If you’re gonna make delicious meat, you need to know precisely what temperature you’re going to cook it to. When it comes to guidelines for doneness there are two standards you can choose from: USDA recommended or Chef recommended; we always choose Chef.
For example, chicken is usually recommended to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F – but most chefs agree that it tastes much better around 150°F to 155°F. In fact, chicken cooked to 150°F and held there for several minutes will be safe to eat, as well as much softer and juicier.
Meat Temperature Chart (Chef VS. USDA)
|RARE||MED. RARE||MEDIUM||MED. WELL||WELL DONE|
|Beef, Veal & Lamb||120°–130° F*||130°–135° F*||135°–145° F*||145°–155° F*||155° F-up*|
|Roasts, Steaks & Chops||49-54°C||54-57°C||57-63°C||63-68°C||68°C-up|
|Pork||135 – 145° F*||145 – 155° F*||155°F+*|
|Roasts, Steaks & Chops||57-63°C||63-68°C||68°C+|
|Brisket, Ribs & Pork Butt||88-96°C|
|RARE||MED. RARE||MEDIUM||MED. WELL||WELL DONE|
|Beef, Veal & Lamb||145° F*||155° F*||160°|
|Roasts, Steaks & Chops||63°C||68°C||71.1°C|
|Pork||145° F*||165° F*||170°F+*|
|Roasts, Steaks & Chops||63°C||74°C||77°C+|
|Brisket, Ribs & Pork Butt||63°C||82-93°C|
Basics of Meat and Temperatures
There is a direct correlation to the temperatures of cooked food and health and safety. The USDA publishes the table below for consumers. A more detailed source is FoodSafety.gov, a site from the Dept. of Health and Human Services partnered with USDA, FDA and CDC, and is recognized as the consumer source for broader healthy food cooking guidelines.
|Meat||Minimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time|
|Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb Steaks, chops, roasts||145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Ground Meats||160 °F (71.1 °C)|
|Ground Poultry||165 °F|
|Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked)||145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes|
|Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat)||Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).|
|All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, wings, ground poultry, giblets, and stuffing)||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
|Eggs||160 °F (71.1 °C)|
|Fish & Shellfish||145 °F (62.8 °C)|
|Leftovers||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
|Casseroles||165 °F (73.9 °C)|
Source: Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart | Food Safety and Inspection Service (usda.gov)
We will be offering information about serving temperatures based on opinions and best practices. It is up to you to understand the risks of serving foods that some may consider problematic.
As the sashimi industry has shown, well handled, and properly stored internal muscle meats of fish can be safely served completely raw. These types of dishes are where we may deviate from the tables as to what we want to eat and how we want to eat it. As a result there is a lot of both fact and opinion involved, and we will try our best to specify what is ‘fact’ and what is ‘opinion’.
If you spend a few decades in commercial kitchens, dealing with health inspections and keeping staff within guidelines, you see why they are the way they are. For decades, the rule of thumbs was cook to an internal temperature of 165°F. Period. The two exceptions were beef muscle meat and eggs, because they could be ordered to a certain doneness by the consumer. As you can see above, they have changed that slightly on a few items.
Keep It Simple Stupid
The 165 rule was simple because you reach that temperature and in less than 2 seconds almost all food borne bacteria is killed. This rule made for easy understanding and a simple goal; don’t serve until 165°F or better. Things change, and for example, trichinosis has been largely eradicated in the USA, so pork is now allowed down to 145°F .
Seafood can be served at 145°F as well, mostly because that is adequate to kill bacteria that they may carry.
Unfortunately, toxins from poor handling, storage, contamination or environment, will not be affected by temperature. So knowing your source is especially important in seafood.
There is the non-simple side to this.
What they don’t really advertise, but is used in commercial food preparation factories, is the time/temperature formula for pasteurization. You can bring foods to a lower temperature and hold them there to achieve healthy wholesome food. Chicken is the best example. Notoriously watched to avoid cross contamination, raw chicken requires safe handling techniques or people will get sick. However, you can make it safe by holding it at 140°F at the core for almost ten minutes, for example, instead of hitting 165°F. It may still be pink, but it is safe.
This idea wouldn’t even be an issue except now we have home sous vide devices that can do exactly that kind of cooking for you. We will have a section on the sous vide, times and temperature calculation to educate you further on this. But first;
The Danger Zone
Okay, perhaps it is not as dramatic as all that, but you certainly want to be aware of the following guidelines.
