Cooking Temperatures and Safe Food Handling
You're about to cook a culinary masterpiece, and you've arranged gleaming utensils on the counter with all the care of a surgeon. But where's the thermometer?
A kitchen thermometer is one of your most important weapons against foodborne illness which can lead to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the thermometer will help you make sure that the internal temperature of meat and poultry rises high enough to kill harmful bacteria.
Experts suggest that whenever you handle raw foods of animal origin, you view them as potentially carrying harmful bacteria.
If you're relying on color changes to tell when food is done, beware: Research shows that color and texture indicators aren't reliable, the USDA says.
Several types of meat thermometers are available at grocery, hardware, or kitchen supply stores. They include:
Regular, ovenproof thermometers go in food at the beginning of the cooking time and can be read easily.
Instant-read and digital types, not intended to go into the oven, give a quick reading when inserted into the food after cooking.
Pop-up thermometers are most often found in turkey. They also may be purchased for other types of meat.
Microwave-safe thermometers are designed to be used only in microwave ovens.
Whatever type you use, be sure the thermometer is clean and is specifically designed for meat and poultry cooking. Thermometers designed for candy-making won't work for meat and poultry. Also, be sure the meat thermometer has an easy-to-read dial made with stainless steel and a shatter-proof clear lens. Most meat thermometers are accurate to within plus or minus 2 degrees.
What should that thermometer say? Safe temperatures vary for different dishes.
Here are recommendations from the USDA:
Ground meat and meat mixtures
Beef, pork, veal, lamb
Fresh beef, veal, lamb
Chicken and turkey, whole
Poultry breasts, roast
Poultry thighs, wings, legs
Duck and goose
Stuffing (cooked alone or in bird)
Pre-cooked (to reheat)
Eggs and egg dishes
Cook until yolk
and white are firm
Leftovers and casseroles
Don't go overboard, though—charred meat can be unhealthy, too. High-temperature barbecuing, frying, and broiling can produce chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that some studies link to an increased risk of cancer. Although the connection remains unproved, risks appear to increase when meat turns black from cooking longer at high temperature.
Luckily, studies also point to a solution: Minimize the time the meat spends over the coals.
You can cut HCAs up to 90 percent by microwaving meat briefly (even for two minutes) prior to grilling or barbecuing. You can also pre-cook meat at lower oven temperatures immediately before tossing it on the grill to add flavor at the finish. Don't pre-cook food and let it sit though—you'll put its temperature into bacteria's growth range. Be sure to pre-cook and then finish cooking immediately.
Other tips to curb HCAs
Use lean meat to reduce flare-ups caused by fat dripping onto hot coals. Flare-ups create very high temperatures.
Keep meat away from direct heat. Wrap it in foil, or leave the skin on chicken for cooking and remove it later.
Add liquid. Meats cooked in water—by braising or stewing—don't get as hot.
More food-handling tips
When serving, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot food should be held at 140°F (60° C) or warmer. Cold food should be held below 40°F (5°C) or colder. Perishable food should not remain out at room temperature for longer than two hours. Cooked leftovers should be eaten within four days.
After you've cooked your chicken, don't put it back on the same plate you used to bring it to the stove or grill. Juices from raw chicken could contaminate the cooked food with campylobacter or salmonella bacteria, the main culprits behind foodborne illness. Use separate utensils, plates, and dishes for raw and cooked food, and wash them between uses.
Use disposable paper towels instead of a kitchen sponge or rag, where salmonella or other bacteria can grow and spread.
If you want rare beef, eat a steak, not a hamburger. E. coli may affect the surface of a steak (where cooking will kill it), but it won't penetrate the interior. In a burger, contamination can reach the center when the meat is ground and mixed. The USDA says ground beef must be cooked to 160 ° F (71° C) —hot enough to kill E. coli.
You don't have to overcook pork to be safe. Many people cling to outdated fears about the parasite that causes trichinosis, but farming practices are safer now and don't expose livestock to the parasite. Pork is safe at an internal temperature of 160 °F (71°C), even if it still looks pink.
If you like raw seafood, get to know your fish merchant and restaurateur. The risks from raw oysters drop if they come from unpolluted waters. Sushi or uncooked marinated seafood may be flash-frozen to kill parasites. Cooking will kill live contaminants.