There are ways of guessing at doneness, such as by touch, cooking time, or making a slice and peeking at the color, but those methods of judging doneness leave too much to chance. Many factors are at play when cooking meat. The meat itself, how it’s seasoned, and the cooking method all factor in to the deliciousness, but it is the temperature at the center of a cut of meat that you can use to cook a cut of meat so that it is exactly as soft, juicy, pink or not-pink that you call perfect. A thermometer measures that precisely. So, if you are not a professional chef, and want to cook juicy, not-raw chickens, and tender steaks, all of the time, it’s a good idea to learn how to take the temperature of what you’re cooking.
Where to Measure
Measure the center. The outside of what you are cooking is very hot. We want to measure the center of the thickness: the coolest part. This is relatively simple: with a larger cut, put the tip of the thermometer into the center of the core, wherever that is, and don’t touch the bone. (The bone is not something you are going to eat and it conducts heat in a different way, so rest the tip of your thermometer on the bone.) If your meat were a peach, you’d measure the pit, if it were a 200-page book, you’d measure page 100. Measure big things like a chicken or rib roast in a few spots.
The best way to do it with a flatter food like a steak or a burger is to insert the thermometer into the side. For example, if you are cooking an inch-thick steak, you slide the point of the thermometer in about an inch deep, halfway up the thickness. The temperature will climb and then stop. That covers where to put it, but how long will it take to get there?
Cooking time is meant to help you plan. Use it as a guide to know when to begin taking the temperature. Start a little before the stated time when roasting, don’t measure too frequently, because you lose heat each time you open the oven door.
Food Keeps Right on Cooking
Foods keep cooking for a little while after you take it from a pan or oven. Knowing when to stop cooking is a little bit of an art because it depends on how big or small your pieces, and how hot their outside is. Big things keep cooking for 20 minutes while something thin and small like a pork chop, keeps cooking for only about a minute. For example, if you take a whole chicken out of the oven when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 160 F, it will most likely climb until it reaches 165 F. If you want roast beef to be medium rare, you have to take it out of the oven before it gets there. Also as the meat rests, and the temperature crests, the juices inside redistribute, so that more of them stay in the meat when you cut it and the whole thing is pretty amazing. That’s why we recommend that you stop cooking a bit before it’s done, and rest meat before carving it.
Why are there different temperatures for cooking meat?
Different types of meat are considered “done,” at different temperatures. Americans generally enjoy beef that is cooked less than chicken, for example, this is a matter of taste. The USDA-recommended temperatures, on the other hand, are a matter of safety and science, designed to keep people safe from foodborne illness. It’s confusing because the temperature that many chefs call “medium” differs from the temperature that the USDA calls “medium.” We recommend choosing what’s right for you and following our handy temperature guide:
Beef, pork, veal and lamb 145 F for 3 minutes
Ground meat and sausage 160 F
All poultry 165 F
Names for steak donenes
Rare: 125 to 130 F*
Medium rare: 135 F*
Medium: 140 F*
Medium well: 145 F +3 minute rest
Well done: 160 to 180 F.
*(not recommended by USDA because of foodborne illness)
Well done! Looking for a side with your perfectly cooked meat? Follow our guide for roasting every kind of vegetable.