A recently published survey caught my eye; it was a small study on the cleanliness of home kitchens. The results were both surprising and disturbing.
According to a survey of 13,000 adults conducted online by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and published by the CDC, nearly 1 in 7 home kitchens are not up to code, failing to meet even the minimum standards of cleanliness required of professional kitchens. By contrast, about 98 percent of LA restaurant kitchens receive passing grades.
Trust me, full-bore kitchen inspections conducted by health inspectors are frightening things. Those guys look for stuff you never knew existed in places you never knew you had. The online survey was nowhere near a comprehensive inspection. It asked, for instance, whether respondents have shelves and cabinets that are clean and dust-free (26 percent do not). Flies, roaches, or rodents are present in 20 percent of home kitchens. Thirty-six percent of participants do not have working thermometers in their refrigerators and 28 percent do not routinely remove jewelry or maintain their fingernails when preparing food.
Those surveyed didn’t know much about food placement in the refrigerator, revealing that they did not place food with consideration to allowing proper air flow and did not store raw meat below other foods on refrigerator shelves. Twenty-seven percent admitted to not storing partially cooked foods that would not be used immediately in the refrigerator before final cooking, and a substantial number did not thoroughly rinse fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking.
Of the 13,000 involved, 34 percent got an “A” rating, having correctly answered at least 90 percent of the questions. Another 27 percent got a “B,” 25 percent received “C” marks, and 14 percent failed to get a score of at least 70.
Analysts believe – and I concur – that the real situation in American home kitchens is probably worse. Conventional wisdom dictates that only those interested in and conscious of food safety bothered to take the survey, therefore representing the highest common denominator. A more comprehensive inspection would likely result in an even smaller percentage of home kitchens capable of passing the most rudimentary professional kitchen inspection.
(I took the survey. Try your hand at this link: http://bit.ly/aMyIdw.)
Approximately 87 million people contract food-borne illnesses in the United States every year. More than 350,000 of these people are hospitalized and about 5,700 people die as a result of what is commonly called “food poisoning.”
The general populace – fueled by a sometimes sensationalist media – blame the bulk of food poisonings on restaurants or other public kitchens. Most experts, however, lay the blame more squarely where it belongs: filthy home kitchens. Killer kitchens. Real “Kitchen Nightmares.”
The real problem is that an astonishing number of people don’t know even the fundamental basics of kitchen cleanliness and food safety. And an equally astonishing number simply don’t care.
Please believe me, I am not making this up for dramatic effect. This anecdote is disgustingly real. I was once invited to spend some time at a home in Florida. Upon arriving late in the evening, I was greeted by my hosts who were seated at a huge dining table upon which were the remains of I don’t know how many recent meals. The detritus had all been pushed to one end of the table to allow my hostess room to work on the task at hand; beheading freshly killed chickens. She had one stretched out on the table when I walked in. Not on a board or cutting surface of some sort, mind you, but on the actual unprotected surface of the family dining table. She was wielding a large knife. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I can fix you something to eat,” – and and she resoundingly whacked off the chicken’s head. Needless to say, I declined.
Come breakfast time, I made the mistake of wandering into the kitchen, which was a cross between a menagerie and the town dump. The back door was open; it was a screenless screen door that invited every insect and rodent in Florida into the kitchen. And then there were the chickens. They were coming in through the screenless door and wandering around the kitchen, pecking at bugs on a floor that was scarcely distinguishable from the barnyard outside.
I checked into a hotel for the remainder of my stay and vigorously patronized local restaurants.
I also stayed – briefly – with a family for whom kitchen cleanliness was a rather casual affair. When the dirty dishes exceeded the countertop capacity, they were simply stacked up on the kitchen floor. If you found yourself in need of a particular plate or pan, you just plucked it from the stack, rinsed it under running water, and used it.
Still another family of my acquaintance merely apologizes for the roaches – dead and alive – that fall or scurry out of cabinets and drawers rather than making any real effort to eliminate them.
If cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness, these people had all best prepare for very warm climates in the next world.
