Maybe you’re grilling pork chops for a quick after-work dinner. Or perhaps you're hosting a tailgating party with burgers or brats when football season begins in a few weeks.
In the rush to get the food from the grill to our plate as fast as we can, it’s tempting to skip an important step that can turn a good meal into a bad stomachache.
An inexpensive food thermometer can help ensure that cooked meats and poultry are safe to serve your family and guests, says Argyris Magoulas, a food safety specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline.
If you’re wondering, Magoulas says he actually practices what he preaches when it comes to always using a food thermometer. He once volunteered to temp-check all the hamburgers at a USDA employee cookout.
“We talk about being a good example, and so I ended up being the person with the thermometer. I must have checked hundreds of burgers within an hour or two while we were out there. So I got very good practice,” Magoulas says with a laugh.
Nearly two-thirds of American aren’t using a food thermometer regularly, according to USDA estimates.
That’s troubling, Magoulas says, because food-borne illness can pose a serious risk to our health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million Americans, or at least one of every six people, gets sick from food poisoning every year.
Even more shocking, food-borne illness results in about 128,000 hospitalizations — and 3,000 deaths — each year. “Those are some serious figures,” Magoulas says.
Magoulas stresses that color, or whether the meat is pink inside, isn’t a good indicator that it's safe to eat.
Studies have shown that one out of every four hamburgers turns brown before it has reached a safe temperature.
“So you can’t say, well, it looks brown. I’m OK now,” Magoulas says. “Never go by color, because you can have a brown hamburger that looks cooked, or chicken that looks cooked, but it’s the opposite.”
Magoulas says the “danger zone” for meat and poultry is an internal temperature between 40 degrees and 140 degrees.
“In that range, bacteria grow rapidly, and they can release very dangerous toxins. And those can make us sick,” he explains. “You can’t smell it necessarily, but there are toxins, and you can’t just cook those off. You can’t recook it.”
If the risk of catching a bad stomach bug isn’t incentive enough, then Magoulas says a food thermometer can also help ensure that you don’t overcook those gorgeous Iowa chops and burgers on the grill.
“With a food thermometer, you can cook that chicken to 165 (degrees). It will be juicy enough. And it’s safe. And you don’t have to keep cooking it. You might see pink in there, but that’s not going to go away,” he explains.
Magoulas offers the following advice for safe cooking at home:
Which food thermometer should I buy? There are several different styles of food thermometers on the market. Digital instant read thermometers are easy to use and inexpensive, Magoulas notes. Even the older dial-type thermometers will work.
How do I properly measure the meat’s temperature? Magoulas says you want to visualize the core of the meat, whether it’s a burger, a roast or even a brat. “That’s the cold spot. That’s the furthest from the heat,” he says. If it’s a big cut of meat, like a whole turkey, then check the temperature in several spots.
What are the safe cooking temperatures? For beef steaks, pork chops and roasts (beef or pork), cook to a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, then give the meat a 3-minute rest off the grill.
For ground meats and hamburger patties, cook to a minimum of 160 degrees. For all poultry (breasts, thighs, legs, whole birds, wings, ground poultry), cook to 165 degrees.
If you’re cooking outdoors, remember to follow safe food-handling practices. Bring ice to keep cold food cold. Always use clean plates and utensils when handling cooked meats and poultry. And don’t leave food out for more than two hours at room temperature, or for more than one hour on a hot day, Magoulas says.