Meat that is not properly cooked does not possess the same flavor, juiciness, and texture as its well-prepared counterpart. It is either too dry or too rare, it does not taste as good, and it does not melt in your mouth the way it is supposed to. More importantly, it may not be perfectly safe to eat.
If meat is undercooked, the potential presence of harmful bacteria and other pathogens may pose a health risk. If it is overcooked, it is harder to digest, due to the undesirable changes in chemical configurations, and the longer it stays in the gut, the more toxic it becomes.
These issues can be easily avoided by following a few simple tips. In this article, we will provide an overview of the recommended internal temperatures for different meat types and show you the best and safest ways to keep an eye on the temperature of your meat while cooking.
How To Know That Meat Is Cooked Right
There are only 2 prerequisites for properly cooking your meat. First, you need to familiarize yourself with the USDA guidelines regarding safe minimum internal meat temperatures. Second, you need to get a good tool for meat temperature monitoring. By this, we mean getting one of the best meat thermometers that are both fast and accurate and thus minimize the risk of removing the meat from heat at an inadequate temperature.
For example, high-quality meat thermometers like Lavatools Javelin Pro Duo provide temperature readings in just 2-3 seconds and their accuracy is close to perfect, with a margin of error of just 0.9°F. Make sure your thermometer is of similar quality and never again do you have to worry about sub-optimal cooking results.
As far as the USDA guidelines go, they are perfectly straightforward and rather easy to memorize. However, it is still wise to keep them at hand, so you can double-check before cooking. Alternatively, you can get a meat thermometer that comes with USDA presets, like ThermoPro TP20, and avoid spending time on memorizing the recommendations. It is completely up to you.
Now that we have covered the basics, it is time to get more specific. Here are the recommended temperatures for all the commonly consumed meat types, as proposed by the USDA.
All poultry, including whole chicken, turkey, duck, and goose as well as individual breasts, roasts, thighs, wings, and legs, should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Unlike with some other types of meat, no resting time is required.
Pork & Ham
The minimum internal temperature for fresh pork and ham is 145°F and the minimum rest time is 3 minutes. If you are reheating precooked ham, make sure its internal temperature reaches 140°F.
Veal, Beef & Lamb
Fresh veal, beef, and lamb, including chops, roasts, and steaks, should be cooked until the internal temperature is 145°F. After cooking, allow the meat to rest for at least 3 minutes.
For ground beef, veal, lamb, and pork, the recommended minimum internal temperature is 160°F. With ground poultry like turkey or chicken, you should make sure that the internal temperature is not under 165°F.
Like with domestic poultry, the minimum safe internal temperature of game birds is 165°F. Depending on your preferences, you can opt for a bit higher internal temperature, but lower is not an option since it comes with significant health risks.
When cooking game animals, regardless of type or cut, you should not stop cooking before the meat reaches the temperature of 160°F. You can cook a bit longer if desired, but keep in mind that game meat quickly loses moisture and becomes chewy if grilled or fried for too long.
Ground Game Meat
The safe minimum internal temperature for all ground game meat is 160°F. Slightly higher temperatures are ok, but the temperature should by no means be any lower, as potential pathogens may not be eliminated.
USDA Vs. Chef Recommendations
As you can see, the USDA never recommends an internal temperature lower than 140°F. However, if you are cooking a steak, by the time its internal temperature reaches 140°F, the steak is already at the medium-well stage. If you order a rare or medium rare steak at a restaurant, the chef will remove the steak from heat when its internal temperature reaches 125-135°F. On the other hand, if you order a dish containing ground poultry, the chef may wait until the meat’s internal temperature is 170-175°F.
These discrepancies between the USDA guidelines and the recommendations a chef would provide can be explained by the additional factor that chefs need to take into consideration. Namely, while the USDA is exclusively concerned with consumers’ health, chefs need to think about different tastes and preferences. This does not mean that chefs do not care about your health. They just sometimes apply the USDA guidelines to the surface of the meat, where bacteria generally reside, instead of the center of the cut. However, when it comes to ground meat, where the surface particles are mixed with the rest of the cut, the USDA and chefs are in absolute agreement that the minimum internal temperature should never be below 160°F since E. coli dies at 155°F.
The USDA recommendations for safe minimum internal meat temperatures eliminate all guesswork and allow you to cook meat that is both healthy and tasty simply by memorizing a few guidelines. Combined with a reliable meat thermometer, these recommendations ensure that the meat on your plate is cooked just right every single time. Slight deviations from the recommendations are tolerable in some cases, but we would like to point out that it is always better to be safe than sorry.