It’s peak grilling season, which for many of us means rolling up our sleeves and shaping mounds of ground beef into patties before tossing them over the coals for the perfect char. But handling any ground meat, whether it be beef or pork or poultry, demands vigilance.
On whole cuts like steak, bacteria likely lives on the surface of the meat—meaning it's more easily killed off when cooked—but the same bacteria gets mixed throughout when meat is ground. This can lead to safety concerns: Consumer Reports recently found antibiotic-resistant salmonella in a third of ground chicken packages they tested, and a strain of E. coli in one beef sample.
But don’t panic. Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at Penn State, says that these findings are about par for the course when it comes to bacterial contamination of ground meat. While the report shouldn’t raise any new alarms, he says, it’s a worthy reminder to handle ground meat with particular care.
“It's a confirmation of a problem that we know exists,” agrees Donald Schaffner, professor of food science at Rutgers University.
Luckily, with proper storage, cleaning, and temperature control, you can safely cook with ground meat. Follow these tips from food scientists, and head to the grill with peace of mind.
Add ground meat to your shopping cart last.
Save your meat shopping for the end of your grocery trip, to ensure that it doesn’t spend too much time outside of temperature-controlled conditions. And definitely don’t leave it in a hot car while you run other errands. As meat sits in a hot environment like an unattended car, Schaffner explains, pathogens are “multiplying and growing higher and higher in concentration.”
Between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—the “Danger Zone,” according to USDA—bacteria on your meat can double in a mere 20 minutes. With this in mind, don’t leave your meat out of refrigeration for more than two hours, and don’t leave it at temperatures at or exceeding 90 degrees for over an hour.
Store it—and thaw it—in the fridge.
If you’re refrigerating your meat, set your fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, Schaffner says. Make sure the packaging on your meat is tightly sealed, and store it on the bottom shelf to avoid cross contamination if leaking occurs. For extra leakage protection, store your wrapped meat in a bowl.
If you’re dealing with frozen meat, resist the impulse to thaw it at room temperature to speed up the process, increasing the risk of bacterial growth in turn. Instead, plan ahead and thaw it in the fridge (roughly one day for one pound of ground meat).
Clean, clean, clean.
After working with ground meat, thoroughly sanitize your countertop, as well as any utensils or plates used (simple hot detergent water will suffice, Bucknavage says). If you’re using a platter to transport raw burgers to the grill, make sure you have another clean one on hand for your cooked patties. And it goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Wash. Your. Hands.
Use a meat thermometer.
A thermometer will tell you if you’ve cooked your meat to the right internal temperature. For all ground meat, that’s 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking ground meat without a thermometer, and trying to discern doneness based on color and texture alone, is “like driving a car without a speedometer,” Buckvanage warns.
And for medium-rare burger enthusiasts, (under)cook at your own risk: Schaffner recommends against cooking your burgers pink. “If you like your meat medium or medium rare,” he says, “my recommendation is to go with whole cuts of meat.”
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit