Why Do You Need To Care About Cooking Temperatures?

When you first start to learn how to cook, one of the most confusing aspects to master is cooking meats to their proper doneness. Overcooked meat and poultry can leave you with flavorless, dry entrees while under-cooking the same item is even worse since it can lead to food poisoning. Often, this results in new cooks overcooking food to be on the safe side, because let’s face it, dry meat is more appealing than getting sick.

So let’s discuss why these cooking temperature minimums are so important. All food has contaminants that are impossible to identify since we can’t see them, smell them, or taste them. It’s not like when food is starting to spoil and you can see or smell something is off. Therefore, we cook foods to a safe minimum temperature to ensure that any harmful contaminants are destroyed in the cooking processes, making your food safe to eat. Simple, right?

Thankfully you don’t need years to learn how to master this skill. All you need is this handy Safe Minimum Cooking Temperature Chart and a cooking thermometer and you are good to go!

How to Use a Cooking Thermometer

You may think it’s simple to use a cooking thermometer, just stick it in and see what the temperature is, right? While it is pretty simple, there is a proper way to use a thermometer to ensure you are getting a proper temperature reading on our foods. Just make sure when using your thermometer you follow these tips for an accurate reading:

  • Make sure the thermometer is clean
  • Calibrate your thermometer by inserting in an ice bath (ice and water) and making sure the reading is 32°F
  • Wait until the temperature stabilizes to get final reading
  • Avoid inserting thermometer into fat or bone as this will alter the cooking temperature
  • For Roasts, Steaks, Chops, & Ground Meat: Insert thermometer in the thickest part of the food (as this will be the coolest part of your food)
  • For a Liquid (like Sauces or Stews): Stir well, then insert the thermometer at least 2 inches into the food
  • For Poultry: Insert the thermometer into the inner thigh (near the breast), making sure to avoid the bone
  • For Thin Foods: Insert the thermometer sideways

What Are The Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures?

Safe Cooking Temperature Minimums

Make sure to follow not only the minimum cooking temperatures but also any resting times as the temperature will increase as the food is resting (scroll down or keep reading for more info on this topic). For seafood it’s a little different than other foods as their are more visual signs of doneness. For fish with fins, you cook to 145°F or until the flesh is opaque and you can easily see the fish separate when you press down on it. For shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops you are looking for white flesh as a sign for doneness. Lastly, for clams, oysters, and mussels, you know it’s done cooking when the shell opens up while discarding any that don’t open during the cooking process.

How Do You Like Your Beef?

So you may be asking yourself, but what about how I like my steak cooked? How would you cook your steak to medium rare vs. well done? It’s simple but you have to pay attention closely while you are cooking since it only takes a few degrees to change your meat from medium to medium well and so forth. It’s important to note that ground beef should always be cooked to at least 160°F, despite how you like your burgers cooked. This is because the process of grinding the meat spreads bacteria from the outside of the meat throughout the mixture. Cooking it to the proper temperature ensures all these germs are killed and the food is safe to eat.

As for rare and medium rare beef being under the cooking minimum, I would proceed with caution. According to some sources, beef cuts are safer to eat under the minimum because the bacteria on the outside is quickly killed by heat and the internal meat is less susceptible to bacteria because of it’s density. Personally, I would rather be safe and have my steak medium but the choice is up to you.

Do You Really Need To Let Your Meat Rest?

Now you might be thinking, if I just cook the meat to the proper temperature, I can skip letting the meat rest, right? In theory, yes, but you aren’t doing your taste buds any favors. Really, why go through all the trouble of preparing a meal to only ruin it in the last few minutes? So why let your meat rest:

  • It allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, keeping your meat juicy and flavorful. If you cut right away, all those juices just pour out onto your plate or cutting board, leaving you with a drier, less flavorful entree.
  • The residual heat will continue to cook your food, hence why you remove most cuts prior to the final finished temperature is reached. This allows the juices to work their magic without overcooking your food.
  • Let your meat rest for at least 2 minutes. Steaks should rest about 5 minutes while bigger roasts could be closer to 20. Check your food packaging for recommendations specific to the meat you are cooking.
  • Tent meat with a loose piece of foil while it’s resting

References:

Degree of Doneness,to medium rare steak temp. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.certifiedangusbeef.com/kitchen/doneness.php

Grobbel, K. (n.d.). Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures. Retrieved from https://www.gfs.com/en-us/ideas/safe-minimum-cooking-temperatures

Old Farmer’s Almanac. (n.d.). How to Use a Meat Thermometer. Retrieved from https://www.almanac.com/content/how-use-meat-thermometer-internal-cooking-temperature-chart

Public Affairs. (2019, November 21). Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Charts. Retrieved from https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature

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