The key to preventing food-borne illness is proper handling and cooking of meat and poultry. The USDA has long published a set of guidelines for the safe cooking of these foods. However, being a government agency, its interest is rooted in being 100% infallible rather than preserving the flavor and texture of cooked foods. In fact, the USDA recommended temperatures are designed to make absolutely certain that pathogens don’t have any chance of surviving and therefore are known to exceed safe temperatures by several degrees. This can mean the difference between a piece of meat that is perfectly cooked and tender—but also safe—and one that is dry and overcooked.
Most individuals can safely cook and consume meat and poultry according to the internal temperature guidelines listed below. Those whose immune systems are at greater risk of contracting a food-borne illness (pregnant women, children and the elderly) should stick more closely to the USDA guidelines, which are noted at the bottom of each chart.
Recommended Internal Cooking Temperatures for Beef, Lamb, Poultry and Pork:
While we describe doneness in terms of color, color alone is not always a sure sign of the degree of doneness of cooked meat and poultry. Turkey, pork, beef and veal all remain pink after reaching temperatures of 160°F / 70C and higher. Thermometers take the guesswork out of cooking by measuring the internal temperature of meat and poultry as they cook. An accurate thermometer is the only way to determine if an item (including stuffings and casseroles) has reached a temperature that is sufficient to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present.
Use an instant-read thermometer in the center of the food. For poultry, insert the thermometer into the thickest muscle of the inner part of the thigh, away from the bone. Test the thigh rather than the breast since it is the last part of the bird to become fully cooked. For meat, the tip of the thermometer should be inserted into the center of the thickest part of the flesh, not touching fat or bone.
Smaller pieces of meat like steaks and chops make using thermometers somewhat impractical. Pressing these cuts lightly in the center of a lean part will indicate their degree of doneness. Knowing that meat gets firmer as it cooks, you’ll be able to depend on your sense of touch with some practice. Here’s a tried and true method for familiarizing yourself with what meats feel like at varying degrees of doneness:
- Make a loose fist without any tension. Take your free index finger and lightly press at the skin between the fist’s forefinger and thumb. It should feel very slightly soft, and give to the pressure of your index finger. Rare meat has about the same give.
- For medium, squeeze lightly to make a moderate fist. Touch the same spot between the thumb and index finger of the fist with your other index finger. The firmness you feel should match the give of a piece of meat cooked to medium. It will be moderately firm and resilient, and spring back readily when pressed.
- Make a fist and squeeze hard for well. Feel in the same place and notice the firmness and lack of give. A well-done piece of meat feels the same way, and does not give to pressure.
The internal temperature of a piece of meat—no matter its size—will continue to climb even after it has been removed from the heat source. Because the outside of the meat is hotter than the middle, the heat continues to be conducted into it until it equalizes throughout. This phenomenon is known as carry-over cooking.
Carry-over cooking can raise the temperature of a small cut of meat 5°F (3C), and a large piece such as a roast or a turkey up to 25°F (15C). Generally speaking, the larger the cut of meat or poultry, the more the internal temperature will continue to rise during the resting period. Compensate by removing roasts from the oven when the internal temperature is 10 to 15°F (5C) below the desired reading and allow it to rest 15 to 30 minutes before slicing. A 12+ pound turkey, which can rest between 60 and 90 minutes, might rise in temperature by 25°F (15C) if it is not exposed to drafts.
Use a thermometer to cook your meat to the perfect doneness without guess work. It's quick, easy and just might take the frustration out of cooking the perfect pork chop, steak or chicken breast. Bon appetit!