Some Like It Hot: Using A Thermometer

by in Food Safety, Healthy Tips, May 1, 2009

Undercooked food just makes me sick! Literally. Lots of other people, too. Most folks blame food illnesses on a stomach bug or the flu, but often the cause is your own food. A thermometer is good weapon for killing off pesky food bacteria.

A Must-Have
According to public health research, we had 5 times the number of harmful bacteria in our food in 2000 than in 1942. With food being processed in large amounts, stored for months and passing through many hands, it’s no wonder why.

Many of us rely on visual cues to tell a meat’s “doneness” — the inside of the burger is brown or juices run clear. According to a USDA test, 1 out of 4 hamburgers will turn brown in the center before they reach a safe cooking temperature — that’s a 25% chance that your food still has harmful bacteria after you cooked it! The only sure way to know your food is by measuring the temperature.

Using a Thermometer
Don’t just jam it in — there’s a technique to this. First, make sure to review the manufacturer’s instructions (yes, read the directions!) and find a thermometer that can be calibrated and easily cleaned after each use (just wash it and wipe it down with an alcohol swab).

To check a food’s temperature, you place the thermometer’s sensing area — the bottom 2 inches usually — into the food. Remember, you want to get the temperature on the inside. Every food has a different cook temperature, too. (This USDA Fact Sheet lists some common ones.)

Dial Thermometers
Traditional, bi-metallic coil thermometers are cheap, require no battery and are easy to find and read. Some may take up to 10 seconds to read, but newer models give instant feedback. This model is similar to what my culinary students used and is only around $9. There are “oven safe” models that you can leave in a roast while cooking — those are a few dollars more.

Digital Thermometers
These thermometers are battery-operated and can read temperatures typically within 2-5 seconds. This makes it easy to check several places to make sure the food is cooked through — great for large items like roasts and turkeys.

There are many models available, but I like this simple, digital one, which sells for $16.95. If you’re planning to cook out a lot this summer, you may want to invest in a more sophisticated digital thermometer that has the list of cooking temperatures built right in. A digital fork thermometer is another good option when roasting and grilling.

Disposable Thermometers
These are perfect for on-the-go cooks. The strips change color once the meat has reached the pre-set temperature (indicated on the strip). They’re not ideal for use on larger or thicker cuts of meat, though — the probe is too short.

Specialty Thermometers
A digital or dial thermometer should cover most of your cooking needs, but here are some other specialty thermometers you might investigate further: candy and deep-fry thermometers, chocolate spatula thermometers and microwave thermometers.

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