Be safe: Keep cream pies cool

I made a chocolate cream pie for guests this weekend. We left it out on the counter for most of the afternoon, and one of my guests told me that I should have kept it refrigerated, and since I didn’t, we should throw it away. Was she right?

If you allowed the pie stay at room temperature (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than two hours, then, yes, she was right.

Standard food safety guidance warns against allowing perishable foods such as cream pies to stay in the “danger zone” — between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F — for more than two hours. After that amount of time, if there are any microorganisms that could cause foodborne illness lurking in the food, they are able to multiply so rapidly that they would be more likely to cause problems.

Experts say that after cooking cream pies, you should let them cool at room temperature for just 30 minutes, then put them in the refrigerator to complete cooling. They should be kept refrigerated except when you serve them.

Fruit pies — your standard apple, cherry or peach pie, for example — can safely be left at room temperature. But cream and custard pies are a different story. They normally contain ingredients such as eggs, milk, cream or cream cheese that need to be treated with extra care. And their moisture content is much higher, too, which makes them even more prone to the growth of bacteria and other microbes.

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s “Bad Bug Book” (a handbook on foodborne microorganisms), one of the organisms that cream pies are susceptible to is Staphylococcus aureus, or Staph. Staph is very common in the environment, and it can make toxins that might not be destroyed by cooking.

Obviously, illness doesn’t always occur when food isn’t handled properly. But if it does occur with Staph, it comes fast, within one to seven hours after eating. Symptoms include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, with severe cases causing dehydration, headache, muscle cramps, and even temporary changes in blood pressure and heart rate. The illness normally is over within a day — sometimes just a few hours.

Besides cooking and storing food properly, you can help keep food safe by washing your hands thoroughly (and often) as you prepare and serve food, and by keeping utensils and surfaces clean. For more details, download a fact sheet from Ohio State University Extension at http://go.osu.edu/staphPDF.

Now is a great time to try fresh herbs

Last week, I used fresh dill weed in a recipe for the first time and was surprised how mild it was — very different from from the dried dill I normally use. I want to try using more fresh herbs. Any ideas on where I should start?

Sure. But you should know that the first rule of cooking with fresh herbs is this: There are no rules. Have fun and experiment, using small amounts at first as you figure out what you like.

Using herbs is a great way to add rich flavor to foods. They are often touted as alternatives to salt, which is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, but they can also add zest when you reduce sugar or fat in a recipe.

Ohio State University Extension has a free fact sheet, “Selecting, Storing and Using Fresh Herbs,” available to download at http://go.osu.edu/ohiolineherbs. Some of the advice it offers includes:

  • Handle fresh herbs gently. Oils that give herbs their aroma and flavor readily escape from the leaves, seeds and stems if they’re injured.
  • If you have more of an herb than what you can use immediately, you can store it in the refrigerator for a week or more by trimming off the ends of the stems on the diagonal and putting them upright in a tall glass or vase with an inch of water. Cover it loosely with a plastic bag, allowing air to circulate. Change the water daily.
  • Extended cooking will weaken the flavor of fresh herbs, so for soups or stews, add them in the last 45 minutes of cooking. On the other hand, in cold foods such as dips, dressings, cheeses or cold vegetables, add fresh herbs several hours or overnight before serving.
  • If you’re not familiar with the flavor of a new herb, mix it with margarine or butter and let it set for about an hour. Then spread it on a plain cracker to taste.

The fact sheet also lists some popular fresh herbs, from anise to thyme, and suggests dishes to try them in.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has some tips in an online slide show, “Flavor Your Meals: Must-Have Summer Herbs,” at http://bit.ly/flavorherbs. It offers information on using both favorite and uncommon fresh herbs, including rosemary, mint, basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, bee balm, chives, lavender and lemon verbena.

Another good reference on using fresh herbs (and, actually, for all things culinary) is the book “The New Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. It has thousands of entries on foods and cooking techniques, as well as herbs and spices. Take a look — you might be surprised at what you don’t know.

Cooking won’t cure all food safety ills

I was making soup in the slow cooker but forgot to plug it in. After five hours, I realized what happened and cooked the soup, which included cooked chicken, on high for five more hours. I thought it would be OK, but my wife said no and threw it out. Who was right?

She did the right thing by throwing away the soup.

One of the basic rules of food safety is that perishable foods should be kept at room temperature — well, actually, anywhere between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — for no more than two hours. Any longer than that, and you’re taking too big of a chance that any bacteria or other pathogens will multiply so much that they could make you sick.

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. That means that a mere five cells of bacteria can multiply to 320 cells in two hours, or to 163,840 cells in five hours. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance of illness.

In fact, experts recommend that food be refrigerated within one hour, not two, if the temperature outside is above 90 degrees F, because the risk is just too great that bacteria could multiply even more quickly.

It’s true that if you cook food thoroughly even after allowing it to sit out, bacteria will be killed. But some types of pathogens that cause food-borne illness produce spores or toxins that are not eliminated by cooking. For example, a few types of E. coli bacteria produce something called Shiga toxin, which can cause a serious illness that can lead to renal failure.

Similarly, a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens produces tiny spores that can turn into full-fledged bacteria after cooking. With this bacteria, it’s especially important to refrigerate food within two hours after cooking. Refrigeration does a great job at slowing down bacteria’s multiplication process — so much that it greatly reduces the chance this bacteria will cause illness. But it’s important to note that refrigeration only slows down the process — it doesn’t destroy the bacteria.

Some other temperature-related food safety tips include:

  • When refrigerating large amounts of leftovers, use shallow containers to allow the food to cool more quickly.
  • Don’t thaw frozen food at room temperature. It’s always best to thaw food in the refrigerator. Other, quicker options are to use the defrost setting in the microwave oven, or use cold water (lower than 70 degrees F) to thaw the food. If you try the latter, be sure the food is wrapped in a leak-proof package, and change the water every 30 minutes.

For more information, see http://www.foodsafety.gov/.