In the refrigerator:
Setting the fridge no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit will discourage bacterial growth, says Salge Blake. This obviously depends on the accuracy of your refrigerator's thermometer, so be sure yours works. Thermometers should be positioned toward the front of the fridge, not the back, since the front warms up first when the door is opened.
Location matters in the refrigerator as much as it does in real estate. Drip-prone products like raw meat, poultry, and fish belong on the lowest shelves. Eggs and milk shouldn't go in the designated spots on the fridge door because that's where they're more likely to spoil. Surprisingly, the vegetable bin typically harbors more bacteria than areas where meat is stored, which tend to be cleaned more often; produce is generally dumped in without being washed, carrying contaminants inside. "When you clean the fridge, clean all of it," says Salge Blake. "We can't see bacteria, so even though something looks clean, it might not be."
It's a good idea to cover and space all refrigerated food at least a quarter inch apart, so air can circulate freely. And please, toss out products that have reached their expiration date. Leftovers generally hit their limit after three or four days. "You really can't go by the sniff test alone. Absolutely, if it smells bad, throw it out. But if it doesn't, that doesn't mean it hasn't spoiled," Krieger says. It's also not a bad idea to date-label leftovers to keep track of how long they've been around. Restaurants are required to mark all containers and food items with a description of what's inside and when it will be discarded.
Maintaining the kitchen:
Cockroaches, rodents, flies, and other vermin are unwelcome diners in any kitchen, and restaurant inspectors dock points for droppings and other evidence like holes chewed in bags—and for actual insects, of course. To prevent infestation, opened boxes of crackers and cereal should be tightly sealed with clips or twist ties. Sugar and other staples should be kept covered. "I keep flour, cornmeal, sugar, and all those things in the refrigerator," says Krieger. An inspector wouldn't want to see Rover or Fluffy in the kitchen, either.
To debug shelves and cabinets, fill the sink with hot water and a splash of bleach every couple of days and wipe down the surfaces (with a clean cloth, or there's not much point). Speaking of cleaning implements: "If your sponge doesn't look like a sponge anymore, buy a new one," says Salge Blake. "Dish rags should be washed every day, because you don't want to mop up chicken juices on the counter and then use that rag to dry clean dishes." Use paper towels to clean meat juices, and let dishes air dry in the drainer.
That chipped knife or rusty can opener you've been clinging to? Worth replacing. "When you have things that are broken or have bad nicks, it's harder to get in there and make sure they're clean," says Fielding. "Those spots can harbor germs. You don't have to be fanatical, but you do need to be careful."