NDSU Extension - Sargent County


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It's Grilling Season! Why Bother Using a Food Thermometer?

05/20/16 It's Grilling Season! Why Bother Using a Food Thermometer?

I grew up cooking and baking.  Besides the cooking and baking I did at my farm home in Minnesota, I also had summer jobs in cooking and baking.  One summer I worked as the cook at a truck stop café, and a couple of years later, I was employed as the head cook and baker at a youth camp.  All that experience was gained before I even knew there was such a thing as a food thermometer. When others who have similar experiences with food preparation tell their stories, it is often at this point that they will say, “And nobody died.”  In fact, I said it myself before I learned more about food safety.  There are at least four good reasons for even the most experienced cooks to use a food thermometer.                                                                                   

A food thermometer can help: 

                  - Decrease the risk for, and potentially prevent food borne illness;
                  - Cook foods to a safe temperature;
                  - Prevent overcooking; and
                  - Hold hot, cooked foods safely.

In my efforts to pursue food safety, I discovered that I had actually been overcooking some foods.  Not being much of a risk-taker, I had been sacrificing flavor in the name of food safety.  So that third reason, “prevent overcooking” has helped me prepare foods that are more flavorful, in addition to being safe!

Most bacteria that cause foodborne illness grow very slowly at refrigerator temperatures.  They tend to multiply rapidly within the 40-140 degree temperature range, and are killed at high temperatures. Using an accurate, calibrated food thermometer when cooking meat takes the guesswork out of cooking and assures that a safe temperature has been reached to destroy harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli O157:H7. Using a thermometer is the only reliable way to ensure safety and to determine the "doneness" of most foods. A food thermometer should also be used to ensure that cooked foods are held at a safe temperature (below 40 °F or above 140 °F) until served.

Research has shown that color and texture changes are not reliable indicators that all bacteria have been destroyed. In fact, a USDA study found that 1 out of 4 hamburgers “looked done” on the outside without having been cooked to the safe minimum internal temperature. For consumers, that would be 160 degrees F.

At a recent social gathering, a friend questioned why there are different minimum temperature guidelines for different foods.  The answer is that the temperature at which different pathogenic bacteria are destroyed varies, as does the "doneness" temperature for different meat and poultry products. A roast or steak that has never been pierced in any way during slaughter, processing or preparation and has reached an internal temperature of 145 °F is safe to eat. A consumer who uses color as a sign of doneness might continue cooking it until it was overcooked and dry. A consumer using a thermometer can be assured that the food has reached a safe temperature.

Getting a food thermometer is the first step.  Checking it for accuracy (preferably before each use, but for sure if it’s been dropped or measured extremely high temperatures), calibrating it to assure accuracy, and using it correctly, are the next steps.

If manufacturer instructions are not available, check the stem of the thermometer for an indentation, or "dimple" that shows how deep it must penetrate the meat to get an accurate reading. Most digital thermometers will read the temperature in a small area of the tip. Dial types must penetrate 2 to 3 inches into the food. Most thermometers available will give an accurate reading within 2 to 4 °F, if the thermometer is placed in the proper location in the product. If inserted incorrectly, or if the thermometer is placed in the wrong area, the reading will not accurately reflect the internal temperature of the product.

In general, the thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the food away from bone, fat or gristle. For whole poultry, insert in the inner thigh. When the food being cooked is irregularly shaped, such as may be the case with a beef roast, check the temperature in several places.

Reliable sources of additional information regarding calibrating and using food thermometers, as well as minimum safe temperatures for cooked foods can be found online at the sites I used as references for this news column:

http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/food_safety/handling/hgic3580.html, and http://www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/preserving/meat-fish/got-a-grill-get-a-thermometer/.


Photo Source: https://pixabay.com/static/uploads/photo/2015/08/06/15/30/grill-878001_960_720.jpg (downloaded 5/24/16)





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