Cooking food at home can be a great way to save money and control what you eat. However, this means you are now in charge of making sure bacteria and viruses don’t spread on the food you will soon be eating. If you don’t cook food at the correct temperature, you can become seriously ill.
Believe it or not, cooking certain foods at a specific temperature can kill harmful bacteria, according to the USDA. Doing so will help keep you safe from developing a foodborne illness.
Why is there a specific safe meat temperature?
Meat can contain certain bacteria before it is processed for slaughter and sent to grocery stores. Certain bacteria, like E. coli and Salmonella, have been found in the intestines of livestock. When you cook meat to a safe temperature, it helps kill the bacteria. If food is not properly stored, handled, and cooked, it can spread bacteria and cause you to fall ill with a foodborne illness.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick each year from a foodborne illness. That’s roughly 48 million Americans! From those, 128,000 end up hospitalized and 3,000 die because of it.
Cooking meat to a safe temperature can keep you and your loved ones from becoming sick and, perhaps, dying. It can also keep you from experiencing the terrible symptoms of foodborne illnesses.
Some of the most common types of foodborne illnesses are norovirus and Salmonella. If you experience vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, body aches, and a fever, you might have a foodborne illness.
Recommended cooking temperatures
Now that you know why it’s important to cook meat to a safe temperature, let’s talk about what temperature different kinds of meat should reach before they’re served.
As the cooking temperature chart shows, there are three meat temperature categories:
These foods must reach an internal temperature of 165°F to be considered safe to eat:
- Poultry, including chicken and turkey
- Stuffing that includes meat
- Stuffed meats and pastas
- Dishes containing previously cooked food
These foods must reach an internal temperature of 155°F to be considered safe to eat:
- Ground meat
- Ostrich meat
- Injected, marinated, or tenderized meats
- Eggs to be hot held
These foods must reach an internal temperature of 145°F to be considered safe to eat:
- Whole seafood
- Beef, pork, veal, lamb (steaks and chops)
- Eggs to be served immediately
After cooking, remember that food can still grow bacteria as it cools down. To help keep bacteria within safe levels, food shouldn’t stay in the temperature danger zone (41°F–135°F) for more than four hours.
That said, there are some foods that are eaten undercooked, such as rare steak and sushi. Many people find these delicious. For steak, its internal meat temperature needs to reach 145°F to guarantee that it is safe. If you decide to eat your steak rare, remember that it’s more likely to make you sick.
You should also know that some types of raw meat can be more dangerous to eat depending on the circumstances. For instance, some might think that because steak can be eaten rare, all other types of meat are safe to eat undercooked. That is a myth! Never undercook pork, chicken, or ground beef, as these are too dangerous to eat rare.
Also, if you’re serving anyone with a higher risk for illness, like a pregnant woman or elderly person, you should avoid undercooking all meats in general.
What is rest time?
The time after you remove the food from heat is called “rest time.” This is when the food remains at the final temperature.
It’s important to let some foods rest before consuming, because it continues cooking for a little bit, which can destroy bacteria. For instance, the USDA recommends cooking pork to 145ºF and then allowing a three-minute rest time.
More food preparation tips
Be sure to check food with a food thermometer once it’s out of the oven or grill. Checking that your thermometer is calibrated is also important. You can do so by filling a cup with ice water and letting it sit for a couple minutes. After this, place the thermometer inside the cup. If it shows 32°F, it is calibrated and ready to use.
After food is served, be sure to store food properly in the fridge. Check that the fridge is at 41°F or lower. The FDA recommends keeping food covered, checking the expiration date, and keeping the refrigerator clean.
Make sure you eat or throw out leftover food within seven days of the date it was prepared. If you need food to last longer than seven days, freeze it. For a guide on how long you can keep certain foods in your refrigerator, check our guide on when to throw out food.
Cooking meat to safe temperatures not only keeps you safe, but you can save money by cooking at home! No one likes those nasty stomach bugs, and it would be even worse to serve food that makes your loved ones feel sick.
If you would like to learn more about how to cook food safely, check out our Home Kitchens course — free for a limited time!
If you are looking to work in the foodservice industry and are in need of a food handler card, you can access our course here: Online Food Handler Training and Test.
To access the cooking temperature chart that lists the safest temperatures for each type of meat, download or print it in English and Spanish here: Cooking Times and Temperatures Poster.
— Melissa Larrocha
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