This is the other factor of time/temperature and the effect on food. Basic rule, over 40 under 130 for more than 2 hours will put the food at risk.
This means left overs need to be chilled down to fridge temp within two hours. In a commercial kitchen this is usually done by transferring to pans at a depth less than 4 inches and getting into a large refrigerator with circulating air.
There are many recommended approaches to cooking that can be at opposition to this information. Letting steaks come up to room temperature before cooking, or meat to be roasted is a common directive. Pay attention to the size and starting temperature so that you can safely manage this aspect of food handling. They also say if the room temperature is 90°F food is only safe for one hour at ‘room temp’. Knowing these things will help you make educated decisions and keep your kitchen more wholesome.
How To Cook Beef Safely (and Deliciously)
Ground beef is easier and simpler to cook than steak and is usually cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F for guaranteed safety, thanks to its ground nature, which has a higher chance of contamination than a regular steak. At 165°F, it won’t be quite as pink and juicy as some might like it, but you can be guaranteed it’s safe to eat.
Wholes cuts of steak, on the other hand, are more finicky and are usually cooked to lower temperatures for the desired level of flavor and juiciness. A steak is rare at 125-130°F, Medium at 140°F and is considered well-done at about 160°F.
Since whole cuts of beef generally only contain bacteria on the surface and not within the dense muscle fibers themselves, they are usually safe to eat with just a good searing.
Red Meats cooked to order
This is the table for doneness in red meats. There is room to have different opinions, and many people may take this table 5 degrees in different directions, but this will serve you well as a guide. It is also accurate for pork, veal and lamb.
|Extra-rare or Blue||115 °F||Very red, cold center|
|Rare||120 °F||Red center; soft and cool|
|Medium rare||130 °F||Slightly warm red center; firmer|
|Medium||140 °F||Warm, pink, juicy and firm|
|Medium well||150 °F||Small amount of pink in the center|
|Well done||+160 °F||Gray-brown throughout|
You have two primary chemical actions taking place when cooking meats, and we’ll give you a simple overview. Most of us geeks who cook a lot are familiar with the Maillard reaction. This is how we get the delightful brown exterior on many cooked items. It is a term used to describe the chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars when heat is applied. Less well known is what happens inside the meat, a process called denaturation. The myoglobin (protein that binds iron/oxygen) break down and shift to hemichromes which are more brownish gray in color. Hence, lower temperature is a brighter red color, higher temp more dull and grayish.
Different cuts of meat can have different coloration. In beef, sirloins can start as a much pinker color than tenderloins for example. In pork, the raw loin has a cap of darker meat that gets larger as you go down the length of it. Leg of lamb usually has a deeper color than a rack of lamb. That makes the descriptions above generalized, and they will be affected by the type and cut of the meat you are cooking.
“Target Temperature” is used for very specific reasons. Different cooking techniques will have different carry-over values, which refers to the process of continuing to increase in temperature when removed from the heat source. For example, if you are roasting a prime rib in a fast oven of 450°F, it will have more carry-over after you take it out, possibly even 20°F because it is larger and has been exposed to high heat. Think that through; you pull it out with a great reading of just under 130°F, gather the side dishes and your guests. Cut into the roast 15 minutes later and it looks medium well, just a small pink center, due to a 20°F shift after you removed it!
The higher the temp and the longer the cook time, the more carry-over cooking you will get. So, a target temp of 130 may require a pull temperature of 110-120. Depending on your tastes, adjust the pull time accordingly.
Turkey is another example of how carry-over cooking can lead to serving dry meat. With so much concern over serving undercooked poultry it’s easy to forget about the carry-over. In the illustration below, you can see how after pulling the turkey from the oven, the heat from the exterior continues to radiate inwards continuing to cook the core of the bird.
According to the USDA turkey is done at 165°F which has been updated over the years from their recommendation of 190°F. At 190°F all the white meat is completely dry which may be the reason why we used to require two humongous gravy boats at the thanksgiving table. Today, I prefer my white meat around 155°F, but to save anyone from complaining about possible ‘pink juices’ and the meat being undercooked I aim for white meat at 160°F which usually puts my dark meat around 170°F to 175°F. I find this is a good target for both the white and dark meat which means I’m pulling my turkey when the center is around 155°F and letting it rest for about 20 minutes to reach the target temp of 160°F.
