Don’t Overcook : Healthy Cooking

Kitchen Safety and Avoiding Food Poisoning

Myth: You want to kill all those bugs!

Reality: No, let’s not. First, it is probably impossible to do that. Second, the longer you cook something or the higher temperature you cook it, the more the heat will affect the flavor of the food. There are no guarantees that overcooking food will make it safe, or that undercooking food puts you in danger

Because it is an average, the standards are much higher than commonly needed. Even if you were to kill 99.9999% and someone’s thermometer was off, or the oven was not heating properly, then overcooking provides some safety but at the expense of flavor.

Within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the entity responsible for this is the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As with most government bodies, it has a scientific advisory panel that makes recommendations. The advisory panel found that the FSIS figures for poultry were way too high. The FSIS recommends temperature and time enough to kill 99.99999 percent of the bacteria but the panel recommended enough to kill 99.995 percent of the bacteria.

At 122°F there are no bacteria that are pathogenic (cause illness) to humans that survive. There are, in some hot springs, certain bacteria that thrive at these higher temperatures. These bacteria are not harmful to humans, and would not find the human host hospitable. Ironically, for them the human body is too cool, and they prefer temperatures much higher.

But on Chopped, they reject undercooked food!

I’m a huge fan of the Food Network. On the show Chopped you will see the judges reject food that they consider “undercooked” or “raw.” Are they crazy? Well, they might be (most chefs, like surgeons, get a bit nutty). But they sometimes are overdoing it when it comes to chicken or worrying about cross-contamination in a twenty- to thirty-minute contest. The funny thing is they will eat something that a chef has double-dipped. (The mouth has a far higher bacteria content, but if they would kiss it, they eat it!) The bottom line: overcooking foods ruins the flavor and texture. Pork can be pink, and chicken should not be cooked to an internal temperature of over 145°F ¾and please use a thermometer, because guessing is never precise.

Food poisoning (technically we doctors call it foodborne illness) happens when we eat or drink something that is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses, or with some chemical that causes illness. Every year forty-eight million people in the United States become ill from food, 128,00 are hospitalized, and three thousand people die from foodborne illnesses.

For beef, the FDA states that it is safe when kept at a temperature of 130°F for 112 minutes or 140°F for twelve minutes. The temperature of a rare steak is between 130°F and 139°F in the center. By cooking the steak for forty-five minutes at 136°F in a sous-vide water oven, you will keep well within the recommended limits. Some cook the steak longer—two to four hours—but I find that forty-five minutes for a one-inch-thick steak works well. The fast grilling of a steak or standard cooking will also kill those bacteria.

With chicken we worry about salmonella. However, if you’re cooking above 130°F, the salmonella bacteria are unable to grow, as are all other common bugs. Still, food safety is important. Wash hands after handling raw meat, and wash all surfaces and utensils after they come in contact with raw meat. It is more likely that the raw meat will contaminate those surfaces and that those surfaces will pass the bugs onto other foods than you will become sick from the meat directly.


The biggest issue with bacteria and food safety is cross-contamination. This means the bugs from one food are passively transferred to another food, where they grow. For example, if you wash some raw chicken in the sink where there is a cutting knife, you can contaminate that knife with bacteria. If you clean the knife insufficiently to rid it of the bacteria and then use it to cut some cooked eggs, these eggs can become the perfect place for bacteria to grow, especially if the eggs sit at room temperature. If you eat the eggs, you can get sick from the chicken. (So the chicken came first. Sorry¾I couldn’t resist.) The lesson here is that if you wash raw poultry in the sink, be sure to have that sink cleaned out well to avoid cross-contaminating other utensils or serving dishes. Anytime you handle any raw meat or eggs, treat everything they touch as if it just came out of the toilet. (3)
Do not use the same cutting board for raw and cooked meats. If you own only one cutting board, be sure to wipe it down with a bleach solution after cutting raw meat on it.

If you use a knife or fork or any instrument on raw meat, wash that utensil carefully. Essentially, consider raw meat to be contaminated, along with anything it touches: you, your clothes, your cooking utensils, your cutting boards, and your knives. Remember, when people get sick from the bacteria from raw meat, it is typically because of cross-contamination from other foods, from food workers’ improper techniques.


Those steam trays at buffets are doing a job. By keeping the temperature of the food at 140°F, they are preventing bacteria from growing. There are two ways to prevent bacteria from being a problem with food: one is to keep the food cool, and the other is to keep it very warm.

Make certain that your refrigerator is kept at 40°F or cooler, and that there is plenty of room for air to circulate in the refrigerator. Keep the freezer at or below 0°F.

