Friday, July 4, 2008

Twice "Bitten"

Back in February, I was introduced to a New York Times recipe blog – "Bitten" – which is written by Mark Bittman. Much to my dismay, Bittman was recommending a recipe for Fast Roast Chicken that made no provision for confirming that the chicken was completely cooked through.

I wrote an article about that recipe, and also posted a comment on Bittman's blog site to air my concern. I never heard from Bittman, nor did he post any clarification of his cooking instructions subsequent to my article.

I had a similar experience last December with some Martha Stewart poultry recipes. While I never had a direct reply from anyone in her organization, I was delighted to see that her more recent poultry recipes gave specific instructions on testing the internal temperature of poultry to verify that it has been cooked throughout.

But I must report that yesterday's "Bitten" Recipe of the Day – while it sounds delicious – contains potentially fatal flaws.
  1. The recipe calls for cooking the chicken " the least hot part of grill until chicken looks close to done."
  2. The recipe then suggest setting the incompletely cooked chicken aside, if desired "...for a couple of hours..."
  3. Next, the chicken is to be cooked until crisp on the hot side of the grill "...turning chicken until it is brown and crisp all over, 5 to 10 minutes."
  4. Finally, Bittman suggests that the chicken be served ", warm or at room temperature..."
This is a potential recipe for at least three different types of food-borne illness – Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium perfringens. Here's how these three pathogens could take advantage of Bittman's recipe to leave a sour aftertaste to any Fourth of July backyard party.

It's no secret that between a quarter and a half (depending on which survey you believe) of all the poultry sold at retail in the United States and Canada is contaminated with Salmonella. Both the USDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommend that poultry be cooked throughout to an internal temperature of 165ºF. This is to ensure that any Salmonella present in the poultry has been killed.

It is very risky to cook a piece of poultry incompletely, then put it aside. Any Salmonella that survives the initial partial cooking can begin to recover and multiply in the incompletely cooked poultry. When the poultry is put back on the grill to "finish" the cooking, the internal temperature of the meat might not reach 165ºF. And serving the meat "warm" or at "room temperature" gives the surviving Salmonella a chance to multiply once again. Often, it takes only a few live cells to make someone ill.

Staphylococcus aureus
This food poisoning bacterium is found frequently on the people's hands and in their nostrils. Many strains of S. aureus produce a heat-stable toxin when they grow. If the microbe is transferred to the poultry while the food is being handled, the S. aureus will have a chance to begin multiplying during the time the partly-cooked chicken is set aside. Any toxin produced by the microbe will survive the final cooking on the hot part of the grill. Depending on how long the chicken is allowed to sit to one side while awaiting its final cooking, there could be enough toxin produced to make someone quite ill.

Clostridium perfringens
This microbe produces heat-resistant spores that can survive even a thorough cooking. Heat stimulates the spores to germinate, and the microbe can multiply while the food is set aside. If the final cooking is not sufficient to kill the bacteria that have multiplied but not yet produced spores, this microbe can grow to a population size that will produce illness.

Mark Bittman, it's time you thought through the possible consequences of some of your recipes.


  1. I'm sorry, but you are paranoid. I'll bet you cook your eggs and ruin your carbonara, and probably won't coddle an egg either, thus making a fantastic classic ceasar out of reach.

    Sorry, but you only live once and living in fear is a sure way to waste it. Especially in the kitchen.


  2. I can't remember ever coddling an egg, though I do enjoy a classic Caesar salad.

    I'm not paranoid, but I do like to enjoy living healthily - without worrying about a case of food poisoning. I would point out that the chances of Salmonella in an intact shell egg are about 1/20,000. The chances of finding Salmonella in chicken or poultry are approximately 1/3.


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