The U.S. Department of Agriculture's required minimum temperatures for food safety vary, depending on the type of meat you are cooking and whether it is whole or ground. Any illness-causing organisms present in raw meat are destroyed once the meat reaches the minimum safe temperature at its center. Cooking meat to an internal temperature greater than its recommended safe temperature doesn't always compromise its quality. In fact, some cuts, such as brisket, achieve the best texture and flavor when cooked beyond the minimum safe temperature.
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Gauge the internal temperature of meat with an analog or digital thermometer that is explicitly meant for food. Personal health thermometers and weather thermometers are not appropriate. Some kitchen thermometers are labeled "meat thermometers." But any thermometer manufactured for use with food is suitable for assessing the safety of meat. Digital thermometers are more likely than analog tools to yield accurate readings, according to a 2014 study conducted by Consumer Reports. But most analog and digital thermometers yield accurate temperature readings within 2 to 4 degrees.
- Do not remove the meat from its heat source while you gauge its temperature.
- Insert the thermometer's probe into the center of the thickest area of the meat, away from any bones. Bones hold heat more effectively than muscle and will distort a temperature reading.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions to determine how long the probe must remain in the meat to yield an accurate reading. Some thermometers yield readings within 2 to 5 seconds; other thermometers need to remain in the meat for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Repeat the assessment immediately in one or two other thick parts of the meat to verify the accuracy of your first reading.
Most whole cuts of farm-raised meats must have an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to be considered safe to eat. Beef, veal, pork, goat, sheep, lamb and bison are all included. Any roast, steak or chop from one of these sources only needs to reach 145 F. That standard also applies to briskets, ribs and "cook-before-eating" hams. Meat that is 145 F is considered medium-well. It may be light pink at its very center, though it will be mostly brown throughout. Well-done meat is closer to 160 F. Cook any kind of organ meat, such as kidneys, hearts or tongue, to at least 160 F to ensure its food safety. Sliced bacon is usually impossible to assess with a meat thermometer. As long as the strips are crisp, they are likely safe to eat, according to the USDA.
Cook whole pieces of any type of bird, including chicken, turkey, duck, goose, pheasant, quail or ostrich, to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F. When you cook a whole bird, check the internal temperature in a variety of locations where the flesh dense -- the breast, thigh, drumstick and thick, fatty pieces of skin -- to ensure it is all cooked thoroughly. It is possible for poultry or fowl to have pink flesh even when you cook it to 165 F. Cook any organ meat or giblets to 165 F too.
Game animals, including deer, antelope, elk, moose, boar and rabbit, should be cooked to 160 F even if it was farm-raised rather than wild. As a general rule, if you do not know what the minimum temperature for food safety is for a type of meat, cook it to 160 F. A few domesticated meat animals, such as cows, pigs, goats and sheep, are safe at 145. But most other meats need to reach the higher temperature. For example, squirrel, alligator, beaver and raccoon all must reach 160 F to be safe.
All dishes in which whole pieces of meat are combined with additional ingredients, such as stuffed pork chops, beef stew, or casseroles, must cook to 160 F. Ground meats and sausages must also reach 160 F to be safe. Take temperature readings in both the flesh and filling of stuffed meat to determine a dish's safety. All poultry and fowl -- whole, ground, stuffed and combination dishes -- must reach 165 F to be safe.
Even if your meat reaches a safe internal temperature, it can still cause foodborne illness if you do not handle it properly when you cook or store it. Store raw meat at or below 40 F until you cook it. Refrigerate marinating meat, and keep meat covered with plastic wrap or another airtight barrier if you rest it at room temperature before cooking it. Do not allow cooked meat to make contact with kitchen tools or dishes that touched raw meat unless the items have been thoroughly washed with hot, soapy water. The same rule applies to your hands. Cooked meat should not be kept at room temperature longer than 2 hours. And it should always be covered unless you are actively handling or eating it.