Wash your hands carefully. I use a special soap made primarily from alcohol, the same type of soap surgeons use before scrubbing in the operating room. You can purchase this from most stores; one brand is Purell. Always wash after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, produce, or raw eggs. Scrub and lather for at least for twenty seconds after handling any raw meat. An easy way to do that is to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice while scrubbing your hands. (4)

Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before eating or cooking them. Use a vegetable brush to scrub melons and cucumbers, and then dry with a paper towel. Consider the vegetable brush contaminated, so sanitize it frequently.

It is better to throw out food than to be sick. Don’t be afraid to toss out any food that makes you suspicious.

How do food experts decide how much and how long to cook?
Microbiologists have determined how much heat and time is needed to kill ninety percent of the bugs To kill ninety-nine percent of the bugs you have to cook the food for twice as long (or increase the heat).

Myth: Chicken is the predominant source of salmonella.

Reality: A rising number of salmonella infections come from produce, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Most of the salmonella in produce is not something you can eliminate by washing off the leaves, because the bacteria are in the produce. Your best defense against foodborne bugs in produce is to get the produce fresh and use it quickly. If you can get it from local sources it is often better. Avoid non-pasteurized juices

Cooking food at lower temperatures than ovens worries some people, but sous-vide cooking, as described, is quite safe from bacteria. Chicken held at 148°F for three minutes will kill 99.999999% of salmonella. While most conventional recipes say take chicken out at an internal temperature of 160°F, it only takes fourteen seconds to kill 99.999999% of bacteria. But at 160°F the proteins unfold, release their moisture, and become dry. Cooking at a lower temperature using sous-vide allows you to get that same “kill” rate of bacteria without sacrificing the quality of the meat or vegetables.

The time and temperature combinations for beef can be found from the Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines.

Their chart is shared below.


Min Internal Temp °F 6.5 log lethality 7.0 log lethality
130°F 112 min 121 min
135°F 36 min 37 min
140°F 12 min 12 min
145°F 4 min 4 min
150°F 67 seconds 72 seconds

The 6.5 log lethality means you are killing 99.99997 percent of the bugs (also called 6.5D). A 7D lethality means you are killing 99.9999999 per cent of the bugs. If you have highly contaminated poultry (37,500 bacteria per gram of raw meat) then 3.5 ounces of meat would have 5.4 million Salmonella. To drop 7D means you would reduce ten million pathogens to one bug. It takes about 105 Salmonella per gram of food to cause illness; fewer Salmonella than that cause no clinical symptoms. Thus, with worst-case scenario you could kill just 99.999 per cent of the bacteria and not have symptoms (a 5D reduction).

The bacteria E. coli strain 0157 can cause illness with as little as ten bacteria per gram of food. Thus a 6.5 D would not be adequate but a 7D would.

As you increase the temperature, it decreases the time. It is a logarithm scale, which is why the drop in time with an increase in temperature.

In low temperature cooking (sous-vide), medium rare beef is typically cooked at 136°F for forty-five minutes to an hour. That provides a large margin of safety when combined with the searing of the surface at 400°F (most bacteria would reside on the surface of the meat) and seasoning the surface of the meat with salt, which also kills bacteria.

Most bacteria do not live above 120°F, and as you increase the temperature you kill more of them. At 102°F most bacteria can no longer reproduce, which is the protective nature of human fevers.

Bottom line: use a thermometer; Sous vide is OK; and don’t overcook your food.

It turns out the risk of chicken is more from using the same cutting board for raw chicken without cleaning it, or spreading the germs from the raw chicken by not washing the utensils or hands properly. This cross-contamination is more of a risk than undercooking poultry or eggs.

Int J Food Micro 2009

Pub Med 19272666

Fresh produce is increasingly found to be at risk for foodborne illness. It has been found in lettuce, pre-made salads, juice, berries, and sprouts. If you purchase pre-washed foods, or foods that are nicely packaged, watch the shelf life, and don’t be afraid to throw it out. It is cheaper to throw out food than to get sick.

J Food Prot 2004

Pub Med ID 15508656

Remember when you were taught that you needed to wash produce in order to prevent foodborne illness? Turns out that isn’t enough. The produce is contaminated before harvest, as the bacteria are internalized into the produce from the root system and into the plant. This prevents removal of the bugs by just washing the produce or using sanitizers on it. We could radiate the food as the only way to insure it free from contamination. Be careful out there. Another reason to think about growing your garden, or getting food from a local farm.

Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2012

Pub Med ID 22458717

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a leading advocate of culinary medicine. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit



  1. says

    I write a blog called Hooked on Health and I wrote an article about hand washing technique, in it I stated that hot water at 120 is enough to kill common household bacteria, guess I need to up that to 130. Thankyou for the informative article. I have been searching for accurate, specif info and your post contained it. Thank you

  2. says

    Just saw a documentary on Frontline about new resistant strains of bacteria on chicken. Pretty scary stuff. Buy organic and use good safe handling practices!

