Tucker ShawTucker Shaw

The kitchen countertops may be sparkling, but how often do we forget about the bacteria that can lurk in other parts of our kitchen? Tucker Shaw heads up the Cook’s Country team at America’s Test Kitchen, which has conducted extensive research into kitchen safety and cleanliness. Tucker share his tips for keeping sponges, sinks and refrigerator temperatures safe and sanitary.

KEEP YOUR SPONGE CLEAN

We live in divided times, but I think we can all agree that there's nothing worse than a stinky sponge. When you smell that musty aroma, it means that you've got bacteria happening in your sponge. If you take that sponge and wipe it across a surface or use it to clean dishes, you're basically distributing that bacteria more widely. The good news is that sponges are cheap. It's not too big a deal to toss it and replace it. But we at America’s Test Kitchen are ridiculously frugal sometimes and hate to throw things away. Instead, we looked for a way to get that smell out of the sponge and make them clean and usable again.

We tried freezing them. We tried running them through the dishwasher. We tried microwaving them. Many of these techniques had varying degrees of success; we would see a reduction in levels of bacteria. Of these three options, the microwave worked the best, but there was the unfortunate side effect of an occasional sort of spontaneous combustion of the sponge, which defeats the purpose. Our favorite method was to drop your sponge in boiling water for five minutes, boil it at a high rolling boil, and you will pretty much kill all the junk that's making that smell.

EVEN YOUR SINK NEEDS CLEANING

Cleaning Sink with SpongeClean your sink with soap after every use. Use a mild bleach solution once a week.
(Photo: -Ivinst-/Thinkstock)

One thing you may not think about is how dirty the surface of your sink is. It’s bad news because you think, “I'm using hot soapy water all the time washing dishes, running clean water through it. This should be one of the cleaner surfaces in the kitchen.” It’s just the opposite. The surface of your sink is the dirtiest surface in your kitchen, and the faucet is a close second. You’ve got to keep the sink clean. That means giving it a quick scrub with hot soapy water after you're done doing dishes. Every few days, maybe once a week, you want to hit it with very mild bleach solution. We use one tablespoon of bleach mixed into a quart of water. Give it a good wipe down, a little scrub if you need to, and then a good rinse. Stay vigilant about your sink because it's pretty gross.

REFRIGERATOR TEMPERATURE AND “THE DANGER ZONE” FOR FOOD

Refrigerator TemperatureFor proper food-safe conditions, set your refrigerator to maintain a temperature of about 40°F
(Photo: Serenethos/Thinkstock)

People often asked about refrigerator temperatures and the range that is safe. The “danger zone” for food 40-140°F. You want food to be outside of this window. That means making sure that the fridge is about 40 degrees. You don't want to go too much lower than that because you don't want things in the refrigerator to freeze. What happens when you enter that window 40-140°F window? That’s like party time for bacteria. Those little cooties reproduce like crazy, doubling every 20 minutes. It's their fantasy and our nightmare. So don't let food linger in that zone for too long. When you're cooling down leftovers to put in the fridge, you want to leave them on the counter for about an hour, no more than that, to bring them down to around 70°F. This is to make sure that when you put it in the fridge you aren't raising the temperature inside your fridge. Bring them down to about 70 degrees, then slide it into the fridge so that when you're ready to eat, it should be good to go.

Here's the thing that people don't often think of, which is why you want to speed up the reheating process of your food. You might think, “Hey, I'm not going to zap this leftover soup with too much heat and too quickly because I don't want to cook it again, I just want to bring it up to temperature.” If you bring it up too slowly, your soup lingers in that danger zone between 40-140°F degrees for longer than you would like it to. Bring the food through that danger zone as quickly as you can, and if you simmer it for a couple of minutes – maybe three or four –your soup will be plenty hot and you'll also be safe.