Establishing a standard set of times and temperatures for safely cooking meatballs is challenging.
Chefs and consumers prepare them from different meats, store them at different temperatures (refrigerated and frozen), and cook them at different temperatures and for different times. They even use different types of cooking appliances.
Undercooked meatballs, however, are a potential source of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC). Each year, STEC cause an estimated 265,000 illnesses, 3,600 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Pennsylvania have determined some practical methods for safely cooking meatballs at home, in restaurants, or in commercial or institutional kitchens.
Anna C.S. Porto-Fett and John B. Luchansky, and their colleagues inoculated ground veal and ground beef with a cocktail of seven strains of STEC, mixed those samples with eggs and breadcrumbs, and formed golf-ball sized meatballs. Some of the meatballs were frozen (-4°F) and others were kept in a refrigerator (39°F) for 18 hours prior to being cooked.
The frozen and refrigerated meatballs were then cooked at 350°F, in both a conventional oven and in a deep fryer using canola oil, for a wide range of times.
They found that deep-frying frozen meatballs for 9 minutes or oven baking them for 20 minutes reduced E. coli levels 100,000-fold, a target referred to as a “5-log reduction” that made them safe for consumption. The refrigerated meatballs required 5.5 minutes in the deep fryer and 12.5 minutes in the oven to achieve the same “5-log reduction.”
The findings, reported in the Journal of Food Protection, provide clear and practical parameters about safe cooking times and temperatures for food safety officials, restaurant and institutional kitchens and anyone cooking meatballs at home.