Grilling out this Memorial Day weekend? The do’s and don’ts

At Virginia Tech University’s real test food kitchen, the director has one looming goal.

“My first priority is to safety,” said Melissa Wright, who heads up the university’s Food Producer Technical Assistance Network.

Every year, the unofficial start to summer grilling season comes with a few warnings. The first: avoid cross-contamination, by separating raw meat and fresh produce and toppings, Wright said.

“That ground meat is probably going to have E-coli in it, which is a natural organism,” she said. “Think about your wooden cutting boards. You cut it and there’s a groove in there, that bacteria loves to live in that groove. Have separate meat and produce cutting boards.”

Also, pay close attention to cooking temperatures, especially for beef-alternative products. Wright said many people tend to overlook the cooking labels when cooking soy, pea or chickpea proteins.

Although those proteins don’t have animal products, they still have ingredients that need to reach a certain temperature before they can be eaten, she said.

“The soy proteins need to reach 160 degrees, the same temperature as ground beef,” Wright said. “And the pea and chickpea proteins are 165, like ground poultry. If you want to be safe, you want to abide by these temperatures.”

Also, follow cooking directions on beef-alternative labels and ground poultry products. Some of those burgers are easy to overcook, Wright said.

She recommends investing in a reliable internal meat thermometer to check the thickest part of patties on the grill.

“I think a lot of people who learned how to grill on beef realize what color it’s supposed to be,” she said. “Beef is starting out with a richer, red color. If you cook [alternative-beef and poultry products] to the same color, you’re going to have a way overcooked product.”

Wright said one thing many people forget while grilling out is the holding temperatures of beef, salads and toppings. A cook or host may leave certain foods out on a buffet too long and inadvertently invite dangerous bacteria to the party.

Researchers tend to see a spike in food poisoning in the summer months, and much of it comes from improper holding temperatures, Wright said.

“Whether it’s a cold salad or a hot casserole, those things have a time period that they need to be refrigerated or warmed back up,” she said. “That can be a breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria and you end up with a stomach illness from that.”

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