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Use thermometer to take the guesswork out of cooking meat

July 22, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

If you don't regularly use a meat thermometer, you should get into the habit of using one. The thermometer measures the internal temperature of cooked meat, poultry and casseroles to assure that a safe temperature has been reached and that harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli 0157:H7 have been destroyed.

A meat thermometer should not be a "sometimes thing." Use it every time you prepare foods like poultry, roasts, ham, casseroles, meatloaf, egg dishes and hamburgers. A meat thermometer can be used for all foods, not just meat.

The following recommendations are minimum internal cooking temperatures that foods must reach to be considered safe to eat, no matter how you prepare them:

ground beef, veal, lamb, pork - 160 degrees

beef, veal, lamb roasts, steaks, chops -

medium rare, 145 degrees

medium, 160 degrees

well done, 170 degrees

pork roasts, steaks, chops -

medium, 160 degrees

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well done, 170 degrees

ham -

cook before eating, 160 degrees

fully cooked, to reheat, 140 degrees

poultry -

ground chicken, turkey, 165 degrees

whole chicken, turkey, 180 degrees

breasts, roasts, 170 degrees

egg dishes, casseroles, 160 degrees

leftovers, 165 degrees.

The USDA is advising consumers to use a meat thermometer, especially when cooking hamburger, and not to just rely on the internal color of the meat to be sure it is safe to eat. To be safe from harmful bacteria, ground beef must be cooked to 160 degrees.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said the emphasis on using a meat thermometer results from research that indicates some ground meat may turn prematurely brown before a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees has been reached. The Service feels that the color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of safety. A meat thermometer is the most reliable way to reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

There are several types of meat thermometers available at grocery, hardware or kitchen supply stores. Regular, oven-proof types go into the food at the beginning of cooking and easily can be read. Instant-read and digital types are not intended to go into the food in the oven, but give you a quick reading when inserted into the food. These also can be read easily. Pop-up types are commonly found in poultry, but may be purchased for other types of meat. Microwave-safe types are designed for use in microwaves only.

Make sure the thermometer you buy is designed for meat and poultry. There are other types of thermometers - for example, candy thermometers. Read the package label carefully to make sure you are buying the type designed to use with meats.

To check the thermometer calibration, place the stern into a cup of boiling water. If correct, it will read 212 degrees. Most thermometers have a calibration nut under the dial that can be adjusted. Turn the nut, if necessary, to adjust it.

Insert the meat thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat, away from any bone, fat and gristle. The thermometer also should be placed in the thickest part of ground meat or poultry dishes like meatloaf. The thermometer may be inserted sideways in thin items, such as hamburger patties.

Use an "instant-read" thermometer to check hamburger patty temperature. It is designed to be used toward the end of the cooking time and to register a temperature in about 15 seconds.

Check the stem of the instant-read thermometer for an indentation that shows how deep it must penetrate the meat to get an accurate temperature reading. Most digital thermometers will read the temperature in a small area of the tip. Dial types must penetrate approximately 2 inches into the food.

Be sure to wash the thermometer after each use.

For food safety information, call USDA's toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. For information on how to select and use a meat thermometer, send a self-addressed, 32-cent stamped envelope to Cooperative Extension Service, Washington County Office, 1260 Maryland Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 21740. Mark the envelope "Meat."

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

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