Last summer, I was reminded about how long potato salad can sit out at picnics. I was co-teaching a cooking class at Weaver’s Orchard, one of the orchards that supplies apples and other fruit to Wolff’s, and the co-teacher shared a recipe for a picnic-safe potato salad. He pointed out how long food can sometimes sit out during picnics, and after a while, you start to wonder… “Should I really eat that potato salad? Is the mayo still okay?” His version used fresh herbs and a vinaigrette, instead of mayonnaise, to ensure a safer picnic. (He also boiled the potatoes, which is safer than using foil to bake them.)
Picnics are a chance to share so many of our favorite foods–whether we are bringing a best-loved side dish or hosting the party ourselves. But, as we mingle and catch up, as we challenge each other to volleyball games or a horseshoe toss, are we making sure our food isn’t sitting out too long?
Here are a few tips for enjoying safe picnics. Some of these might seem like no-brainers to many of you, but maybe some of it is new. And it is always worth taking the time to make sure nobody gets sick from the food you have worked so hard to prepare!
- If started out cold, keep it cold. Make sure your cooler can maintain perishable cold foods at 40° F. Once you set them out on the picnic table, they should not stay out for any longer than 2 hours. Or, if the outdoor temperature is above 90° F, 1 hour is the absolute limit. If it’s a balmy 70 degrees outside and that chicken salad has been out for two and a half hours, throw it away. If it’s getting close to two hours, return it to the cooler again at 40° F.
- If it started out hot, keep it hot. Hot foods should maintain a temperature of at least 140° F. The FDA recommends wrapping hot food well and storing it in an insulated container until serving. And the two-hour rule applies here too! (And if it’s above 90 outside, hot foods should ALSO get discarded after 1 hour.)
- Serve perishable food in smaller containers. This isn’t a must, but this way, it is more likely to get eaten within 1-2 hours. You can keep reinforcements in the cooler.
- Keep a lid on it. As tempting as it is to keep going back to the cooler to check on what’s still there, try to keep the cooler lid closed so that the temperature inside stays constant. This also means that the beverage cooler, which gets constant opening and closing, should NOT be the cooler that stores the deviled eggs! And never fill a drinking glass with ice that has surrounded beverage or food containers (and make sure kids don’t either!). Set out a separate cooler for ice.
- Be vigilant about avoiding cross-contamination. Keep anything that will be eaten raw or fresh away from raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Even if the raw meat is well wrapped, just don’t risk it. Keep it in an entirely different cooler.
- Clean and dry all produce well before you leave home. Even for fruits like kiwi or vegetables like beets where you won’t eat the skin, wash and dry the entire fruit or vegetable very well. (See the FDA Food Safety site for proper washing technique.)
A word about melon.
When I took a food safety course recently, I learned that cut melon is a “TCS” (Temperature Control for Safety) food. I had heard that cut melons should be refrigerated, but I did not realize that cantaloupe, watermelon and other melons that are not handled properly at home can cause food-borne illness.
To most home gardeners, this probably does not come as a surprise. I thought back to the watermelons that had grown in my garden (usually “volunteers” that had sprung from composted watermelon seeds), and I realized that since they sit directly on the ground, soil-borne bacteria can stick around on the melon rind. And that means it could get transferred from the melon rind to your knife and the inside of the melon as you cut it. (You have to be extra careful with all fruits and vegetables that grow so close to the soil.) With cantaloupe, the net-like surface can be tricky to wash well, so be particularly alert to the washing procedure you follow and the amount of time fresh-cut melon sits out.
Never store cut melon at room temperature! Always keep it cold. Discard any cut melon that has been sitting out for over four hours.
I don’t mean to keep you from eating this amazing fruit, though! Just remember that melon is a TCS food, act accordingly, and then enjoy it.
And now, here are four safe, portable recipes for a delicious, worry-free Memorial Day!
1. Fruit Salsa
With simple fruit and a dash of brown sugar and lemon, this fruit salsa is ideal for picnic snacking. Store it in a plastic container and keep it cold until it is ready to eat.
Peaches on Memorial Day? I know. Pennsylvania peaches won’t make their debut for months. But Wolff’s has been getting peaches from further south lately, and boy are they good! This cucumber-peach salsa uses only a few fresh, simple ingredients. Store it in a plastic container or on a covered plate. It will taste best if you keep it cool until ready to serve.
This is Wolff’s chef Chuck Smith’s recipe. It’s refreshing and totally in-season. And it’s simple! This recipe just calls for rhubarb stalks, water, sugar and mint. You could store individual servings in pint-sized mason jars and keep them cool in your beverage cooler!
Here’s another recipe from Chuck Smith. None of the ingredients will spoil quickly at a picnic, and not only that, these little bursts of flavor have a ton of healthy ingredients and no refined sugar. Pack them in a cookie tin or other storage container, set them out with your desserts… and watch them disappear!