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How to Use a Meat Thermometer: Guide to Meat Cooking Temperatures

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Cook time for food is often determined with the senses: an aroma in the air, a taste, or a visual inspection. When it comes to cooking meat, the best way to check for doneness is with a food thermometer. A perfectly-cooked steak is tender, juicy, and at least 140°F on the inside. From handling to cooking to storage, food should always be kept at the right temperature in order to be safe to eat. It’s particularly important to keep an eye on the temperature of meat to make sure it reaches the optimal temperature for consumption.



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Why Is Meat Temperature Important?

Whether you’re grilling chicken breast on the BBQ or smoking brisket, there are minimum cooking temperatures that every meat dish needs to reach in order to be safe for consumption. Harmful bacteria, like salmonella, can grow on food, particularly meat, and cause food poisoning. Perishable food needs to be stored at a temperature below 40℉, or cooked and kept at 140°F on a burner or in an oven to prevent bacteria from growing.

How to Use a Meat Thermometer

Knowing when meat has achieved the perfect internal temperature requires a simple tool. A food thermometer is an essential kitchen tool for both professional chefs and home cooks. Here’s how to use a meat thermometer effectively:

  1. Choose a good thermometer. A bimetal thermometer is the old standard: a simple probe with a numbered dial. A digital thermometer, like an instant-read thermometer, is faster and more accurate, requiring mere seconds to take the temperature of the meat.
  2. Always stick the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. The surface temperature is always hotter than the center since they cook at different rates, so it’s important to take the internal temperature of the meat. Additionally, make sure the thermometer is in the flesh instead of bone for an accurate read.
  3. Check the temperature when the meat is nearly ready. Check the temperature often as the meat gets closer to being done.
  4. Let the meat rest. Some thicker cuts of meat, like brisket or pork tenderloin, continue to cook even after it’s removed from the heat. This is called carryover cooking. Meat can be removed from the heat when it is a few degrees from finishing and reach its optimal temperature while it rests.
  5. Know the ideal temperature for each meat. If you’re having a cookout and grilling different meats, test each one for their specific minimum temperatures. For instance, pork chops need to reach a slightly different temperature than burgers.
  6. Check one last time. Get a final temperature read before removing the meat from the heat source.
  7. Clean up. Always wash a meat thermometer after using it.
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Ideal Meat Cooking Temperatures

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food safety temperature chart, raw meat should always be cooked until it reaches the recommended safe cooking temperature. While many people prefer a cut of meat that’s pink in the middle, like a medium-rare steak, the USDA does not recommend eating meat with a minimum internal temperature below 140°F. Here are the USDA’s recommended minimum internal temperatures for meat and eggs:

Recommended Temperature for Beef

  • Rare: 120°F
  • Medium-rare: 130°F
  • Medium: 140°F
  • Medium-well: 150°F
  • Well done: 155°F
  • Ground beef: 160°F

Recommended Temperature for Poultry

  • White meat: 165°F
  • Dark meat: 165°F
  • Ground poultry: 165°F

Recommended Temperature for Lamb

  • Medium-rare: 130°F
  • Medium: 140°F
  • Medium-well: 150°F
  • Well-done: 155°F

Recommended Temperature for Pork

  • Medium: 145°F
  • Well-done: 160°F

Recommended Temperature for Eggs

  • Eggs: cooked until whites and yolk are firm
  • Egg dishes: 160°F

5 Methods for Properly Storing and Reheating Meat

While cooking meat to the specified temperatures kills harmful bacteria, any leftovers must also be properly stored. The danger zone for food is between 40℉ and 140℉—the temperature at which bacteria thrive, reproduce, and create toxins that cause foodborne illnesses. Here are some basic rules of thumb to keep meat safe to eat:

  1. When refrigerating food, make sure it is kept below 40℉. Use a thermometer for both your refrigerator and freezer to make sure it’s cold enough in there.
  2. Don’t leave food out for long. If food is left out at room temperature it can become unsafe to eat in as little as two hours (one hour if the temperature is 90℉ or above).
  3. Keep food out of the danger zone. When keeping food out for people to eat, like at a party, keep it warmed to at least 140℉ in an oven or a warming tray.
  4. Freeze your leftovers. Freezing food is the best option if leftovers will not be consumed within three days.
  5. Reheat meat to the same minimum safe cooking temperature before eating. Use that handy food thermometer for a quick check before you dig in.


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