“Is it done yet?” We all ask this question when cooking and there are a variety of methods that have been passed down to determine the ‘doneness’ of different products. For example, my grandmother taught me to throw spaghetti against the wall and if it sticks to the wall it’s done. In later years I’ve learned that although this method is fun to implement, it really just results in sticky walls and overdone pasta.
When it comes to cooking meat, the question of ‘doneness’ is two-fold:
1: Is it safe to eat?
The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service states that the only way to accurately measure if a product is cooked to a safe temperature is to use a food thermometer. Safe temperatures for different meat products are listed below.
Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart for Meat*
- Beef, Pork, Veal, & Lamb (steaks, chops, roasts) - 145°F + 3 minute rest
- Ground Meat - 160°
- All Poultry - 165°F
* Source: USDA-FSIS
2: Is it cooked to my liking?
Once a product is cooked to a safe level, then the question becomes “how do you like it prepared?” Steaks and chops can be cooked to a lower degree of doneness than ground products which must be cooked to at least 160°F. A thermometer is the best way to determine when meat has reached the desired degree of doneness. The guide below indicates the approximate temperature for each level of doneness.
Guide to Doneness*
- Medium Rare - 145°F
- Medium - 160°F
- Medium Well - 175°F
- Well Done - 180°F
*Source: American Meat Science Association, USDA-ARS, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
There is no doubt that the first question (Is it safe to eat?) is the most important. We all want to prepare food that is safe to eat. But once we determine meat is cooked to a safe temperature we must continue to monitor doneness to ensure eating quality. A properly calibrated meat thermometer is the only reliable way to measure internal temperature and ensure both food safety and quality.
Unfortunately there are a number of ‘false methods’ for determining doneness of meat that have been distributed via the Internet, television and social media. While these methods might sound valid, they do not replace the use of a thermometer for determining doneness of meat. A few of these are listed below along with an explanation as to why they are neither safe nor effective:
- This method suggests that meat cooked to different degrees of doneness feels like different parts of your hand.
- Concern: The obvious concern with this method is that everyone’s hands and fingers feel different, as do different cuts of meat depending on the species, animal maturity, fat content, etc. In addition to getting your fingers burned as you’re feeling the meat this is not a reliable way to determine meat safety or degree of doneness.
Juices Run Clear
- This method suggests that meat is safe to eat once the juices run clear.
- Concern: Color change is not an effective indicator of doneness. Internal meat color and the color of meat juices are subject to factors such as pH and fat content. Research by the USDA revealed that 1 in 4 hamburgers turn brown without reaching the safe internal temperature of 160°F. We challenged four groups of SDSU undergraduate students in the Introduction to Meat Science class to cook hamburger patties until the juices run clear and to record the internal temperature when this occurred. The groups reported the following internal temperatures: 138°F, 145°F, 166°F, and 187°F. Two of these are not safe to eat (138°F, 145°F), one is slightly over the threshold for safety (166°F) and one is likely overdone to the point it would be extremely dry and would not provide a satisfying eating experience (187°F). This method also poses concern as it is often shared as the way to determine when poultry is done. However, most purge from poultry is light colored prior to cooking and becomes clear long before the meat is safe to eat (165°F).
Determine How Much The Meat Has Shrunk
- This method suggests that if the meat starts to look smaller then it’s close to done and if it’s substantially smaller than when you started it may be overcooked.
- Concern: The degree that a meat product will shrink is variable and depends on factors such as the lean to fat ratio and the cooking method. This, like other visual methods will not consistently indicate safety or level of doneness.
The use of a meat thermometer is critical to maintain both meat safety and quality. The thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of a roast or meatloaf and horizontally into the side of a steak, chop, or hamburger patty. It should be inserted away from bone or fat and, if the meat product is irregularly shaped (such as some roasts), check the temperature in several places.