Take the Guesswork out of Cooking Meat with This Guide

Take the Guesswork out of Cooking Meat with This Guide

(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

Like anything in the kitchen, learning to cook meat to the correct “doneness” comes with time and practice. Eventually, after preparing enough pork loins and whole turkeys, testing for internal temperature will feel less scientific and more second-nature. At some point, you might even able to know if a steak is medium-rare with a just press of a finger.

But if you are new to cooking (or just new to a particular cut of meat), nailing the right internal temperature feels more like mind-reading than making dinner. The way cooked meat looks on the outside gives little to no indication of how well it's cooked on the inside. And until X-ray vision is real, one must rely on recipes, thermometers, and a little bit of luck to get it right — an equation that leaves room for human error (or in my case, one-too-many dinner parties where I’ve sliced open a leg of lamb to find it underdone, or cut my pork tenderloin into coins to find them dried out on the inside).

So today we are facing the illusive and anxiety-ridden world of internal temperatures, or the fear of making undercooked or overcooked food. We will discuss how to properly use thermometers (and other testing techniques), as well as how to avoid common mistakes that often lead to too-pink meat or too-dry chicken, for example. And by the end, you'll have the confidence and know-how to cook your food to the doneness you desire. Every time.

Testing Internal Temperatures

The most consistent and safest way to test internal temperatures is with a thermometer. Both an instant-read digital thermometer and a meat thermometer will get the job done. Just remember to sanitize it before and after use — because raw meat contains bacteria you don’t want to spread around. And if you’re using a hand-me-down thermometer, take a moment to calibrate it before putting it to work. Of course, there are other cues you can use to check for doneness without a thermometer, or hacking the meat apart — we’ll get to those, too.

Properly Using a Thermometer

As for how to properly use a thermometer, always insert it into the center of the thickest part of your meat, avoiding fat and bone. Be careful to keep the thermometer from pushing all the way through to the cavity (like when cooking turkey) or to the pan (with a steak). When testing thin foods, like a hamburger patty or thin-cut pork chop, insert the thermometer through the side, so the sensor part lands in the center. And when cooking a whole bird, always insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh.

If you’re making a casserole or meatloaf, you will potentially run the risk of uneven cooking temperatures in the different layers of meat and eggs, so insert the thermometer in the center of the dish. And for anything with ground meat or poultry, check in several different areas.

Knowing the Right Temperature

As for getting the right temperature, there are both FDA-recommended safety guidelines, as well as different levels of “doneness” — rare, medium-rare, medium, etc. — which differ according to type of meat and cut. Use the reference list below to get the right temperature and “doneness” you desire. And remember, these numbers refer to the temperature before you let the meat rest (another important step, which we will get to in a moment).

Beef Rare: 115 to 120°F; medium-rare: 120 to 125°F; medium: 130 to 135°F; medium-well: 140 to 145°F; well-done: 150 to 155°F

Lamb Rare: 115 to 120°F; medium-rare: 120 to 125°F; medium: 130 to 135°F; medium-well: 140 to 145°F; well-done: 150 to 155°F

Pork All cuts of pork, with the exception of ground pork, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. Ground pork needs to be cooked to a higher temperature of 160°F, so keep this in mind when making meatloaf or burgers out of ground pork.

Poultry Unlike beef and lamb, you never want “rare” chicken. For a safe internal temperature, the thermometer should read 165°F, for both light and dark meat.

FishThe safe internal temperature for cooked fish is 145°F.

(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

How to Test Temperature Without a Thermometer

If you don’t have a thermometer, you're not out of luck — there are easy ways to test for doneness with your own two hands.

Steaks, chops, and chicken breasts: Use the “poke test” to gauge the level of doneness, which compares the tension you feel in your palm to the tension you feel when you poke your meat. Simply take your thumb and touch it to your index finger. Then, with the index finger of the other hand, touch the fleshy part at the base of your thumb. Kind of squishy, right? Compare the way this feels to the tension you experience when you poke the center of your cut of meat. If it feels just as squishy, the meat is rare. For medium-rare, touch your thumb to your middle finger. And for well-done, touch your thumb to your pinky.

Poultry: To test the doneness of a whole bird, simply wiggle the leg — it should feel loose. Or cut into the thick part of the thigh — the juices that run out should look clear, not pink.

Fish: A cooked fish will have flaky and opaque flesh, which should easily pull away from the bone or skin.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

Now that you know how to properly test for internal temperatures, let’s also steer clear of common mistakes that will easily take you from well-cooked to well-done in no time flat.

Tender vs. Tough Cuts

Not all cuts of meat cook the same. Tender and lean cuts of meat — beef tenderloin, thin-cut pork chops, chicken breasts, and flank steak — will cook quickly and dry out easily, which is why you want to typically use them in recipes that use quick-cooking methods (like stir-fry or sauté). If using the oven, keep an eye on the internal temperature by monitoring the time and that trusty thermometer. You can also try a few tricks for keeping these cuts moist, like using a quick brine or wrapping your tenderloin in bacon.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are tough and fatty cuts of meat that require longer cooking times to properly break down connective tissue and get tender. Pork butt or shoulder, pork loin (not tenderloin!), lamb legs, and anything with the words “stew” or “roast” in its name falls into this category. Treat them right by using in recipes that stew, roast, braise, or take advantage of a pressure cooker.

Swapping Cuts

If you must use a different cut of meat than the one called for in a recipe — because of budget or because your store does not carry a particular type of meat — be sure to pick one that is similarly lean or fatty, or has bone-in or is boneless. If you’re confused, definitely do not be shy about asking your butcher (or the trusty Internet) for help in making a smart swap.

Uneven Cuts and Cooking Times

Whether you are cooking a salmon filet or a pork tenderloin, sometimes parts of the cut will be thinner or thicker than the rest, which often results in uneven cooking. This uneven cooking also occurs when roasting a whole chicken or turkey, as the smaller, more exposed legs and wings will cook faster than the breasts.

To avoid uneven cooking with uneven cuts, simply break it into parts. Cut off the thinner end of the tenderloin or fish from the thicker end, then watch the internal temperature of them both carefully, taking out the thinner part first when it reaches the appropriate temperature. When cooking chicken or turkey, you can do something similar called spatchcocking, where instead of roasting it whole, you cut it into individual parts.

Forgetting to Rest

Before you cut into that gorgeous roast or roasted chicken, cover it with a tent of foil and give it time to rest. By waiting a little bit, you’ll allow any liquid pushed out during cooking to redistribute back into the meat. When you finally get to enjoy your hard-earned meal, it will be moist and juicy instead of dry. Depending on the recipe and size of the cut, resting times will vary, so follow instructions accordingly — although you’ll most likely be safe if you wait somewhere between the 10- and 20-minute mark.

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