Whether you’re cooking a Sunday roast for the family or inviting friends over for a barbecue, the most important aspect when making food is checking that the meat has been cooked at the right temperature.
Uncooked meat can result in illness, and the responsibility of serving food that is safe to eat falls on the chef. The easiest way of cooking meat correctly is using a temperature device like a probe which will give a clear reading during the cooking process.
But it’s also important to understand the dangers of meat that hasn’t reached the right temperature and get some advice on the right type of meat thermometer for your kitchen.
Optimal meat temperatures for cooking
The temperature of your oven won’t tell you the temperature of the inside of your meat. And it is the inside meat temperature that will tell you how the meat will taste, and importantly whether it is safe to eat. Here is a handy guide to cooking temperatures for beef, lamb, chicken and pork.
- Rare: 125.6° Fahrenheit / 52° Celsius
- Medium Rare: 135° Fahrenheit / 57.2° Celsius
- Medium: 140° Fahrenheit / 60° Celsius
- Medium Well: 155° Fahrenheit / 68.3° Celsius
- Well Done: 159.8° Fahrenheit / 71° Celsius
- Ground Beef: 160° Fahrenheit / 71.1° Celsius
- Medium Rare: 131° Fahrenheit / 55° Celsius
- Medium: 140° Fahrenheit / 60° Celsius
- Well Done: 159° Fahrenheit / 71.8° Celsius
- Ground Lamb: 160° Fahrenheit / 71.1° Celsius
Anything below 70 degrees for a couple of minutes, is not recommended for people with weakened immune systems (see details further down this article). For more information on why these temperatures are optimal, see the guidelines from the Food Standards Agency here.
Why can we eat raw fish but not raw meat?
While we’re happy to feast on sushi and sashimi all day long, the idea of raw chicken is enough to turn our stomachs. So why is it ok to eat raw fish but not raw meat? Different animals contain different types of microbes and bacteria, so are more harmful to humans than others. Fish can contain parasites, so in the UK all fish intended to be eaten as sushi is required to be frozen before preparation. Freezing kills parasites, so you might wish to do this at home if you’re purchasing fresh fish. When it comes to meat, the bacteria that live in livestock – which include listeria, E. Coli and salmonella - tend to be more dangerous to humans.
Is rare beef safe to eat?
While most of us wouldn’t tuck into a half cooked pork chop, we’re more than happy to eat a medium rare steak. Why is this? Most harmful bacteria live in the animal’s guts, while the inside of muscle is relatively sterile. Therefore, beef is a good example of a meat that is by and large OK to eat rare. Searing the surface of a steak will kill off bacteria. However, if you’re eating minced beef, it’s advised that you make sure it’s cooked through. Minced beef is ground up meat and can also be a product of several animals, therefore even if a small section – usually from the outside of the muscle – is contaminated, it will spread quickly in the process of mincing.
Why is uncooked chicken so dangerous?
Salmonella is commonly associated with uncooked chicken and is a bacterium that can live in the droppings, claws and farm floors. And it causes one of the most common intestinal infections amongst people in the United States, salmonellosis. Campylobacter is a dangerous bacterium that lives in the stomachs of chickens and in and around the living environment of chicken farms. This means that both bacteria can easily be found on flesh before the packing process. Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, most of which comes from contaminated poultry. Cooking chicken well kills these harmful bacteria.
Why don’t people tend to eat uncooked pork?
Pigs are prone to a worm called trichinella spiralis, whereby the larvae form cysts inside the muscle tissue. Trichinella spiralis is killed by freezing for just minutes at around minus twenty degrees centigrade, so the US Department of Agriculture recommends that pork destined for processed foods should be frozen before sale. However, also cooking at relatively low temperatures will also kill trichinella spiralis -- for example 6 minutes at 55 degrees Centigrade. However most people prefer that raw pork is cooked through completely.
Dangers of uncooked meat
Not cooking meat properly can not only affect the taste, it can also increase the risk of salmonella, listeria or E. coli. These bacteria can cause vomiting, sweats, diarrhoea and cramps. Of course, the best way to kill of all dangerous nasties in meat is to cook them thoroughly. Applying heat is the best way of destroying bacteria, parasites and microbes.
Tools to check meat temperature
Not only can meat thermometers check that meat is cooked enough, it can also avoid overcooking so the taste isn’t ruined. In short, if you’re doing any kind of cooking, a meat thermometer is essential kit. Some recommended products for the safe cooking of meat include:
The Thermapen 4 has won rave reviews across the board. It has a read-out of temperature over the range of -49.9 to 299.9 °C with a 0.1 °C resolution and an accuracy of ±0.4 °C. You need never worry about taking a wrong reading, as the digital display auto rotates to give you the right reading whichever way you hold the device. Temperatures can be read in around three seconds. The casing is washable and includes 'Biomaster' additive that reduces bacterial growth.
Barbecues can make it difficult to gauge the temperature of meat, so having a BBQ thermometer like this one is important. The ThermaQ has a large LCD split screen which allows you to check the internal food temperature as well the barbecue temperature simultaneously. The probe temperature is 225mm long, so ideal for joints of meat, as well as sausages, burgers and kebabs.
No contact needs to be made with this temperature checker. Simply point and click – the infrared sensor will be able to pick up surface temperature. The sensor has a 12:1 optic ratio (target distance: distance) and allows you to check the temperature of grills, stoves, pans and barbecues.
High risk groups
It is very important to practice proper food hygiene when cooking and serving food. According to the NHS, some people are more at risk than others, and will struggle to fight infection from bacteria, parasites and microbes. These high risk groups include pregnant women, cancer patients, diabetes patients, HIV/AIDS patients, people with autoimmune diseases, the elderly and children under five years’ old. Cooking meat well and observing food hygiene will go some way in protecting these at-risk groups.