It’s difficult to think of the holidays without thinking about food — roast ham, standing rib roast, tender brisket with gravy, perhaps even a spicy, deep-fried turkey. And don’t forget the creamy mashed potatoes and the pies, cookies and other special treats for the holiday season.
With these fond thoughts of holiday foods comes the pressure — pressure to prepare everything just right and pressure to serve safe food to all those guests. The cookies and mashed potatoes are relatively straightforward, but how do you know if a turkey or a beef roast is thoroughly cooked?
Is “done” the same as “safe”? Not always.
Doneness reflects subjective qualities, such as the appearance, texture and optimum flavor of food. However, research has shown that these qualities aren’t necessarily reliable indicators of safety. Only a food thermometer can be relied upon to accurately ensure destruction of pathogens that might be in the food. Visual signs of doneness should be reserved for situations in which doneness is reached after the food has reached a safe temperature.
Poultry is one product that generally reaches a safe temperature (160 degrees F) before most consumers consider it done (165-180 degrees F). At an internal temperature of 160 degrees F throughout, pathogenic bacteria have been destroyed, but poultry will still be pink and raw-looking near the bone and the juices will be pink and/or cloudy. At temperatures of 170 degrees F for white meat and 180 degrees F for dark meat, the flesh of poultry will no longer be pink, the juices will run clear and the joints will move easily.
Visual clues, however, can’t be trusted for the stuffing. The only sure way to be sure the stuffing has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees F is to use a thermometer.
Beef is another product that needs a thermometer to ensure safety. While few people like their chicken and turkey pink, many prefer beef that is still red or pink in the middle. Luckily, a solid muscle beef roast that has been cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F or higher will have reached a high enough temperature on the surface to destroy E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria.
Beef products that have been rolled, ground or mechanically tenderized, however, need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F to ensure safety. Recent research has confirmed that ground beef may turn brown before it has reached 160 degrees F.
The only way to ensure safety and doneness is by using a food thermometer. For patties, this often means inserting a thermometer sideways into the hamburger in order to get an accurate reading. A hamburger cooked at 160 degrees F, measured with a food thermometer throughout the patty, is safe — regardless of the color.
Pork roasts are considered safe if they have been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. At this temperature, the center of the roast may still be somewhat pink. Pork chops also may have just a trace of pink color at this temperature. Again, the only way to ensure that pork with any pinkness has reached a safe temperature is with a meat thermometer.
To ensure safety, casseroles and other combination dishes need to be cooked to 165 degrees F in the center of the dish as measured with a food thermometer. These dishes are traditionally composed of cooked foods and then heated to combine flavors.
However, pathogenic bacteria could survive if the meat or poultry component of a casserole is merely “browned” and the casserole was not subsequently heated thoroughly, especially if the dish was assembled in advance and refrigerated. These dishes display no visible signs of doneness.
The visual descriptor, “cook until hot and steamy,” is difficult to verify. Only by using a food thermometer can you be sure the product has been heated to a safe temperature.
The best part about using a food thermometer is that it takes the guesswork out of cooking. No more cutting into your turkey or beef roast to see if it looks done. Simply place the food thermometer into the food in a couple of places and check the temperature of the food. You’ll know if it needs to cook a few minutes more or if egg casseroles are brown on top before heating through. By using a food thermometer on a regular basis, you can be assured that foods are done as well as safe.
For additional food safety information about meat, poultry or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. Or contact the Randolph County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension at 336-318-6000.
* Jeannie M. Leonard is a Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Randolph County Center.