By Jason Masters
Environmental Health Director
Hello Mr. Jason! I love your “Ask A Health Inspector” articles, but I wanted to see if you could break from food safety for a while, and offer any insight into the upcoming solar eclipse! My family is very excited about it, and we are looking forward to hearing any additional information you might have!
“Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the Sun went away.”
– Annie Dillard (1979)
Well Winston, that’s a really great question, but before we start, you should know that I’m a health inspector, not an “astonomist” (That’s a word…right?) but I enjoy a solar eclipse as much as the next guy. I remember back in the early 80s at my school, we all watched the eclipse (years later, I would recognize that this was only a partial eclipse) and then went inside and had “solar sandwiches” for lunch. It was a very memorable day. Hey! Did you know that eclipses are not really that rare? What IS rare is having an eclipse close to where YOU are. Like once every 400 years or so. However, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t include some food safety information in an “Ask A Health Inspector” article. So, for that very reason, let’s talk about final cook temperatures (don’t worry, I’m going to tie it all in somehow…I hope…). If you are a long time reader of my AAHI articles, you’ll remember my summer grilling article about keeping things clean, separate, cooked thoroughly, and cooled properly. But being the cotton-headed ninny-muggins that I am, I failed to mention the final cooking temperatures for grilled meats. The 2017 NC food code lists final cooking temperatures for all meats…and not just the good ol’ ribeye or boneless, skinless chicken breast, but things you’ve never heard of….baluts for example…you know what that is? I’ll bet you don’t, because it’s gross…but it’s in there…(look it up).
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the grill as the main cooking source, but the final cook temperatures are the same no matter the method of applying heat.
So let’s say the eclipse is happening today, and you want to make sure that your pork shoulder roast (or Boston Butt) is going to be safe by the 100% totality. (The 100% totality, meaning total blackout, is only viewable in “the path of totality” which is literally a path that runs across the country, about 70 miles wide and crosses over a few locations pretty close to Asheville) You might say, “Jason, how long do I need to keep my “Penumbra Pork” (the penumbra is the shaded region during an eclipse that is just outside the umbra, which is the darkest point during an eclipse, and is where one will experience the true magic of the 100% totality. Most of us watching the eclipse will see or be in the penumbra region) in the grill to ensure food safety?” Well, I’d probably tell you that what really matters is to get your butt a food thermometer and cook it until it’s at least 145 degrees F for 4 minutes. Now, speaking from experience, I would also tell you that for the best pork BBQ,(I’m talking completely fall apart BBQ) you’re going to need to get that butt up to 195 degrees F, but that’s a personal preference. In fact, pretty much any chunk of meat is going to need to get to 145 degrees F and be maintained there for 4 minutes to be safe. Now, I’m not talking about thick cut steaks, or chicken breasts…I’m talking about roasts. A roast is a big chunk of meat of some species, that is usually a lesser quality cut, that is meant to be cooked for a long period of time. That “Right Ascension Roast”? (The ‘right ascension’ is a mathematical equation that divides the sky into sections, called hours, where each hour represents 15 degrees) It’s going to need to reach 145 degrees F for 4 minutes to be safe.
Speaking of steaks, let’s talk about those big, juicy, thick, prime cut, slabs of deliciousness…I’m talking about the ribeye…(or the New York strip, or the filet mignon, or whatever strip steak you want to pick up.) We can also throw seafood, and eggs in this category. To ensure food safety, the FDA (and the 2009 NC food code) recommends that seafood, eggs and steaks are cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F and maintained for 15 seconds. That “Lunar Lamb Chop”? That’s going to need to reach 145 degrees too. “But Jason!” you’re going to scream… “I like my steak rare and 145 degrees is practically burnt!” “Well…” I’m going to respond… “I’m not the food police, if you want to eat your steak rare, I don’t care, that’s up to you! The FDA also says don’t eat raw oysters, but heck, we all know what I do…I mean I wrote an entire article on it, for Pete’s sake! FDA is not the boss of me!” Eggs? I like them over easy, or even raw in Caesar salad dressing. I realize I’m taking a risk, but, I also like to live dangerously….
