ensure proper sanitation and elimination of pathogens.

One of the most important food safety principles is keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. To ensure the safety of food, it is important to keep cold foods below 41 degrees F and hot foods above 135 degrees F.

Now think about ears of corn submerged in water for a prolonged period of time, as the water slowly cools. After a while, that water will no longer be able to keep those ears of corn above 135 degrees F. They will basically be sitting in a soup of tepid water at the most favorable temperature for pathogens to grow. The longer the corn sits in that water, the higher the risk of foodborne illness. Always properly CHILL foods to keep them at a safe temperature, below 41 degrees F. The flip side of this coin is to also ensure hot food stays hot, above 135 degrees F.

Cooking for large groups can be a challenge, especially when kitchen space is limited. (Check out the UF/IFAS Extension fact sheet “Food Safety at Tailgating” for more food safety tips when cooking out.) However, it is never a good idea to sacrifice food safety for convenience. Always follow proper food safety practices, no matter the situation, and remember the 4 principles of safe food: CLEAN. SEPARATE. COOK. CHILL.

UF/IFAS in an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Celebrate Watermelons!

Celebrate Watermelons!

Watermelon slices in bowls

Credit: Photo by JÉSHOOTS from Canva Free Images

Watermelon is a tasty treat so celebrating watermelons in August sounds like a great reason to break out all the delicious and healthy watermelon recipes I’ve been saving—like this one for Watermelon Limeade.

Did you know that eating watermelon provides your body with Vitamins A, B6, C and potassium? Red watermelons are also a good source of lycopene. A two-cup serving of watermelon only has 80 calories but can provide 6% of your daily value of potassium, 8% of Vitamin A, 25% of Vitamin C and more!

Watermelons are also completely edible, from the fleshy center part all the way out to the green rind. The rind is typically cooked or pickled before being eaten and Watermelon Rind Pickles are popular here in the Southeast. Ninety percent of watermelons sold in stores are seedless, but if you do get a seeded watermelon, the seeds can be cooked and eaten too! They are usually sprouted and roasted or dried first.

Watermelon slices

Photo Credit: UF/IFAS File Photo

Buying a whole watermelon versus one that’s pre-cut can be a better value, but you’ll want to make sure you select a ripe melon. There’s an old wives’ tale about thumping the watermelon but the best way to choose is by picking it up and looking at it. Here’s what you’re checking for:

  • Look for a watermelon that doesn’t have any bruises, cuts, or dents. Some scratches are normal.
  • Check for a buttery or creamy yellow spot. This is an indicator of where the watermelon rested on the ground while it ripened.
  • The watermelon should be heavy considering the size. It is 92% water!

When you are preparing your watermelon, make sure to wash it before cutting into it. Use cool running water, scrub it with a produce brush, then dry it with a clean paper towel or cloth towel. Many people skip this step since it’s heavy and can be bulky but it’s an important part of maintaining your food’s safety. If you don’t wash your watermelon before cutting into it, you could be transferring bacteria from the outside of the melon to the inner flesh. Be sure your hands and any knives, utensils and cutting boards you will be using are clean as well.

An uncut watermelon can be stored outside of the refrigerator for a week if it wasn’t previously chilled. Once it has been cut open, it will need to be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated—you’ll want to enjoy it within a week.

When you think about eating watermelon, I bet the first image that comes to mind is eating a plain slice right from the fruit. And that’s great! Just keep in mind that watermelon can be made into drinks, added to salads, frozen into popsicles, incorporated in a stir-fry or slaw or even grilled!

Now, back to those recipes… here’s one for Watermelon Rind Pickles if you want to enjoy them right away (these will only keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator) and this is one for canning Watermelon Rind Pickles so you have them year-round! And if you want more, try the recipe section at the Produce for Better Health Foundation or the National Watermelon Promotion Board. Celebrate watermelons this August by trying a new recipe or two with this amazing fruit!

