Why You Need a Safe Cooking Temperature Chart and How to Get One Right Now

Food ThermometerCooking a hot dinner tonight?  Then take out your food thermometer and your list of minimum safe temperatures for various foods.  What?!  You don’t possess either of these items?  No problem.  Just click here, and Shelf Life Advice will happily and promptly get our site’s temperature chart to you.  Sorry, we can’t email you a thermometer, but your local supermarket or home products stores will, no doubt, have it in stock.


 In case you’re wondering why you need these items, well, you just can’t rely upon traditional ways of deciding if food is or isn’t sufficiently cooked to kill the pathogens and safe to eat. Kitchen science is complex, and your eyes can’t provide all the answers.  Food scientists have assured us that the only safe way to tell if food is done is by taking its temperature. Let’s consider some of the traditional methods of determining “doneness” (or the lack of it) and find out why they may be wrong.


Shooting Down the Traditional Methods of Determining “Doneness”


“It’s is no longer pink around the edges, so it’s done.”


That’s a risky conclusion. When you’re cooking meat or poultry, the color of the product is not a reliable indicator of “doneness.” A scientific phenomenon known as “pre-mature browning” will make ground beef turn brown faster than a steak will. Meat from an older animal will turn brown faster.  The amount of oxidation (a reaction that occurs when air comes in contact with fats and pigments) and the pH factor (how acidic the product is) also affect how fast meat will turn brown. 


On the other hand, the meat may be pink around the edges or internally and still be “done.”  “Leaching from the bone marrow might be the cause of the pink color in poultry products,” says food scientist Dr. Chris Raines.  “Also, if the food is cooked in a convection oven, there may be pinking due to compounds resulting from the cooking.” 


“I poked it with a fork, and the juices came out clear, so it’s done.”


Not necessarily. The pigments in the juices are the same as the pigments in the meat itself.  The juices may be clear, but your turkey may still have a temperature of less than 165°F and may, therefore, be unsafe to consume. 


“I poked it with a fork, and the juices came out red, so it’s not done yet.”


You may have been fooled by a phenomenon known as “persistent pinking.” Dr. Chris Raines explains: “The juice is not blood; it’s water from the muscle.  It looks red because of the protein in it.”  The turkey giving out pink juices may or may not be “done.”  Only your thermometer knows for sure.


“The red piece in the temperature indicator popped up, so it’s done.”


These indicators that commonly come in turkey and roasts pop up when the molten product inside them reaches somewhere between 160°F - 180°F. The problem is that they are too short to be completely trustworthy. They can pop up before the product is adequately cooked all the way through.  Furthermore, if you’ve stuffed your turkey (which food safety experts advise against doing), the indicator doesn’t tell you whether the stuffing is done. Dr. Raines recommends that, when the little red piece pops up, you assume that the roast or poultry is almost done. Then, get out your food thermometer and check the temperature of the product in more than one place.


“I cooked it as long as the recipe said I should, so it’s done.”


Your oven’s calibration and your pan size may differ from what the creator of the recipe used, and those can affect cooking time.  Also, your meat or turkey may be a different size or shape and therefore take a bit longer to reach a safe temperature.


“It’s nicely browned on top or around the edges, so it’s done.


But that casserole is only safe to eat when the deepest part of it is cooked to at least 165°F.


“The chicken feels tender when I poke at it with a fork.  A toothpick comes out clean when I pull it out of the casserole.  Everything is done.”  


Maybe not.  Use the thermometer!


“My friend who’s an excellent cook says it’s done.”


Don’t trust the “wisdom” of others. Guests may tell you what they think you want to hear.


Why Undercooking is Dangerous


Cooking food to the temperature needed to kill most pathogens is important protection against food-borne illness. Slashfood.com reports that, according to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, there are plenty of bacteria in our meat and poultry. (That’s not news to most of our site visitors.) But this news is scarier: CBS News recently reported that almost half of all the beef chicken, pork, and turkey bought in five U.S. cities and sampled by researchers was found to contain drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus. (“Staph” bacteria can cause everything from temporary discomfort to life-threatening illnesses). According to Slashfood.com, tests performed by researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute revealed that 46% of the meat the researchers sampled contained bacteria resistant to 3 types of antibiotics. To protect yourself and your family, cook food well enough to kill most pathogens even if you prefer rare steak or medium-rare burgers.


So What’s the Right Temperature?


You need a cooking chart that tells you what foods need to be cooked to what temperature.  (A chart may have been printed on the back of your thermometer’s packaging, but, chances are, you discarded or misplaced it years ago.)  Most foods should be cooked to 165°F, but consult the chart to be sure.  Some will be overcooked at that temperature, and some may be better quality cooked a little past that.


Download our chart, and look it over.  Some of the recommendations on the chart may surprise you and raise questions in your mind.  Here are some FAQs and their answers:


Q. “Why must perishable, refrigerated leftovers be cooked to 165°F? If it’s leftover fish, the chart says cook it to145°F.  So why a higher temperature for reheating? Can’t I eat my leftovers lukewarm if I like them that way?”


A. Leftovers have passed through the “danger zone” (40°F-140°F, the zone in which bacteria multiply rapidly) twice, once when cooling down in the fridge and then while warming up in the oven.  Therefore, to kill the pathogens that could give you a food-borne illness, reheat to 165°F.   The alternative is to eat them cold, straight from the fridge. 


Q. “Why does the chart advise cooking ground beef to a higher temperature than a solid piece of meat, such as a steak or chops?”


A. Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter explains this one:  “For the most part, a solid piece of meat is sterile inside, but ground meat isn’t. Ground meat has been processed.  While the ground meat was being handled, pathogens can transfer to the interior. Therefore, a higher cooking temperature is needed to avoid the risk of food-borne illness. Note: Like ground beef, needle-injected, enhanced, or tenderized meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.”


So what should you tell a dinner guest who wants to be served an almost raw hamburger?  “Not in my house.”  If you yourself are a lover of rare hamburgers, sorry, but, to be safe, you’ll have to avoid them until you can find irradiated meat on sale in your community. Irradiation kills 99% of the pathogens, but unfortunately, it can’t seem to kill the fear consumers have of the process. You could become a crusader, an advocate for widespread availability of irradiated food, but that’s the topic of another Shelf Life Advice article (coming soon).  


Meanwhile, post your “Safe Temperatures for Cooking Food” chart on your fridge, and consult it regularly.  “Is it done yet?’ should not be answered with an opinion or a majority vote. 





Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Chris Raines, Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Dairy and Animal Science


slashfood.com “Staph bacteria found in half of U.S. Meat”



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