  3. says

    I like chicken that is raised on the farm – however, it is a bit expensive for most people. We have found resistant bacteria throughout the world- and are harboring it in our food supply. Not a good thing.

  4. says

    Goes to show you – no accounting for a great education. Even doctors can be very stupid people – with no common sense. I eat WELL DONE and love the taste – This article is a JOKE! Yeah, encourage people to die from salmonella…Yes, The Frontline documentary was excellent – and true. The American corporate meat industry is a criminal enterprise….more Republican deadly policies and their lobbyists!!!

  5. says

    Apparently you don’t understand microbiology – and at what temperatures that kill bacteria. It is simple microbiology – and nothing more. I know nothing of the “Frontline” documentary – but if you like well done and the taste, well, that is your taste. In terms of salmonella- they do not survive above temperatures of 122 degrees – that is just science. In fact- the entire article is science.

  6. says

    OK guys, I think this is a great article. Being both a food scientist (a real one, not a self prescribed one) and an avid cook, I completely agree with this article. I am thrilled that Dr. Simpson authored it. Yup, I have been responsible for food safety for food companies during my career and don't prescribe to lobbyist but rather to science. If you like well cooked food, go for it! But if you like your food minimally cooked, like I do, this article hits the nail on the head. Also, organic has nothing to do with pathogen based food born illness. I am a big advocate for organic food but am embarrassed to admit to it because I don't want to be associated with those who extend it's benefits due to their ignorance. The food is not better for you in any way. It is the environment that benefits, which is what I am all for. Yes, there are emerging pathogenic strains that are showing up on foods that would not normally be heat treated such as the like of those that caused the peanut butter issues, but they are primarily appearing on non-heat treated foods. So now peanuts will need to be heat treated prior to using them for peanut butter. Yup, nature does evolve and so do food handling practices. Do you really trust a program such as Frontline? This is where scientist go crazy. Populous who believe media over science. There is no accounting for little education. How do you know that the Frontline documentary was true? Did it appeal to your emotions rather your intellect ….. maybe? Yes, people will do almost anything to make a buck and appeal to those who just eat it up willingly.

  7. says

    I left some baby.backs on grill the Next morning I took them off fire was dead.can I steam them just in case Fies got on them the top was close but just in case is steaming them ok

  8. says

    A virus is not really alive- it is a package of DNA wrapped in protein. Heat would denature these. But humans do not have to worry about those viruses as they do not have the capability to infect most people — well, politicians, but no loss there.

  9. says

    I'm an RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) and just confirmed these numbers by checking the USDA website reference Dr. Simpson so kindly included in his article. Chicken just got a whole lot easier!

  10. says

    I eat chicken breast Monday through friday for lunch and dinner. I've always cooked the center of the thick end to 145 degrees. Any less and it tastes gamey (to me), any more and it's dry. Haven't gotten sick in years. Thighs I do cook to 165 though because I feel they taste better at that temperature.

  11. says

    Terry Simpson – I despise the rise in modern food orthorexias, phobias and superstitions, but saying "science is science" is a great way of saying nothing. Most food phobias hang on a string of science anyway. Sadly even the conclusions that scientist glean from the data are often wrong. Yet doctors remain astonishingly confident drawing conclusions even when confronted with their countless erroneous conclusions from the not so distant past. Some 25 years ago, a pediatrician insisted my healthy full term newborn needed iron supplements because science shows that breast milk is low in iron. I gave the iron to her once and I was instantly grossed out and regretful. Then I refuse to give it to her, and even offered, "Well maybe the trace amount in breast milk is more bioavailable." He didn't appreciate my take on the data and we butted heads over that on every visit even though the child was never even remotely close to being anemic and her numbers were well above normal. Four years later, our family moved and we had another baby and I told our new pediatrician not to even start with me on the iron supplements because it wasn't happening. He said, "Oh we no longer recommend iron supplements for breastfeeding babies with normal iron levels." It seem excess iron in a well nurished breast fed baby actually increases infections and morbidity. The excess iron saturated the lactoferrin and doesn't allow it to prevent disease and infection. The scientific data can be sound while the conclusions can be flawed and a visceral reaction often trumps science in such a situation. I don't think the chefs on cooking shows are "crazy" when they cut into a chicken that is pink and flaccid and declare that it is undercooked. I feel the same revulsion looking at pink rubbery chicken as I do at the look of that black iron slime in my baby's mouth. Science cannot tell me it will taste better if I gag at the sight of it. I am cooking my chicken until it is done that is 165 degrees, the way my mother cooked it and my grandmothers cooked it and they were excellent cooks. I want the chicken firm inside, not pink, jiggly and squishy.