My mother occupied the other side of the scale. She was such a clean freak that when she died, the makers of Lysol sent flowers. Health inspectors designated her home as a shrine. Hospitals used to send operating room personnel over to Mom’s house to learn how to clean. And I’m just barely exaggerating. Small wonder I became the borderline obsessive-compulsive spic-and-span Nazi that I am. A regular “Mr. Clean” with hair. Yes, I’m a dictator and a martinet – but I’ve never poisoned anybody with my food.
So, please allow me to pass on a few tips and tricks for keeping your kitchen restaurant clean and inspection ready. Bear in mind, I will only be discussing basic cleanliness. Food safety, while certainly essential and pertinent, is a subject all its own.
First things first; for the record, roaches and vermin are not “just a part of life.” Lots of people make a living eliminating such repulsive and dangerous pests. Lots of big companies manufacture products to assist homeowners and professionals alike in eliminating such repulsive and dangerous pests. If you have them in your kitchen, it’s because you haven’t truly tried to get rid of them. If bugs are “just a part of life” in your kitchen, might I respectfully suggest you get a new life?
Now, let’s start with the floor. Sweep your kitchen floor daily. Twice daily if you have kids and/or animals. Naturally, allowing animals access to the kitchen would be an automatic “fail” in a professional inspection. I used to live in a great old house in which the kitchen was a separate room with its own door that was closed to the cats and dogs. Unfortunately, most modern homes aren’t built that way, so just do your best at keeping Fido and Fluffy away from food preparation areas. Sweeping the floor frequently is the best first line of defense.
Clean up any spills as soon as they happen. It’s not just a hygiene issue, but a safety issue as well.
Mop the floor at least weekly, more often if kids or pets are present. Pull the stove and refrigerator out to sweep and mop under and behind them on a regular basis. And put something substantial in that mop water! A quick swipe with a dirty mop dipped in plain cold water does not constitute a mopping. Lysol, Pine-Sol, ammonia, bleach (NEVER together, please!) – whatever your preference, as long as the water is hot and the solution is strong. If you have tile floors or deeply patterned flooring, get down there and scrub those crevices by hand if necessary. Watch for built up residue in corners. If you have rugs or mats on the kitchen floor, take them up and wash them regularly or replace them as necessary. If there really was such a thing as a “five second rule,” you should feel confident about applying it to your kitchen floor. But there isn’t, so don’t.
Moving up to counter tops and work surfaces, there is no such thing as a surface that is too clean, especially since these are the areas where you do your actual food preparation. If you’ve developed the habit of sitting on your counter top or of allowing others to do so, break it. Do you know where their butts have been well enough to set your food down after them? Hmmm? And I don’t care how much you love your cat or how much you fall for the old cazzata about how clean they are. They are animals, people! They urinate and defecate in a box full of dirt and then use their paws to dig around in it. And then you let them walk across your food preparation area? Channeling Gordon Ramsay here, “Are you ****ing nuts!?” There are training aids available that discourage animals from jumping onto surfaces where they don’t belong. Invest in them.
If you must multi-task and use your food prep area for other purposes – craft projects, homework, etc. – sanitize the area before you start working with food. In fact, that’s a good idea as a general rule. Think of everything you throw on the kitchen counter during the course of a day – mail, grocery bags, books, keys, purses – and then think of where those things have been. For instance, your purse on the floor at your office and then on the floor of your car. Or that library book that you probably don’t even want to consider where it’s been before it landed on your counter. Clorox, Lysol and other manufactures make cleaning products specifically for use on kitchen surfaces. Or you can make your own. The makers of Clorox recommend 3/4 cup of bleach per gallon of water. (http://www.clorox.com/products/usage.php?prod_id=clb.) Put some in a spray bottle and keep it handy. If you are not fortunate enough to have solid surface counter tops with bullnose edges, take extra care with seams and joints. Bacteria just love those little hideaways.
