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updated 2/1/2008 2:09:08 PM ET 2008-02-01T19:09:08

With food safety issues constantly in the news, it’s no wonder home cooks are worried about the health of their families. But the solution is actually fairly simple. A cleaner kitchen is a safer kitchen. Cook’s Illustrated shares smart tips for cleaning everything — from your cutting boards to those gunked-up sponges in your sink:

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Cutting boards
There have been conflicting reports about the relative safety of wooden versus plastic boards. But in our tests, we found that bacteria is killed on all boards — whether made of wood or plastic — by scrubbing with hot, soapy water. Also, make sure to thoroughly dry your boards. Bacteria like a moist environment. 

Plastic boards can go into the dishwasher, which certainly makes cleaning them more convenient, but it does limit the size of the boards you can use. To remove stubborn stains, use an overnight bleach bath, which also sanitizes the board. Put 1 tablespoon of bleach per quart of water in the sink and immerse the board dirty side up. When the board floats to the surface, drape a clean white kitchen towel over the board, and then splash the towel with another 1/4 cup of bleach.

If your wooden board has odors that regular washing can’t seem to remove, scrub the board with a paste made of 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon water, followed by your routine washing with hot, soapy water. Also, it’s a good idea to protect wooden boards by occasionally rubbing them with food-grade mineral oil. Don’t use vegetable oil, which will turn rancid. The oil soaks in the board and creates a moisture barrier that will protect your board. Do this every few weeks when the board is new; after that, a few times a year is fine.

Another good idea is to have colored-coded boards. In the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen, we reserve red boards for raw meat, blue boards for seafood, yellow boards for poultry, green boards for fruits and vegetables, and white boards for cooked foods, but you can devise your own system.

The microwave does a good job of killing bacteria but it can cause the sponge to catch on fire, so it’s not an option for cleaning your sponge. A dishwasher might kill bacteria if the water is hot enough, but a safer bet is to boil sponges in a pot of water for 3 minutes.

For optimal sanitation, the water temperature insider your dishwasher should reach 160 degrees. If you’re buying a new dishwasher, look for a model certified to NSF/ANSI Standard 184. There were no standards for residential dishwashers before 2001, but you can easily test the temperature of the water in your dishwasher with inexpensive thermal strips that will change color once the temperature reaches 160 degrees. Just thread the strip through the tines of a fork and check to see that the blank box has turned black when the fork comes out of the dishwasher. Strips are available at www.allqa.com/Dishwasher.htm.

Avoiding cross-contamination
Bacteria loves to move from one surface, or one food, to another, so don’t help it along. There’s just one simple rule here: Keep raw and cooked foods separate.

For instance, never place cooked food on a plate or cutting board that has come into contact with raw food. So, if you’re taking food out to grill on a platter, don’t put the cooked food back on the same platter. Once the food is on the grill, either wash the platter or line it with foil, which you can remove and discard.

Likewise, don’t use the same pair of tongs to handle raw and cooked foods. Bring tongs indoors and wash them; or a have a second pair on hand.

Also, never place food you will serve raw (salad items, fruit) on a cutting board that has come in contact with meat, poultry, or eggs.

Defrosting should always be done in the refrigerator. Not on the counter where the temperatures are much higher and bacteria can multiply. Always place defrosting foods on a plate or in a bowl to trap any liquid.

Cleaning produce
A spray bottle filled with three parts water and one part distilled white vinegar can be used to clean produce with a smooth surface, such as apples and pears. Just spray with vinegar solution and then rinse under tap water. In our tests, this method removed 98% of surface bacteria and was as effective as washing fruit with antibacterial soap.

Berries can be washed in a bowl filled with three parts water and one part distilled white vinegar. Drain, rinse with tap water, and then spin dry in a salad spinner lined with paper towels.

For more kitchen information and tips, visit “Cook's Illustrated” online.

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