Do you have an instant read thermometer? Do you know the wattage of your microwave oven?

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell
instant read thermometers are great

instant read thermometers are great 

Get Two, They’re Cheap.

My kids were Bagel Bites nuts, for a time. Heated in the microwave I’d think, how can they stand soggy, sorta warm snack food? Shouldn’t the oven bake frozen foods for even heat and crispness? They don’t seem to care and surely won’t wait for the slow oven, either. Not even the toaster oven!  It’s convenience food, after all. And they are kids. 

Those Bagel Bites seemed sketchy, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they might not be safe to eat. Read Food Companies are Placing The Onus for Safety on Consumers by Michael Moss in The New York Times about processed frozen foods and food safety. The story refers to the 2007 frozen pot pie salmonella outbreak and getting these foods cooked to a pathogen killing safe temperature. You can watch a video of the brainy author and an editor cooking frozen pot pies in the microwave oven according to the package directions. If those folks can’t do it….

This is a problem. Consumers expect safe, microwaveable frozen foods and the food industry can’t guarantee it. I’m not even talking quality of the eating experience, only safety. Microwaves heat foods unevenly and wattage ratings that effect results vary. It’s pretty much impossible to give standard heating directions that are consistently safe if you can’t standardize the heat output.

Manufacturers know this. How about cooking more than one at a time? Sorry, that changes everything. Nuked pot pies are burnt and undercooked at the same time. And you can’t stir up the pot pie to help evenly distribute the heat. The package directions state that the internal temperature of the food must reach a safe 165°F and that the consumer must check the pie temperature with a thermometer in several spots. The editors stuck the thermometer straight down into the tiny pie. It barely covered the bottom of the thermometer. I say insert it at an angle to more fully cover the thermometer shaft. That may have made a difference.

The pot pie instructions also recommend using a microwave oven with a minimum wattage requirement of 1100 watts. Hey, I’m a home economist who took advanced household appliances in college. I don’t know the wattage of my microwave oven. And it’s not easy to find. The wattage was nowhere on the oven itself. Luckily, I found the owners manual and a mention of the wattage buried in the middle of the booklet in small type. It’s 1100 watts. 

Yay, but those Times editors didn’t have any luck with the recommended size either. And what about all the office kitchen microwaves? Frozen prepared foods are nuked at work all day long. It’s mind blowing to think that ConAgra sells 100 million Banquet pot pies annually. Add millions more from Swanson and the other brands. That’s a lot of ingredients, equipment, and people that are touching your food. I would bet that American processing plants are probably much cleaner than many ‘unregulated’ home kitchens. Don’t think because you don’t buy Banquet pot pies, but prefer organic convenience foods, that you are necessarily safer.

Pathogens like all foods. The story states that public health officials interviewed victims of the 2007 pot pie contamination and found that one in three knew the wattage of their microwave ovens and only one in four used the conventional oven. The U.S.D.A. website says that not even half of the population has a food thermometer and only 3 percent of us use them when cooking high risk foods like hamburger.

Get a couple instant read thermometers, use them regularly, and replace them often. Be patient and use the regular oven. Even better, cook.

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