 

Resources:

National Watermelon Promotion Board. Frequently Asked Questions: https://www.watermelon.org/watermelon-101/facts-faqs/

National Watermelon Promotion Board, Nutrition: https://www.watermelon.org/nutrition/nutrient-profile/

Produce for Better Health Foundation, Top 10 Ways to Enjoy Watermelon: https://fruitsandveggies.org/stories/top-10-ways-enjoy-watermelon/

Prevent the Spread of Illness

Prevent the Spread of Illness

During flu season or other outbreaks of illness, take extra steps to stop the spread of germs.

basket of cleaning supplies

Keep surfaces clean and sanitized to help reduce the spread of illness. (Photo source: Kendra Zamojski)

  1.  Wash hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  2. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Use a tissue and toss, or cover your face with your elbow.
  3. Avoid close contact with others showing signs of respiratory illness like sneezing and coughing.
  4. Stay home if you are sick.
  5. Clean and sanitize surfaces. Use a spray or wipe a sanitizer of your choice across the surface. (Be sure to follow the package directions for the most effective use.) Mixing 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in a quart of water  (4 teaspoons per gallon) will make an effective sanitizer.
  6. To avoid foodborne illness, use a food thermometer to ensure foods like meat and eggs are cooked to their proper temperatures for safety.

References:

World Health Organization (WHO): https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus

UF/IFAS EDIS: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1280

Music source:  Maple Leaf Rag (1899, Z. Brewster-Geisz version) by Scott Joplin is licensed under a Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Holiday Leftovers: Keep Them Safe and Delicious

Holiday Leftovers: Keep Them Safe and Delicious

Cooked turkey with green peas and roll

Safe and delicious holiday leftovers
Photo Source: UF/IFAS

For some of us, the best part of holiday eating is snacking on the leftovers. There’s just nothing better for a post-holiday lunch than a turkey sandwich with some cranberry dressing. With a little care and attention to detail, holiday foods can be safe and delicious for several days after the big event.

So, what do we all need to know about holiday food safety? Take a look below for some quick and easy tips.

Reheating foods in the oven: Set your oven temperature no lower than 325˚F and reheat to 165˚F for turkey or chicken. Reheat ham to 145˚F. You will need a meat thermometer to check the temperature. If you don’t already have one, they’re easy to find and fairly inexpensive. To keep your meat moist, add a little broth or water and cover it with foil or an oven-proof lid.

Reheating foods in the microwave: To keep your turkey or chicken moist, sprinkle a little broth or water and cover it. You won’t need a lot of extra moisture for microwave cooking. If your microwave doesn’t have a revolving tray, be sure to rotate the meat for even heating. Let it stand for a minute or two after heating, as it will continue to cook for a bit. Just like with oven reheating, use a meat thermometer and heat poultry to 165˚F, ham to 145˚F.

Storing your turkey: It may be a painful thought, but if any turkey, stuffing, or gravy gets left out at room temperature for more than two hours, it needs to be thrown away. It’s better to waste food than to risk getting sick, especially over the holidays! Divide leftovers into small portions so they will quickly and evenly cool. Store in the refrigerator or freeze in appropriate containers.

Important Tips: Use refrigerated turkey, stuffing and gravy within four days. If you freeze your leftovers, use them within six months for best taste and quality. Not sure how long something’s been in the refrigerator or freezer? The old maxim still holds true: When in doubt, throw it out.

Best wishes to you for a safe and happy holiday season!

Don’t Let Rice or Pasta Ruin Your Day!

Don’t Let Rice or Pasta Ruin Your Day!

Photo credit: UF/IFAS NW District

Rice and pasta are a staple of most family meals. But did you know these simple grains can lead to a foodborne illness? Uncooked rice and pasta can contain spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause foodborne illness. These spores can survive even when rice or pasta is cooked. If the rice or pasta is left standing at room temperature, like in a pot on the stove, these spores can grow into bacteria. These bacteria will then multiply and produce toxins (poisons) that can cause foodborne illness. Bacillus cereus, sometimes called B. cereus, can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps.

