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Slow Cooking, Barbecue, and the Danger Zone

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Slow Cooking, Barbecue, and the Danger Zone

aeranis | Jan 27, 2010 01:10 AM

So I have always been told mixed things about the safety of slow cooking meat. I've heard food experts say that as long as meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature, it is safe to eat. Fair enough. But last Thanksgiving had the inclination to pursue the most perfectly tender turkey ever-- perhaps, I thought, by slow cooking it at 200 degrees overnight. After consulting the FDA guidelines and various forums online, I learned that the "safest temperature to cook a turkey is 325 degrees." Supposedly, if the bird lingers in the "danger zone", around 140 degrees internally, it will become a breeding ground for bacteria that will produce a cocktail of deadly toxins. These guidelines claim that no amount of cooking will be able to remove these toxins after they have already been produced, and as such, they will surely kill me. What?

Now, I want to make something clear: I am an avid slow-smoked barbecue enthusiast. Barbecuers, and even barbecue restaurants beholden to health code, will do things like smoke a brisket at 200 degrees for 18 hours. I once carefully eyed pitmaster Tootsie's thermometers at Snow's in Lexington, Texas, and she went no higher than 210 in any of her smokers, which had all been going since 3AM the previous morning. Given such a low cooking temperature, one would imagine that virtually every meat would linger in the "danger zone" for hours on end, producing enough toxins to kill me several times over. Then, I thought, maybe these health specialists are only referring to poultry due to the salmonella risk. But the SAME FDA that cautioned me against slow-roasting turkey suggested that I am allowed to smoke my chicken at 250 degrees for many hours.

So finally, I thought to myself, maybe the smoke retards the growth of bacteria to an extent that it is somewhat cured during the process, akin to smoking salmon. Then I remembered all of the traditional Old World and Americans recipes I have encountered in my life that have called for slow-roasting birds for outrageous amounts of time without any smoke at all. Then there's the crockpot. I'm sure many of you are familiar with, and have probably made crockpot recipes that ask you to skirt with the danger zone for many hours. All orders of slow-cooking have been practiced across cultures for centuries, long before modern-medicine. Maybe I'm naive, but I think that were it so dangerous, people would have gotten ill, died, or otherwise decided that it was a bad idea.

Does anyone have the final scientific lowdown on all this? I'm not going to stop slow-cooking meat, but I'd still like to know.

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