You really shouldn’t prep food directly on your counter top – but everybody does it. If you must plop down a raw chicken, make sure you sanitize the surface before you chop the onions or slice the bread. That’s what they make a variety of cutting boards and mats for. I’m not going to delve into the relative merits of wood versus plastic. (For an in depth look at the issue, check out http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/cutting_board.htm.) I like my wood board and I also utilize color-coded plastic mats. And I sanitize the beejeebers out of all of them every time I use them. Hot soapy water to remove the top layer and a spritzing with sanitizing spray before I use them again. No shortcuts. “But I just cut a slice of bread on it! It’s not dirty!” Is that the same excuse you used when you “just” had a little raw hamburger on it last night? No shortcuts.
Let’s continue on over to the sink. Oh, boy! First let me tell you that if I accidentally drop a clean fork in my empty sink, it stays there and I get another fork. Why? Because I know what goes on in my sink between dish washings. Until I lay the hot water and soap to it, it’s no cleaner than my floor. I sanitize my sinks at least once a day, especially the drains. Have you really ever looked down there? So, unless I have just had scalding hot water and/or disinfectant in the sink, I consider it a dirty surface.
Speaking of hot water, – here comes the soapbox – you cannot – repeat cannot – wash dishes in cold or tepid water. Nor can you expect cold, gray, dirty water that has been sitting in your sink for hours to effectively sanitize your dishes. I know so many people who apparently have aversions to hot water. “It burns my hands!” “It dries my skin!” It cleans your dishes!! Period! Wear insulated rubber gloves and keep hand lotion by your sink, but do not try to wash dishes in less than 110° water, or you may as well not bother. Anything below that number gets you a “fail” in a professional inspection. Anything between 110° and 120° works. Anything hotter for hand dishwashing is dangerous. Most restaurant kitchens have three sinks – wash, rinse, and sanitize. If your home kitchen has a regular double sink, wash in hot water with a good surfactant (means “dish soap”) to remove surface dirt. Some soaps contain antibacterial agents, and that’s good. But boosting the temperature on your rinse water and adding a few drops of bleach is better. Just a little; your dishwater shouldn’t smell like a swimming pool. There’s a ratio employed in restaurants and little test strips are used to measure the levels, but if you stick with hot water, good quality soap, and a little bleach, you’ll be fine. If you refuse to use hot water, just set up little cabanas poolside for the germs. They’ll appreciate that.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do. Change the water as it gets dirty. I’m all for being “green” and saving the planet and water conservation and all, but you can’t get dishes clean in greasy, gray sludge with food particles floating in it.
Kitchen sponges are just not a good idea. I know, you can nuke ’em in the microwave to freshen them up, but it’s a never-ending process. Many food safety experts call the dish sponge “the most germ-laden item in the average household.” Did you know that salmonella and e-coli (read “fecal material”) are among the friendlier things found on the common sponge? Wet sponges are natural breeding grounds for hordes of nasties, and even if you nuke them, they come clamoring back the first time you touch the sponge to a surface. Sponges are banned in restaurant kitchens. Get them out of yours.
Dishcloths or wiping cloths are a better option. Not perfect, but better in that they are easier to keep clean. In most restaurants, they live in buckets of bleach solution between uses. At home, I soak mine in a bleach solution every day and leave it out to air dry on a rack. Pet peeve number ten-gazillion: people who wad up their dishcloths and leave them on the sink or counter. Hello? Have you smelled that thing lately? Wadded up wet dishcloth equals wet sponge on the contamination scale.
Drying dishes with dishtowels is a no-no in restaurants. Everything has to heat dry or air dry, just like in your dishwasher. I know this isn’t always practical, but at the very least, use a clean, dry towel. If the towel gets too wet or becomes soiled, replace it with another clean, dry towel. And don’t use the towel that you’re using on the dishes to, say, wipe up a spot on the floor or to wipe down the counter tops. If you do, go get a clean towel before you touch another clean dish.
Restaurant dishwashers boost the water temperature up to 180°. Home dishwasher temps need to be between 135° and 145°, the point at which just about all little undesirable beasties croak. Most dishwasher detergents won’t even begin to melt at cooler temperatures, much less be effective cleaners. Dishwashers have heating elements to boost the water temperature to proper levels, so you don’t have to kick your water heater up to 140°. But the hotter the source water, the less those elements will have to work, thus increasing efficiency and lowering cost of operation. If you use your dishwasher frequently, clean it frequently. Clean filters and screens and spray down the interior with sanitizing spray.