Preventing Contamination by B. Cereus
Because B. cereus endospores are heat resistant, they are likely to survive cooking at temperatures that would destroy other foodborne pathogens. Bacillus cereus spores can grow when exposed to heat or improper handling.

Recommendations for Proper Handling of Rice and Pasta:

  • Cook rice and pasta at 135ºF or above and maintain at that temperature outside of the refrigerator.
    Serve rice or pasta as soon as it is cooked.
  • Cool in the refrigerator at 41ºF or below within 2 hours of cooking.
  • Store rice or pasta in the fridge using a shallow container or resealable bags.
  • Cooked rice or pasta can be stored in airtight containers in the fridge for 3 – 5 days.
  • Do not reheat rice or pasta more than once.

During the holidays, celebrations usually center around family and good food, and, therefore, our refrigerators easily can become full. We tend to leave rice or pasta out on the stove when there isn’t any room in the fridge. This is where the problem occurs. By following proper food handling techniques, you can ensure that everyone enjoys the holidays and the fabulous foods that are part of the festivities.

To learn more about Bacillus cereus or other foodborne illnesses, contact your UF/IFAS County Extension Office.

Resources:
UF/IFAS Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS), Preventing Foodborne Illness: Bacillus cereus

The Number of Food Poisoning Cases Caused by Bacillus cereus is on the Rise. (2015, April 1). Infection Control Today. Retrieved from https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/food-safety/number-food-poisoning-cases-caused-bacillus-cereus-rise

 

8 Safe Baking Tips

8 Safe Baking Tips

Flour is considered a raw ingredient so bake before eating. Photo credit: Judy Corbus

There is something about cooler weather that brings out the urge to bake and fill my home with delightful aromas befitting the season.  Enjoying the fruits of my labor is a tasty experience but here are 8 tips I follow during prep and afterwards to keep my baked goods safe.

  • Wash my hands, baking tools, appliances, and work surfaces with soap and hot water before, during, and after food prep – clean as I go!
  • Break eggs in a separate bowl before adding to the batter. This keeps shell fragments out of the batter and, if the egg is spoiled, I don’t ruin the whole project.
  • Never eat unbaked flour – this includes dough and batter. Flour is considered a raw ingredient, as it is minimally processed before being packaged for use. Wheat stalks in the field come in contact with birds, rodents, and other bacteria sources, which can spread E. Coli. Raw eggs can contain salmonella so bake foods to the proper internal temperature and resist the urge to lick the bowl, spoons, and beaters.
  • Use a food thermometer to check internal temperatures – a brown crust does not equal doneness. Insert the probe food thermometer in the product center and wait for the temperature to maintain a level reading. This Baked Goods Internal Temperatures Chart is a handy guide for determining internal doneness. If the outside is browned but it’s not done in the middle, lay foil lightly over the crust to prevent overbrowning and continue baking until the proper internal temperature is reached.
  • Always refrigerate perishable ingredients, pies, cheese-filled breads or baked goods with perishable filling ingredients (this includes eggs, custards, cheese, pizza, meats, casseroles, cream pies, puddings, and crème puffs) within 2 hours of use, preparation, or serving at room temperature. Cookie, scone, biscuit, pie, and yeasted dough may be refrigerated or frozen for later use.
  • Cool baked products on clean wire cooling racks on a clean counter or table away from where raw batter or dough are prepared. Don’t cool in the baking pans or directly on counter tops.
  • Wash my hands before packaging cooled products.
  • Store plain yeast breads at room temperature no longer than 1 to 2 days; freeze for longer term storage. Do not refrigerate unless the bread is filled with perishable ingredients.

Enjoy your favorite baked treats safely this holiday season and beyond!

Sources:  Home Baking Food Safety 101

HomeBaking.org

What’s Cooking America

North American Millers Association