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Good Cooking's Cook Until Done!

How many times have you read a recipe and it said cook until done? So just what does that mean? Well it can mean different things to different people and if using an internal temperature benchmark it can mean different temperatures for different foods. Because of potential poising from toxins, bacteria and pathogens in underdone foods, the USDA has set forth recommendations on what internal temperatures should be reached for foods that are cooked to be considered safe. I can tell you that some of these benchmark temperatures seen quite high to me and even alter the general visual appeal of some. Shouldn't food look pretty sitting on a plate?

The best way to determine if a safe temperature has been reached is by using an instant read thermometer. If you don't have one, buy one. Here are some internal temperatures the USDA recommends and some other helpful hints.

Bread--- No temperature test is required, but for your information the internal temperature of cooked bread should reach 185 degrees F.

Cakes--- Insert a clean toothpick or bamboo skewer near the center at a 45 degree angle. When removed it should come out perfectly clean, not sticky or with batter on it. Visually you can see that cakes will start to shrink from the sides of the pan. If gently pressed with a finger, they should spring back into shape. Some rich cakes and chocolate cakes including brownies may dent slightly upon touching and not spring back but they still will be done. The internal temperature will be about 185 degrees F. if tested with a thermometer, when the cake is cooked.

Casseroles--- Cook casseroles 165 degrees F. The food will be hot, bubbly and steamy throughout. It's best to use cooked meat and poultry and then combine it with the other ingredients in the casserole.

Cookies--- Bake cookies until they are lightly browned. If pressed with a finger, they should spring back into shape. Keeping them spaced evenly apart on the pan and of same size will help in even baking. You may also have to rotate the pan in the oven half way through cooking.

Eggs--- Cook eggs thoroughly so both yolks and whites are firm, not runny. Oh no! This is what the USDA recommends. On restaurant menus a disclaimer must be printed on the menu that says the following. Consuming raw or undercooked foods of animal origin may increase your risk of food borne illness. Consult your public health official for further information. I still will eat poached eggs and eggs over easy.

Fish, Seafood and Shellfish--- Cook fish until opaque and the flesh flakes easily with a fork. A one 1-1/4 pound lobster will be cooked through in 12 minutes if cooked in boiling water. Scallops will turn milk white or opaque and be firm to the touch. Cook shellfish like clams and mussels until the shells open (about 3-4 minutes in direct steam, discard any unopened shellfish.

Ground Meats--- Cook ground beef, veal, lamb and pork to an internal temperature of 160 F and ground poultry to 165 F. Using a thermometer helps assure a safe product. You can get approximately four burgers measuring approximately 1/2" by 4" from a pound of beef. I like my burger cooked medium or a temperature of 135-140 degrees in the middle.

Pork--- For safety and taste, cook pork to 160 F. At this temperature, the center of pork roasts may be somewhat pink and pork chops may have just a trace of pink color.

Poultry--- Cook whole poultry, thighs and wings to 180 F; poultry breasts and roasts to 170 F.
Cook ground poultry to 165 F. When poultry is pierced with a fork, the juices should be clear, not pink.

Quiche, Egg Puddings, Custard Pies, Cheesecakes-- -Bake these until they reach 165 F. Use the same toothpick test as with cakes to aid in how to determine the doneness.

Roasts: Beef, Veal, Lamb and Game--- The USDA says: "Beef roasts cooked to 160 F will generally have very little pinkness to the meat, and the juices will not be pink or red. Below the temperature of 160 F, the center of the roast will be pink or red, depending on the internal temperature. A beef roast cooked to 145 F in the center can be considered safe since the exterior of the roast would have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria, unless it is a rolled roast or one that has been mechanically tenderized. A consumer would not be able to determine if a roast that was pink in the center had reached the safe temperature of 145 F without a food thermometer."

Doneness for Steaks or Beef-Veal-Lamb and Venison Roasts

Black and Blue---Internal Temp. 80 F---Seared black on outside, ice cold raw center and will be slippery soft in texture.

Very Rare---Internal Temp. 100 F---Hot on the outside, raw on the inside and will be sort of wobbly.

