Lamb Handling, Safety & Storage

Contamination Prevention | Doneness | Proper Storage | Safety and Handling Tips


Contamination Prevention

Shopping

Make sure that lamb is among the last items selected when shopping, so that it is without refrigeration for as short of time as possible. The growth of harmful bacteria on the meat will be accelerated if it is not properly refrigerated. If the meat is without refrigeration for more than an hour, because of the travel time from the market, a cooler with ice should be used to transport the meat, and any other perishable items, for the duration of the travel time.

Cleanliness

It is important to follow the basic rules of cleanliness when preparing lamb. Work surfaces, dishes, and utensils should be washed thoroughly with soap and hot water after using them. Bleach can be used as a disinfectant for cutting boards and other work surfaces or an antibacterial spray may be used. When taste testing food, do not use the same utensil that was used for preparation and be sure that a clean spoon or fork is used for each taste to eliminate the spread of germs. Beware of kitchen washcloths and towels that have been used on multiple surfaces because they can spread germs. Use paper towels or other disposable cloths whenever possible.

Cross Contamination

Many food items should be kept separate from each other during storage and preparation to prevent cross contamination. Never store ready to eat foods next to raw lamb or any other raw meat. Bacteria that may be present on the raw meat may contaminate the ready to eat foods.

During food preparation, it is very important to wash your hands often to help prevent the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food item to the next. For example, when handling raw meat, you should wash your hands thoroughly before chopping vegetables to reduce the risk of transferring bacteria from the meat to the vegetables.

If cutting boards are used in your kitchen, it is a good idea to use one for meats and a different one for fruits and vegetables. Cutting surfaces made from tempered glass are safer to use because you don't have to worry about cracks and pores harboring bacteria as you do with wood or plastic surfaces. Tempered glass surfaces are also easy to clean. Regardless of the material they are made from, cutting surfaces should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

The knife that was used to cut raw lamb should not be used to chop vegetables unless the knife has been washed thoroughly first. When serving cooked meat, do not place it on the plate that contained the raw meat.

Doneness

Traditional guidelines state that lamb cooked very rare, rare, or medium rare should have an internal temperature ranging between 115ºF to 140°F. With increased concern over bacteria that may be present in the internal portions of meat, it is now recommended that whole lamb cuts be cooked to an internal temperature of not less than 140°F, even though bacteria is usually only on the surface of the meat. (An increase in the temperature of at least 5ºF will occur during the resting period, reaching 145ºF, which is considered the minimum safe internal temperature.) Traditionally, cooking lamb to 140ºF was considered medium doneness, but updated guidelines would place it in the medium-rare category. Regardless of the category the doneness is referred to, lamb cooked to this temperature is still pink in the center, juicy, and tender, but considered much safer than cooking it to a lesser degree of doneness. Searing lamb on the stovetop before roasting is also a good method of killing surface bacteria as well as creating a flavorful browned crust.

Bacteria, such as E. coli, may be present on any cut of lamb, but it is most common on ground lamb because the grinding process may distribute the bacteria throughout the meat. Ground lamb must be cooked until the internal temperature reaches a minimum of 160°F to ensure that dangerous bacteria are destroyed.

Proper Storage

Refrigerator / Freezer

Most cuts of lamb can be safely stored in the refrigerator at temperatures between 33°F and 40°F for 2 or 3 days. They can be stored in a freezer with a temperature of 0°F or less for 6 to 9 months. Refrigerated ground lamb should be used within 1 or 2 days and can be stored in the freezer for up to 4 months. Leftover cooked lamb that is refrigerated should be used within 3 or 4 days and can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Lamb should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator until it is ready to use. Lamb that will not be used within a few days should be stored in the freezer. If the lamb will be frozen for only 1 or 2 weeks, it can be stored in its original packaging, however if it requires long-term freezer storage, it should be rewrapped with heavy-duty protection to prevent freezer burn.

Freezer Burn

Freezer burn causes lamb to become discolored and dehydrated. This is because exposure to the cold, dry air of the freezer compartment can cause moisture loss, especially if the lamb is packaged incorrectly and/or stored in the freezer for an excessive length of time. A layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil works well as protection against freezer burn. Heavy white freezer paper is another alternative for protecting the meat. It is important to note that freezing lamb may affect its flavor, texture, and appearance when it is finally thawed and cooked, and in some cases, there may be a noticeable difference between fresh and frozen.

Vacuum Packaging

A storage method that works well for fresh or frozen lamb is vacuum packaging. It helps to keep lamb fresh for longer periods if properly refrigerated or frozen. The vacuum packaged is usually made from plastic bags. The cut of lamb is placed inside the bag, the air is removed creating a vacuum in the bag, and then the bag is sealed to maintain the vacuum. Lamb that is frozen for long-term storage in vacuum packages (or other types of packaging) can be dated so that it can be used within the proper time limit: up to 9 months for raw lamb cuts, 4 months for ground lamb, and 3 months for any type of cooked leftovers.

Safety and Handling Tips

Lamb Safety and Handling Tips

  • Make sure that any juices from raw lamb do not come in contact with any other food items. Packaged raw lamb can be placed on a plate in the refrigerator to ensure that none of the juices drip onto any other food items in case that there is a leak in the package.

  • Frozen cuts of lamb should always be thawed in the refrigerator; never on the countertop.

  • Raw lamb that has been thawed should be used as soon as possible. It should never be refrozen because this increases the risk of food poisoning when the meat is finally used.

  • Lamb that has been ground, cut into chunks for stew or kabobs, or cut into strips for stir-fry is much more perishable than larger cuts of lamb. This is because there is more exposed surface area, which increases the risk for bacterial growth.

  • If lamb has been marinated, the marinade should be discarded because of its contact with the raw meat.

  • Do not allow lamb to reach room temperature before it is cooked, as this can promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Lamb, like most other meats, should be cooked as soon as possible after its removal from refrigeration.

  • Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as the meal is over. Lamb should not be away from refrigeration longer than 2 hours after cooking. Cooked food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded.

  • When eating outdoors, food should not be consumed that has been without refrigeration for more than an hour, especially in hot weather. Always have a cooler with ice handy.

Ground Lamb Safety and Handling Tips

When a cut of meat is ground, the entire cut is exposed to the air and the grinding equipment. It is also blended with the bacteria that may have been on the surface of the meat before grinding. This makes it extremely important to cook the ground meat thoroughly to kill all of the bacteria that may be present. An interior temperature of at least 160°F is required to make ground lamb safe to eat.

Other ground lamb safety tips to consider are:

  • Frozen ground lamb should be defrosted in the refrigerator and never at room temperature.

  • Ground lamb should be cooked as soon as possible after it is defrosted.

  • Ground lamb patties should not be cooked unless they have fully thawed. A frozen or partially frozen patty will not cook evenly and the center will not cook to the proper temperature even though the outside may be completely cooked.

  • Ground lamb should be purchased before or on the "sell by" date or "last date of sale" and then used within 2 days of purchasing.

  • It is recommended that ground lamb dishes such as meatloaf and moussaka be checked for doneness with a meat thermometer. This is especially important when the lamb has been blended with dark sauces that can mask the color of the meat, making it difficult to determine if any pink color remains, which would indicate that the meat is not fully cooked.

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