  12. says

    How you like your chicken is fine. That science changes is a hallmark of science. This is what we know about bacteria: there is no bacteria that is pathogenic to man that can reproduce past a temperature of 102 (hence our febrile reaction). There is no bacteria that is harmful to man that can live past 122 degrees. To get rid of bacteria we use time and temperature – we call that pasteurization – and we have done this for over 100 years. We not only have science, we have lots of experience. So, you can like your poultry any way you do- but the science is quite clear. We do change our mind in medicine and science and that means we are willing to make mistakes and move forward. Chefs are not doctors, they are not microbiologists, they learn from tradition – but the new recommendations are clear about what can be done. But again- you can have a “belief” without science – it is ok, and you will get your chicken quite well done because most people will do that. Thank you for your comments – I don’t like my chicken pink, just my pork – I like to sous vide the chicken at 148 degrees.

  13. says

    I'd rather eat well done than raw chicken that's for sure! Raw meat is loaded with bacteria. I'd rather be safe than sorry, never mind about the taste. Fully agree about cross-contamination though.

  14. says

    When chicken goes off it smells disgusting, give it a whiff! Fresh chicken shouldn't smell. I'd imagine as long as the room is not too hot it's probably fine, just make sure to cook it properly :p

  15. says

    When it comes to Chicken – you buy organic because it tastes better. Not all organic chicken is the same, mind you – but give me a chicken raised outside any day of the week.

  16. says

    Mostly its a croc, you cannot make a coddled egg or soft centred egg at anywhere near those temperatures for those times, or they would not be soft, sure the outer white will reach those temps but not the centre, so proving eggs one of the highest risk foods on the scale cooked in tens pf millions of hotels and cafes around the world and billions of hotels, has killed well, no fucking one at all, there is not one recorded egg death anywhere, high risk food, hell it isnt even a low risk food, 75C kills all bacteria on dishes? really well it is fucking illegal to set a house hot water system over 60c, so 5 billion people never get bullshititis dish poisoning at home do they? fucking garbage, I am an ex 5 star chef, ex resort manager and cuurently ISO international complaince Auditor, who writes class 1 food safety programs. Most of the rules are bullshit with no scientific eveidence, much of which is proven in every houshold every day, forget 200 people in a restaurant, try 20million people in australia and not one case of fucking dish poisoning ever. no cases of egg nog poisoning with raw eggs etc etc etc. warm chicken salads. you want reality people this is 100 percent checkable reality and the depth of government dickheads with no clue.

    Two guys cook a pot of chicken and vegetable stew, one puts it in a bain maree in a bistro at below the safe food level say 40c for 1hour allowing ciustoners to eat it, the second guy cooks and leaves it to cool for 2 hours on the bench and 1 hour 50 mins in the fridge to reach 5 c the allowed cooling times. the first guy is charged and fined for deliberate breach of the food safety act, the second guy serves the chicken that was at the danger level for 4 hours and is a fucking hero for following their bullshit. FACT 5 c kills nothing, 5 c slow bacterial growth, all bacteria existing from the 4 hour growth period are still there and alive. What you fuckers know about food safety and reality i could write on the back of a postage stamp. these are the facts, they are checkable they are the law, and they show how fucking dumb these fuckwits are. you want food safety call me, not some government dickhead who fines the 1 hour guy and not the 4 hour guy. oh and the 40c is sufficient to kill over 99% anyway. humans are dumber than fucking monkeys, oohh the government said so!!! really???? dickheads.

  17. says

    Hey Terry, great article. I've been a sous vide cooking advocate for quite some time and my understanding of food safety and food pasteurization has changed dramatically when I started cooking this way. Juices needing to run clear and all that, cook everyting "well done"… and so on so forth… I get it.. without proper measuring equipment… aka a stop watch and a thermometer it's pretty difficult to determine when pathogens are actually eliminated and the "safest" way to ensure something is safe to eat is to simply overcook it. You can see that at almost every reastaurant that has chicken in their menu (or any protein really). It will be overcooked. Extremely overcooked too. Nobody wants to deal with lawsuits and whatnot… it's pretty sad, because a little eductation would go a very long way and yet… I don't think that will ever happen. I'm still trying to convice my girlfriend that juices in chicken that have been cooked at 145F to core temp for a couple of hours is absolutely safe and don't necessarily need to run clear. Don't get me started with pork meat :) Anyways, I'm glad you are trying to educate people about pasteurization and homecooking.

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