Professional chefs and accomplished home cooks have learned through experience — and familiarity with their grills or ovens — how to turn out the perfect medium-rare steak, juicy lamb burger, or moist but crisp-skinned chicken breast every time.
For everyone else, though, this can be a challenge. Underdone proteins (especially chicken and ground meat) are not only unpleasant to eat but can be dangerous to your health — sometimes even fatal.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 48 million Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses every year, resulting in about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
On the other hand, overcooking meat and poultry robs them of their flavor and succulence. Who hasn’t, on occasion, ruined a pricey piece of meat by grilling it into rubbery grayness, or roasted a chicken or turkey until its white meat is as dry as cotton?
How can we know unfailingly when our meat and poultry is done? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a simple answer: Use a meat thermometer, placed in the thickest part of the food (some sources add that you should avoid letting the thermometer touch any bones, which may skew the results).
Cooking times don’t help, as everybody’s grill or oven heats differently, and appearances can be deceiving. Only a true expert can tell by look or touch when the food is done. So temperature is the way to go.
Research by the USDA and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found that only 34% of cooks use a thermometer to test the doneness of burgers. It’s doubtful that the numbers are much higher for other kinds of protein.
Monitoring internal temperature, though, is the only sure way of knowing when your meat or poultry is done. A wide range of dependable meat thermometers is available, at prices ranging from $25 to $229, according to one specialist website. For both safety and quality, one would probably be a worthwhile investment.
Internal temperatures for each kind of meat and poultry are those recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, in slightly more detail, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Foodsafety.gov website. In some cases, as indicated, government standards call for an additional short resting period after the ideal temperature has been reached. During this period, the temperature will remain constant or rise slightly, continuing to destroy potentially harmful bacteria. Temperatures are given in degrees Fahrenheit.
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