Cooking foods to the proper temperature not only improves a meal's taste, it also plays a major role in food safety. Food temperatures beyond what the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for safety are a matter of individual taste; some people appreciate a medium steak, while others eat only well-done meats. Well-cooked food is especially vital for keeping smaller diners safe from food-borne illnesses.
Federal food safety guidelines recommend that you cook ground non-poultry meat to an internal temperature of 160 F. Because the process of grinding the meat can incorporate microbes that lived on one portion of the meat throughout the portion, ground meat requires longer and more thorough cooking than whole pieces of meat. Cook ground poultry to an internal temperature of 165 F. These temperature ranges also go for ground meat dishes that include other ingredients, such as meatloaf and meatballs.
Poultry requires cooking to 165 F. You may have heard of ways to test the doneness of a roasting chicken or turkey, but the only sure way to know the meat's internal temperature is with a meat thermometer. This kitchen implement is well worth its small cost, especially if you enjoy a well-roasted bird. If you serve stuffing with the roasted turkey or chicken, make it in a separate pan instead of stuffing the bird's body cavity, as dense stuffing can interfere with the meat's thorough and even cooking.
Beef and Lamb
The USDA recommends cooking beef and lamb to 145 F; that applies to roasts, steaks and chops. At these temperatures, you can still enjoy your meat pink at its center. If you're used to a rare steak that doesn't come up to safe cooking temperature, let the meat rest after you remove it from the grill or pan. Resting allows meat to re-absorb the juices it releases during cooking, making it tender and juicy at higher temperatures. Kids typically prefer a well-done piece of meat, but if they like a rare steak, serve them a well-rested steak, and they won't miss the red center.
Like beef and veal, pork cuts require cooking to 145 F. Pork becomes firm and white throughout the piece when it's properly cooked, but use a thermometer to gauge the temperature just to be sure. For stuffed pork items such as rolled roasts and pocket pork chops, seat the thermometer in the meat, not the stuffing. Unlike a stuffed turkey or chicken, a stuffed pork chop doesn't contain a large enough mass of stuffing to interfere with cooking. As with lamb or beef, rest your pork chops and roasts for five minutes after cooking to keep them tender and juicy.
While it's easy to fit a meat thermometer into a roast, it isn't practical to measure the temperature of individual shrimp or scallops, nor is it possible to slide a thermometer into a delicate fish fillet. Fortunately, seafood changes its appearance as it cooks. The translucent white flesh of scallops turns opaque when the scallops are ready. Clams and mussels pop open when they're fully cooked. Whole fish and fish fillets should flake apart at the touch of a fork. If you work with a larger piece of fish such as a tuna or swordfish steak, cook the meat to an internal temperature of 145 F as you would meats.
The USDA recommends reheating foods to a consistent internal temperature of 165 F, a higher temperature than you may have used to cook the meal. That high temperature ensures that any microbes that found their way into the food are destroyed during reheating. If you plan to use your leftovers in another meal -- turning your leftover ground beef taco filling into a casserole or transforming your leftover chicken breasts into ranch-flavored quesadillas, for instance -- heat the re-used ingredient thoroughly before adding it to the other ingredients in the second dish.
Ideal cooking temperatures involve safety but also taste. Cooking food to a toughened cinder might render it perfectly safe, but it also makes it perfectly inedible. To keep the food's flavors intact, cook it to just at or above the recommended internal temperature, then let the food rest. As it rests, the food continues to cook internally, but because the outer surface of the food is no longer cooking, it stays juicy.
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