Rare---Internal Temp. 120 F---Red cool to warm center and will be soft and spongy.

Medium Rare---Internal Temp. 126 F---Red warm center and will have a springy firmness.

Medium---Internal Temp. 135 F---Hot pink center and will have a less springy firmness than medium rare.

Medium Well---Internal Temp. 145 F---Slight color, cooked throughout and will feel firm.

Well Done---Internal Temp. 160 F---No color Left and will feel very firm and unyielding.

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Tips for Using a Food Thermometer

Using a food thermometer helps ensure food is cooked to a safe and flavorful temperature. Follow manufacturer's instructions for your thermometer on how to periodically check its accuracy. Some thermometers have a calibration nut under the dial that can be adjusted. Place the stem of the thermometer in a cup ice ice with some water in it. If it doesn't read 32 degree F. the rotate the nut until it is directly on the mark. The thermometer is now calibrated.

Use a Clean Thermometer

Use a clean food thermometer to ensure that food is cooked to the proper internal temperature. To prevent cross-contamination, wash the thermometer probe (the part inserted into the food) with hot water and soap after each use. A solution of 2 tbsp. bleach to 1 gallon of water is a great liquid sanitizer and accepted by the USDA.

In addition to using a clean thermometer, don't put cooked food back on the plate that you used for raw food. Prevent cross-contamination by transferring cooked food to a clean serving dish. Also, prevent cross-contamination by using clean utensils each time you flip, stir and remove cooked food from a skillet, saucepan, etc.

Cook Food Completely at One Time

Do not partially cook food and then finish it later. Harmful bacteria will grow between the time you start and finish cooking, even if you refrigerate the food in between. This is really important!

Follow Thermometer Usage Guidelines

Food thermometers come in several styles. Commonly used in the home kitchens are instant-read and oven proof thermometers. Instant-read thermometers aren't meant to be left in food while it's cooking. They give a quick reading when they're used to check the internal temperature during cooking and after food is cooked. They can be used on larger foods and are the best choice for smaller items such as steaks, patties, chops and poultry pieces.

To register an accurate temperature, the temperature-sensing section on the probe end of instant-read thermometers should be fully inserted into food. Instant-read digital thermometers are easiest to use with thin food, such as burgers and pork chops. The sensing section is only about 1/2 to 1 inch long on instant-read thermometers while it's between 2 to 3 inches long on dial thermometers.

Leave an instant-read thermometer inserted for about 10 seconds to register an accurate temperature.

Wash with hot soapy water between insertions to prevent cross-contamination from food that's not done to food that's done.

It's easier to read the numbers on a digital thermometer face than on a dial thermometer. They are battery operated but still need to be inserted for 10 seconds or longer. Don't forget to turn them off between reading as not to drain the battery. Also keep a spare battery on hand at all times.

Oven-Proof Dial Thermometers

Place oven-proof dial thermometers into food at the beginning of cooking and leave them throughout the cooking period. They work best on foods 3 or more inches thick such as roasts and whole or large pieces of poultry. Some digital read thermometers like to one form Polder has a probe that connects to the thermometer on a cable which can be used with the oven door closed. You can actually see the temperature increase and monitor the internal temperature from the kitchen counter.

Inserting the Thermometer Correctly

Insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest portion of the food at a slight 45 degree angle. If a food is irregularly shaped, you may need to check the temperature in several places. Remember that your food isn't a pin cushion and that repeated piercing can allow for the juices that make the meat moist can escape and drain out.

How to check the temperatures of the following items---

Whole Poultry---Insert into the inner thigh near the breast, but not touching the bone.

Cut-Up Poultry---Insert in the center of the thickest part, away from bone and fat.

Thin Food---Insert an instant-read thermometer sideways, or at an angle for thin food such as patties.

Roasts, Steaks and Chops---Insert in the center of the thickest part, away from bone and fat.

Casseroles and Egg Dishes---Insert in center or thickest area.

Cakes---Insert the probe at an angle into the thickest part in the center of the item.

Allow microwave food to stand for a few minutes; this distributes the heat then as many of the above insert the probe at an angle into the thickest part in the center of the item.