How to determine if meat is cooked properly

Properly calibrated meat thermometer is only reliable way to measure internal temperature and ensure both food safety and quality.

A question frequently asked when cooking meats is whether the meat is done yet.

"Although there are a variety of methods that have been passed down through the generations to determine the 'doneness' of different products, when it comes to meat, the answer is twofold," said Amanda Blair, South Dakota State University associate professor and extension meat science specialist.

First, Blair said consumers need to ensure that the product is cooked to the point that it is safe to eat, and second, they need to consider the impact doneness has on meat's taste and texture.

To know if a meat product is safe to eat, Blair defers to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety & Inspection Service, which state that the only way to accurately measure if a product is cooked to a safe temperature is to use a food thermometer.

Safe temperatures for different meat products are listed in Table 1.

1. Safe minimum internal temperature chart for meat*

Product

Minimum internal temperature, °F

Beef, pork, veal and lamb (steaks, chops, roasts)

145 (plus 3 min. rest)

Ground meat

160

All poultry

165

* Source — USDA-FSIS

When it comes to taste and texture, Blair said once a product is cooked to a safe level, then it all depends on preference.

"Steaks and chops can be cooked to a lower degree of doneness than ground products, which must be cooked to at least 160°F," Blair said.

A thermometer is the best way to determine when meat has reached the desired degree of doneness.

Table 2 indicates the approximate temperature for each level of doneness.

2. Guide to doneness*

Degree of doneness

Internal temperature, °F

Medium rare

145

Medium

160

Medium well

175

Well done

180

*Sources: American Meat Science Assn., USDA-ARS, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn.

Of the two questions, Blair said there is no doubt that the first question — "Is it safe to eat?" — is the most important.

"We all want to prepare food that is safe to eat. Once we determine meat is cooked to a safe temperature, we must continue to monitor doneness to ensure eating quality," she explained.

Blair added that a properly calibrated meat thermometer is the only reliable way to measure internal temperature and ensure both food safety and quality.

Unfortunately, Blair said, there are a number of false methods for determining doneness of meat. "While these methods might sound valid, they do not replace the use of a thermometer for determining doneness of meat," Blair said.

A few of these unreliable methods are listed below, along with an explanation as to why they are neither safe nor effective:

Finger-test method. This method suggests that meat cooked to different degrees of doneness feels like different parts of your hand.

Concern: The obvious concern with this method is that everyone's hands and fingers feel different, as do different cuts of meat, depending on the species, animal maturity, fat content, etc. In addition to getting your fingers burned as you're feeling the meat, this is not a reliable way to determine the safety or degree of doneness of the meat.

Juices run clear. This method suggests that meat is safe to eat once the juices run clear.

Concern: Color change is not an effective indicator of doneness. Internal meat color and the color of meat juices are subject to factors such as pH and fat content. Research by USDA revealed that one in four hamburgers turns brown without reaching the safe internal temperature of 160°F.

Blair explained that four groups of South Dakota State undergraduate students in an Introduction to Meat Science class were challenged to cook hamburger patties until the juices ran clear and to record the internal temperature when this occurred.

The groups reported the following internal temperatures: 138°F, 145°F, 166°F and 187°F. Two of these are not safe to eat (138°F and 145°F), one is slightly over the threshold for safety (166°F) and one is likely overdone to the point that it would be extremely dry and would not provide a satisfying eating experience (187°F).

"This method also poses concern as it is often shared as the way to determine when poultry is done," Blair said. "However, most purge from poultry is light colored prior to cooking and becomes clear long before the meat is safe to eat (165°F)."

Determine how much the meat has shrunk. This method suggests that if the meat starts to look smaller, then it's close to done, and if it's substantially smaller than when you started, it may be overcooked.

Concern: The degree to which a meat product will shrink is variable and depends on factors such as the lean-to-fat ratio and the cooking method. This, like other visual methods, will not consistently indicate safety or level of doneness.

"The use of a meat thermometer is critical to maintain both meat safety and quality," Blair said.

The thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of a roast or meatloaf and horizontally into the side of a steak, chop or hamburger patty. It should be inserted away from bone or fat, and if the meat product is irregularly shaped (such as some roasts), check the temperature in several places.

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