Alright, let’s move on to ground meats. In the health inspectin’ business, we like to get fancy and call them comminuted meats, but basically, we’re talking about anything that is mechanically tenderized or ground up. So think about things like burgers, cubed steaks, or even mixed species like a meatball or meatloaf mixture. These items have to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 155 degrees F for 15 seconds. Now when it comes to ground meats, I don’t take risks. I cook every ground meat item (except ground poultry) to 155 degrees F or above. Here’s why: When meat is ground up, it is basically taken apart in shreds, and is then put back together. Every one of those little strands of meat now has the possibility of becoming contaminated. All that surface area is just right for picking up all kinds of contamination as they move through a grinder or cuber. Yummy! Now think about that ribeye we just talked about…how many sides does a ribeye have? Two! All you gotta do is kill the stuff on the surface of a ribeye, man! Easy! Doesn’t even matter how thick…As long you get it hot enough to kill the bacteria on the surface, you’re fine. But ground meat doesn’t work that way…you have to get every strand of that meat hot enough to kill that bacteria. 155 degrees is going to do that for you. So when you are waiting for the eclipse to start, and you want to get those “Besselian Burgers” (the Besselian elements are used to help calculate the path of the umbra and penumbra during an eclipse) done before the blackout, don’t listen to Bubba when he tells you he’s been eating raw burger for years and he’s fine…take a good look at Bubba…think about that…don’t be like Bubba.
Alright, finally, chicken and other poultry. Chicken is a little different than the other foods we’ve mentioned. We are looking for 165 degrees for 15 seconds here, but in my personal experience, just because it is safe to eat at 165, doesn’t necessarily mean it is desirable at 165. I like my “Corona Chicken” (the corona is the outer area of the sun that is only visible during a total eclipse) to cook a little longer and really get all the pink out. That’s just me though, if you like your chicken to be squishy and a little pink, hey, I’m not judging. Products containing ground poultry (turkey burgers, chicken sausages, etc.) also need to reach 165. Baluts? Yep, 165. (I’m assuming you have already looked them up by now). Ratites? 165. (A ratite is member of a certain group of flightless birds. Think emu, or ostrich…I know what you’re thinking…Road Runner… Amirite? Curiously, a road runner is not a ratite, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because even Wile E. Coyote can’t catch one, so we don’t stand a chance).
Now, I’m going to step away from the safety side of things for a minute and give you a little information on the setup of your home cooking area, but before we go re-inventing the grill…(see what I did there?) you should know that restaurants mostly use gas for their grills, and that’s just fine. They always work great, and if you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant, you know the results can be fantastic. At home, though, I like to use charcoal. If you have a gas grill, why, that’s just fine too. Some restaurants have grills that are designed to be hot in the front, and hottest in the back. That’s why you see all those steaks and chicken parts sitting back there in different locations on the grill. Food employees know where to put them on the grill, and then it’s not necessary to constantly stand over them wondering if the chicken is going to be burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. You can do the same thing at home by piling all the charcoal to one side of the kettle and making a slight slope toward the middle. This gives you a nice area of really super hot at the back and kinda medium toward the center, and then a cool area on the other end. Same for gas grills, but a little harder to control…If you have 2 burners, you need one on and one off. 3 burners? One full blast, middle one medium, and 3rd one off completely. This setup is going to work for 95% (I’m totally making this number up, but you get the idea) of the things you are going to be grilling at home. Now if you are smoking something, like pork shoulder or brisket, that’s a different setup (and a different article).
But at least now you can safely grill something wonderful on the day of the eclipse (August 21, 2017) instead of what you had originally planned…Moonpies and Tang with a side of starbursts, while listening to “Don’t Steal My Sunshine”, and “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, or maybe “Dancing in the Dark”…or how about “Darkside of the the Moon”? Ooooh, or “I believe in a Thing called Love” by The Darkness…? “Blinded by the Light”…(I could go on all day…)
Enjoy the eclipse, friends!