By: Eva Frederick
As summer winds to a close, it’s time to usher out the barbecue cookouts and ring in the pot roasts. But while the seasons change, one thing should stay constant in your routine: food thermometers.
Learning to correctly use a food thermometer can decrease your risk of contracting food poisoning caused by harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, and can also help you perfect your pork chops, steak, or other favorite dishes — just ask Bobby Flay (the star chef has his own line of meat thermometers).
How to use your food thermometer
Using a food thermometer is pretty simple, but there are a few tricks to doing it right. First, food thermometers are not just for pot roasts and steaks. All dishes containing meat, poultry, seafood and eggs should be tested with a food thermometer to ensure it has been cooked enough to kill harmful bacteria.
Second, when you insert your thermometer into the food you’re cooking, your goal is to find the coolest part of the meat or egg dish. After all, a chain is only a strong as its weakest link, and a steak is only as done as its rarest part.
The least done part of meat is often in the center of the thickest portion. A common way of testing whether meat is done is to cut into the center and see if it remains pink or red. However, this is not a reliable way to tell doneness, because some meat, such as pork, can still be pink even after it has reached a sufficient temperature and is thoroughly cooked, while other types, such as fish, may not change color as dramatically. Instead, push your thermometer through the thickest part, being careful to avoid fat and bone, and note the internal temperature.
The FDA recommends that all meat be cooked to a certain temperature (generally over 160 with some exceptions, including steaks — 145 — and precooked ham — 140.) To check what temperature a certain meat needs to reach to be cooked, check foodsafety.gov’s chart, which specifies conditions for a number of different dishes.
Once you have reached the suggested temperature, take the food off the heat and let it rest for a specified amount of time. During this period, the temperature inside the food will either continue to rise or remain the same for enough time to kill any remaining pathogens.
The FDA also recommends that consumers use food thermometers when reheating leftovers, and to use an appliance thermometer to measure the temperature of your refrigerator, which should be below 40 degrees F.
Finally, there are different procedures for different types of thermometer, so make sure you know the specifics of your brand and model of food thermometer. Is it a leave-in thermometer? An instant-read thermometer? See the next section of this post to learn more about pros and cons of selected models.
Purchasing your food thermometer
Last year, Consumer Reports published a buying guide to food thermometers in which they tested and reviewed several available types of thermometers. There were some clear winners, so if you’re purchasing a thermometer for the first time or replacing an older one, here are the highlights to consider.
These thermometers are simple to use: you just poke them into the meat to test the temperature. Use them as your meat is nearing doneness to make sure it has achieved the minimum internal temperature. You can use this type of thermometer to test multiple places in the cut of meat.
Instant-read thermometers can be purchased as digital or analog, but Consumer Reports recommends the digital version for the fastest, most reliable read.
This type of thermometer is intended to be left in the meat while it is in the oven/on the grill. Some come with external displays so you can monitor the temperature without opening the oven.
Leave-in thermometers also come in both analog and digital models. When you use the analog version, you generally have to open the oven to view the dial. With digital, you can avoid this.
Who uses food thermometers?
In 2016, the majority — 67 percent — of Americans reported that they owned a food thermometer. Fewer than that use it all the time. Thirty-eight percent of respondents to the 2016 FDA food survey reported that they always use food thermometers for roasts, while 19 percent use one for chicken, and only 6 percent for baked egg dishes.
Why heat kills bacteria
You know that heating meat to the recommended temperature kills pathogenic bacteria — but what exactly is going on there? How do high temperatures ensure that your food is free of harmful microorganisms?
Just like human cells, bacterial cells depend on a suite of specialized proteins to survive. High temperatures denature, or change the shapes, of these proteins, causing them to lose their function. Without their proteins, the bacteria can no longer carry out the processes they need to live. Protein denaturation is also happening in the meat or eggs you’re cooking: this is what i responsible for the change in color and texture as they cook.
Bacteria are a diverse group, and while some bacteria can live in extreme conditions like deep-sea vents or super-hot geysers, chances are the pathogens potentially lurking in your meat are most likely not able to withstand high temperatures.
Some common microscopic food-poisoning agents are Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter, which have clear thresholds after which their essential proteins are denatured. E. coli, for example, begins to wither and die at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Others have higher thresholds, and the FDA’s guidelines reflect temperatures at which food pathogens will not survive.
So this fall, go forth and enjoy your pot roasts, steak and egg dishes, but be sure to check the temperature to avoid any danger of food poisoning! If you have questions about food temperature or how to use a food thermometer, you can find information on the safe food handling section of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, or on foodsafety.gov, which hosts food safety information provided by selected government agencies.