Next to the dishwasher (in my kitchen, anyway) is the stove. The range. The oven. The cooker. Whatever you choose to call it, it needs to be clean. And in most home kitchens, it’s the dirtiest thing in the room. I’ve seen home cooktops so coated and layered with black greasy deposits and burned on, caked on crap that I wouldn’t prepare dog food on them, much less anything I was going to feed to humans. Vent hoods yellow with grease. Filters that hadn’t been changed or cleaned since the appliance was new. Even the light bulbs in the hood were dimmed with greasy gunk. Backsplashes dripping with grease. Control knobs and buttons caked with grease. Drip pans so filthy as to be fire hazards, sometimes disguised with layers of equally filthy aluminum foil.
If this sounds even slightly familiar, get cleaning. Some of the cleaning products I mentioned earlier contain degreasers. Or you can use a good degreasing dish liquid, like Dawn, and – here we go again – hot water. Remove all the knobs (yes, they do come off) and drop them in a bucket or sink of hot soapy water to soak while you scrub around the stems and the rest of the control panel. Remove the coils (electric) or grates and burner caps (gas) and clean them. Obviously, you can’t soak the electric elements in water, but running a damp cloth over the surface is okay, just avoid wetting the contact points. If you have drip pans, soak ’em, scrub ’em, or replace ’em. I’m not a big fan of aluminum foil on drip pans. It’s easier to just keep them clean by wiping them down on a regular basis. Wipe down the entire stove top, especially around the burners, with hot soapy water, paying attention to baked on stains and splatters. This is where non-abrasive cleaning pads come in handy. Wipe down the vent hood and get up under the hood where the really nasty stuff is. If you’ve got a filter up there, remove it, clean it, or replace it, if necessary. And clean the light bulb, for goodness sake. You should actually have a plastic cover over it, but if you don’t, it’s okay to wipe down the bulb itself. Just make sure it’s dry before you screw it back in. Take some degreaser or hot soapy water to the backsplash. If necessary, you may have to ferret out greasy deposits in cracks, crevices, and corners with a flat-blade screwdriver or a putty-knife or something similar. (I truly hope that’s not necessary!) Then give it all a spritz with sanitizer before moving on to the oven.
Why clean your oven? Pretty much anything you cook in there will certainly exceed the critical 140° mark, thus killing anything harmful, right? True. But that factor aside, built up deposits in your oven can adversely affect temperature regulation. And old, greasy, sooty, smoky build-up can also affect the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. Don’t really want that birthday cake tasting like old fish, do you?
Newer ovens have very easy and efficient self-cleaning features. Even if yours doesn’t, there are a variety of oven cleaners on the store shelves to help you do the job without a lot of fuss. Gone are the days your mother and grandmother complained about when oven cleaners were extremely caustic and extremely smelly. There are a lot of non-toxic, fume free and environmentally friendly oven cleaning products on the market. Read and follow the directions, especially regarding cleaning up any cleaner residue. Don’t want the birthday cake tasting like that, either. Spot cleaning as needed will help extend the intervals between full scale cleanings. And don’t forget to clean the racks. Caked on, baked on build-up on oven racks can and does occasionally break loose and will invariably wind up falling into whatever is cooking below it. Nobody wants unwanted extras in the souffle.
Some people use microwaves and toaster ovens far more than they do their regular ovens. And it usually shows. Microwave interiors are made of plastic and glass and are ridiculously easy to clean with spray cleaners or with a little hot, soapy water. The glass plates or turntables are generally removable and can be washed in the sink. Don’t forget the upper interior surface, as that’s where most of the dirt and build-up accumulates. And sanitize the exterior frequently. Hands and fingers that push the buttons and open the door are not always the cleanest, you know.
Unless your toaster oven, or tabletop oven, sees frequent heavy use, it probably won’t require frequent heavy cleaning. A weekly sanitizing wipe down inside and out will likely be sufficient, but do remember to empty the catch tray. It’s like an open buffet to the sort of uninvited guests we were discussing earlier. This practice applies to regular toasters, too.
