The Comprehensive Guide to Meat Cooking Temperatures
I like to think of cooking as an art, but some things — like meat cooking temperature — are pure science.
We all have our funny little tricks to tell if the meat is done. A medium-rare steak should feel like the pad of your thumb, when your thumb and middle-finger are touching — or perhaps your cheek. The chicken thigh should wiggle just so when it’s fully cooked — or, no, you need to wait until the juices run clear. Some tricks are more reliable than others, which means we sometimes overcook our chops and undercook our roasts. And let’s not even get started about Thanksgiving turkey.
In these modern times, it’s silly to live with such guesswork. A handy-dandy meat thermometer will tell you all you need to know. And then you just have to remember which numbers correlate to what you like to eat. But why not just use some standard cooking times? Because there are too many variables (heat, thickness of the meat) to use time as a measurement of doneness.
Do I really need a meat thermometer?
The short answer is yes. Investing in a decent thermometer will save you time, headache, and heartache over botched roasts.
How to check meat temperature
To get an accurate internal temperature, it's important to know exactly where to put your thermometer. If you just poke the thermometer into a bone-in chicken thigh willy-nilly, you might pierce a fat pocket, which will give you a reading much higher than the actual temperature. Fat and bone heat differently from the meat itself, and can throw off your reading. Here's the proper way to take the temperature of meats:
- For a roast: Push the food thermometer into the thickest middle part of the roast, away from fat, gristle, or bone. If your roast is irregularly shaped, take several temperature readings throughout.
- For a whole chicken or turkey: Check the reading in three different spots: the innermost part of the thigh, the thick part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast.
- For chops, patties, or other individual pieces of meat: Insert the thermometer into the side, through to the center.
- For steaks: Test the temperature in the middle of the thickest part of the steak.
Is it done yet? Meat temperature charts for your favorite cuts.
Beef or lamb
The main risk here is not nailing the done-ness for those who are particular about that. I’m quite good at cooking beef to medium-rare, which is my preference, and horrible at figuring out the difference between when beef's cooked to medium and when it's cooked to medium-well. Hence, the digital thermometer.
…it’s complicated! Cooks Illustrated says 150° Fahrenheit, and I usually just go with it. But the USDA lowered its recommendation to 145° Fahrenheit in 2011 (prior to that, they suggested 160° Fahrenheit as the safe temperature) I, for one, do not fear pink pork.
Per the USDA, ground meat (beef, pork, veal, lamb) should be cooked to at least 160° Fahrenheit/70° Celsius, and ground poultry to 165° Fahrenheit/75° Celsius. Why the higher temperature compared to a larger cut of meat? In ground meat, the harmful bacteria that you really don’t want to consume may be spread throughout, instead of only sitting on the surface.
That said … I will always order my ground beef burgers medium-rare, thankyouverymuch. In which case, you can lean on these numbers. The key is cooking meat that has been properly handled, so there is less risk of contamination.
I abhor dry chicken breast, so I am always at the very edge of ever-so-slightly under-cooking my chicken. If you’re going by the book, the white meat of a chicken or turkey should come to 160° Fahrenheit/70° Celsius, and the dark meat, to 165° Fahrenheit/75° Celsius.
I rest my case
Keep in mind, meat continues to cook after you remove it from the heat. The USDA says to cook your dish until it reaches the designated temp, then let it sit for at least three minutes. But, remember, they’re thinking purely of safety. Cooks Illustrated recommends taking the meat off (or out) when it’s 5 to 10 degrees lower than your desired doneness, then letting it rest (knowing it will continue to cook off the heat) until it reaches its final temperature. This is called carryover cooking. Embrace it.
What does properly cooked meat look like?
So now you know what temperature medium-rare is ... but is that how you like it? Here's a handy visual guide for steaks at different levels of doneness.
Why is it totally okay to cook meat medium-rare or rare?
Can the millions of people who eat their steak medium-rare be risking death at dinner? Hardly (as long as the meat has been handled properly). That’s because the pathogens we want to avoid are typically on the surface of the meat. Cooking temperatures are much, much higher on the surface than the internal temperature, which is what you’re measuring with your meat thermometer.
Why are we so stressed about meat cooking temperatures, anyway?
In a word: safety.
When it comes to food safety, the USDA has the final word. Recently, the agency lowered the safe internal temperature for pork to 145° Fahrenheit (with a three-minute rest time), in part because the parasite that once plagued pork, trichinella, is killed at 135° Fahrenheit; and in part to rein in the number of numbers you had to remember. Now, it’s pretty simple to memorize safe cooking temperatures: for whole cuts of meat, 145° Fahrenheit; for ground meat, 160° Fahrenheit; for poultry, 160° Fahrenheit.
But trichinella isn’t the only worry. Salmonella is a common bacteria that doesn’t typically reproduce above 140° Fahrenheit (or under 40° Fahrenheit). Another common pathogen — E. coli — is killed off at 155° Fahrenheit. That’s why 160° is the magic, most risk-averse number.