The MOST IMPORTANT Tool in the Kitchen
I'm not talking "your favorite kitchen tool" here. MOST IMPORTANT is the issue. I did some research to see what professional chefs and cooks had to say on this subject, and the answers were almost 100% unanimous - a reliable kitchen thermometer!
At least when it comes to health and safety, this is what the pros come up with first. And this is the one tool that too many folks don't even have. I didn't have one either, until my professional chef-son, Paul, brought me one when he came for Thanksgiving a few years ago.
I've been using it ever since, and I can't believe how much nicer and easier it is not to have to guess as to whether something is "done" or not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tens of millions of Americans become ill due to food-born pathogens every year. And we're not just talking about an upset stomach here; thousands of people die each year from them, the CDC says.
When researching the subject I found a great website, IWantTocCok.com, authored by Matt, which explained that if you routinely make food for an elderly person, children, or someone with a weakened immune system, it's even more vital to be sure your foods are as safe as possible for consumption.
Two of the biggest factors contributing to food-born illnesses are cross-contamination and not cooking meats, poultry and fish to a safe temperature. The first can be controlled by thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing work surfaces and tools that have touched raw meat, poultry and fish. The second is where the thermometer comes in.
Not only did I not know for sure exactly when my meat was "done," I really struggled when attempting to cook a steak to a certain degree of doneness, such as medium-rare. Actually, that was an effort in futility without a thermometer.
They are widely available in two popular forms: One with a dial gauge, and another with a digital gauge that requires batteries. Preferences depend on your patience level. Matt, at I Want to Cook, says he prefers the digital version because the tally comes so much quicker, usually in a few seconds. Those dial versions, while called "instant-read" thermometers, can be anything but instant. And when you're crouched over an oven with a prong in the chicken, all that heat from the oven is going bye-bye. Mine is a dial gauge, and Matt's right, it's slower.
You can find a good basic digital thermometer for $15 or less - www.amazon.com is my favorite source. But if you want something fancier, there are versions available that alert you when a certain temperature is reached, such as 145 degrees for a medium-rare steak. Whether digital or gauge, a thermometer is inserted into the food that you want to test; keep it inserted until the readout stabilizes. Be sure to insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat, and avoid hitting a bone, which can register a higher temperature than the surrounding meat.
A temperature range you want to be very aware of, the one that's most often associated with danger is 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F. According to the USDA, this is the "danger zone," the range where bacteria grow most rapidly. The USDA says this must be taken seriously because bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes between those temperatures.
Additionally, that's why the Meat and Poultry Hotline advises you never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours. "If the temperature is above 90 degrees F, food should not be left out more than 1 hour," says the USDA. If you've got questions or concerns, they have a free hotline, by the way: 888-674-6854.
To conclude, here are the USDA's recommended minimum cooking temperatures:
Back to the I Want to Cook website, Matt added some important information to the chart above. "Missing from this particular list is fish (including shellfish). The USDA's recommended minimum cooking temperature for this category is 145 degrees F. You might also notice there's no listing for rare beef steak. If you like really like yours 'bloody,' as they say, cook until the minimum internal temperature reaches 135 degrees F, instructs the Culinary Institute of America's "The Professional Chef" textbook. Just be aware the meat is still technically in the 'danger zone' at that temperature.
"UPDATE, 6/1/11: Since first writing this post, the USDA has revised its recommended internal cooking temperature for pork. The agency now says cuts of pork are safe at 145 degrees F, at which point there is still some pink in the middle. This temp is 15 degrees lower than the previous recommended one of 160 degreesF, and will yield a juicier cut of meat. (Don't forget to let all meats rest a few minutes before diving in so the juices can reabsorb.) And note, this only counts for whole cuts; ground pork still must be cooked to at least 160 degrees F."
I also learned on Matt's site that the USDA has a website aimed specifically at this topic, called Is it Done Yet? Now that you're know what the most important tool in the kitchen is, get yourself a kitchen thermometer and, most importantly, enjoy putting it to use.