In terms of filthiness, the refrigerator is often right up there with the stove. In the same manner that the oven is hot, I guess people assume that since the refrigerator is cold, germs can’t live there. Wrong! Temperatures of 140° and above kill most living organisms. Temperatures of 40° and below only put many of them to sleep. A lot of very ugly things can and do go on inside your refrigerator. The little dial in there that says “cold, colder, coldest” or has a series of numbers indicating temperature settings is fine, but the only real way to keep your refrigerator operating at a safe temperature is to have a working thermometer inside. It’s the first thing an inspector would look for.
Again, food safety is a subject all its own, so I’m not going to delve too deeply into food storage and placement and such. There are tons of tips out there, many of which can be found at http://www.helpwithcooking.com/food-storage/refrigeration-tips.html or http://www.cooksillustrated.com/images/document/howto/MA01_ILRefrigerator.pdf.
Sticking to cleanliness, I’ve opened home refrigerators that should simply have been condemned. Filthy racks; puddles of sticky, foul-smelling goo on the “floor” of the refrigerator where something leaked or dripped and wasn’t immediately cleaned up; fetid, rancid odors from bits of spoiled food left unattended; mildewed rubber seals around doors; mold and mildew on shelves and interior surfaces. Yuck! And this is where you store the things you are going to eat?! Insane! When cleaning a refrigerator in a rental unit once, I found maggots inhabiting the door seal and mold in the freezer. I literally took the refrigerator apart to inspect areas under panels and shelves that don’t usually get inspected, and what I found nearly sent me to the bathroom. And people were feeding children from this monstrosity.
Clean the refrigerator! Depending on how heavily you use it, it should be thoroughly cleaned monthly, with maintenance cleaning done weekly. Spills and leaks should, of course, be taken care of immediately. Empty it out. Anything suspect or obviously out of date should be tossed. If you can’t remember what it is or how long it’s been in there, get rid of it! Then turn the unit off and remove all the trays, bins, shelves, racks, compartments, etc. and tote them over to the sink where you will vigorously wash them with – what? That’s right, hot soapy water. Let them dry while you give the interior surfaces a good going over with cleaner and sanitizer. Bring that non-abrasive scrubber along – you’ll probably need it. Pay attention to the door seals. They can be mildew magnets. (Cleaning shouldn’t take that long, but if it does, you should have a couple of coolers on hand in which you can place your food while you’re cleaning.) Dry the interior with clean towels or paper towels. Put everything back together – making sure it’s all dry – and organize your foodstuff. It’ll look good for an hour or two, at least. (I know I didn’t mention turning the refrigerator back on; I was hoping I wouldn’t have to.) Repeat as much of the procedure as necessary for the freezer. And then take on the outside, paying particular attention to the top and the handles. Pain that it is, you should take down all the magnets and artwork from time to time. You’ll be surprised by the clean spots on the doors and sides the first time you take all that stuff off. But you’ll also see why you need to do it occasionally. Three or four times a year, it’s a good idea to take a vacuum cleaner to the coils on the back of the fridge. Besides general cleanliness, you’ll extend the life and performance of the appliance.
Finally, go over the cabinets, the pantry, and any functional or decorative shelving you might have in your kitchen. Make sure there’s no dust. Make sure there are no spills. Nothing sticky, greasy, or nasty that would attract pests. In the pantry or food storage cupboards, make sure everything is dust free and tightly sealed. Clean up any little messes. Roaches and mice have simple tastes. A few cracker crumbs, a few grains of sugar, some spilled flour – they’re happy! If you have canisters on the counter or on a shelf, wipe them down frequently. Same for small appliances. It’s amazing how dusty and grimy things can get between uses. If you keep pots, pans, and utensils on exposed racks, give them a good regular dusting and cleaning and then remember to wipe them down with a clean towel before you use them. Unless your home is hermetically sealed, there is always something floating in the air in search of a surface to rest on. Make sure that surface is not your favorite frying pan.
Yes, it’s all a lot of work and no, the county won’t be conducting an inspection in your kitchen today. But when it comes to the health of your family and friends, wouldn’t you like to know that it would pass?