Thermometers guard against food bacteria

November 12, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Proper cooking is one of the four key steps to fighting bacteria in food. Dangers from potentially harmful microorganisms - salmonella or E. coli, for example - that may be present on some meats and poultry are eliminated only when foods are cooked completely.

Most people think they know when food is done by looking at it. Cooking by color is definitely misleading. Meat color - pink or brown - can fool you.

The only way to be sure that meats and poultry are cooked hot enough to be safe is to use a food thermometer. A food thermometer is not the same as a candy or medical thermometer. A food thermometer can cost less than $10, but it may save thousands of dollars in medical bills. It can even save your life or that of a family member.

Thermometers are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes - digital, instant-read style, probes for the oven and microwave, disposable indicators and sensor sticks, pop-ups and even barbecue forks. They are high-tech and easy to use.


Food thermometers are available at hardware and discount department stores, kitchenware shops and in some supermarkets. Choose one or more that is designed for food use and will fit your cooking style, and use it for all of your meat and poultry cooking, not just with a large holiday bird or roast.

An oven-safe bimetal thermometer can be inserted before the meat or poultry is placed in the oven and allowed to remain during cooking time. Oven-safe thermometers have a probe that usually is two or more inches long that should be inserted into the thickest part of meats or poultry. The probe should not touch the bone. To check internal temperature in another part of the meat or poultry, gently remove the thermometer and insert it elsewhere. Use heat-resistant oven mitts or a potholder and allow one to two minutes for an accurate reading. Because an oven-safe bimetal thermometer is dependent on a probe, it may not be the best choice for thin foods like burgers or chops.

An instant-read bimetal thermometer can be used to check temperatures at the end of cooking time. Choose it for soups, stews, casseroles or a roast. Insert the probe more than two inches and wait 15 to 20 seconds for an accurate reading. An instant-read bimetal thermometer cannot be used in the oven during cooking time. It also is less desirable for thin foods, such as burgers and chops, because it will need to be inserted sideways.

A liquid-filled thermometer can be used to check the temperature of casseroles, roasts or soups at the end of cooking time. Insert the probe at least 2 inches in the deepest part of the casserole dish, roast or soup pot and wait one to two minutes. A liquid-filled thermometer can be placed in food while it is cooking. The probe does, however, make it less desirable for thin foods because it will need to be inserted sideways.

A digital thermometer can be used to record temperatures in most foods, but it cannot be used in the oven while food is cooking. Digital thermometers can provide an accurate temperature reading in about 10 seconds; they also can read temperatures when inserted only 1/2 inch. This makes them a good choice for burgers and chops. A digital thermometer is likely to be more expensive, but the cost is offset by convenience.

A digital thermocouple thermometer uses a needle-like probe designed to read food temperature in a matter of seconds in foods that may be as little as 1/4-inch thick. The high-tech thermometers may be more difficult for consumers to find - look for them at kitchen specialty shops or restaurant suppliers. They also are more expensive.

An inexpensive disposable thermometer can be used for grilling hamburgers at picnics and tailgate parties. They often are sold near the ground meat case in supermarkets. A disposable thermometer also is available for chicken. Disposable thermometers can be used only once.

Pop-up timers, which are included in some meat and poultry products as a courtesy to consumers, are not as accurate as traditional meat thermometers.

Use a food thermometer to keep your family safe, and be a better cook.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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