What About Burger?
This is an interesting topic, and here are a couple guidelines. If you didn’t grind the meat, no matter what type, it is a good idea to follow the 165 rule. Mainly this is because there can be non-muscle tissue meat ground into the product. The logic here is that for example, an intact loin has only had the surface exposed to contaminants and oxygen that might create a problem. Grinding meat causes significantly more exposure on all levels.
That being said, if you grind your own brisket, chuck, shoulder, loin or such, you know what went into and out of the grinder. If you have a reputable butcher you trust and he sells you ground chuck, you’re probably okay to cook that burger to medium rare or medium.
Ground poultry of any kind is still risky, and pork to an extent, so we advise 165°F for those products to be cooked.
Poultry – What Temperature is Chicken Done At?
Chicken can be safely cooked to be juicy as well as tender. Chicken is a notoriously difficult food to cook properly. Underdone, and you get fleshy, unappetizing meat with the risk of salmonella.
Overdone, and you get dry, stringy, rubbery meat that tastes…unappetizing, to say the least.
While official guidelines say chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F, most will agree that it looks, feels and tastes much better (aka juicier, more tender) at about 150°F to 155°F . If left there for several minutes, it will still be totally safe to eat – even if the color is pure, stark white. Seriously, invest in the best meat thermometer, and you will be surprised at how quickly dry, flaky chicken can become a thing of the past.
The first rule of thumb is to work toward getting the reading of 165°F. Although, carry over cooking applies to poultry as well. So, cooking larger cut bone in chicken – breast, hind quarters, etc. – you still want to get very close to that temperature. Red bones, undercooked, can be very off–putting for many people.
Whole chickens, and even more so turkeys, will definitely come up in temperature. A 5 to 15°F degree climb is commonplace in a turkey removed from the oven. After spending hours creating a thermal block roasting the bird, it makes sense that heat will continue to work toward the core after being removed. You want to measure temperature both deep in the center of the breast meat, and right along the thigh bone close to the joint with the drumstick.
Boneless cuts of poultry are problematic in a different way. Boneless skinless thighs, or breast meat pounded slightly flat are hard to measure temps. They are also thin enough that you can do pretty well based solely on time. The goal with all poultry is to catch your cooking as close to the finished temp as possible. This will result in a juicier meat for you and your guests or family to enjoy.
What Temp Is Pork Done At?
Myths and Misconceptions About The Other White Meat
Many people believe that pork needs to be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F degrees and a white color, just like chicken. But the truth is that pork is usually safe to eat at 145°F degrees internal temperature, in which case it will like slightly pink inside. This is because while pork used to be contaminated with trichinella, which has been virtually eliminated from the food supply in countries like the US. This is due to the strict guidelines enforced on the hog industry by the USDA leading back to the 1970s.
So despite what you’ve likely grown up hearing, it’s perfectly safe to cook and serve your pork a little pink, as long as the internal temperature has reached 145°F degrees. In fact, the USDA even recommends cooking it to such temperatures now.
And, since pork is now much leaner than in the olden days and generally contains less fat, it’s more likely to dry out, even at lower temperatures. So you’re better off cooking it softly and slowly, as opposed to just overcooking it and being left with a dry, bland piece of meat.
Low and slow Cooking Temperatures
Yes, our table of doneness stops at 160°F. Yes, we love to smoke a brisket or pork shoulder or such, to a temperature of just over 200°F. And yes, that qualifies as really well done. However, there are a couple reasons this still creates such enjoyable delicious food.
The denaturation process starts at about 105°F degrees and continues on up to over 200°F. At 130°F it is just starting to have an effect, but mildly, so that you still have red juices and meat at medium rare. As it goes up the temp scale, it has more impact and begins to help with the process of breaking down the connective tissues and collagens which results in tender brisket and pulled pork.
Obviously if you cooked either of these meats at 400°F you would have dried out chunks of meat with a maybe edible center. By using lower and slower cooking the temperatures permeate without ruining the meat. It also allows the fats to melt down, creating moister end results. Whether it is on the smoker or in the crockpot, low and slow for long periods, and reaching temps well over 165°F, can yield amazing results.
Sous Vide Cooking Temperatures
If you have not cooked with a sous vide device, you will want to put it on your future list. Check our complete guide to cooking sous vide style and you’ll discover how steakhouses yield great tasting cuts and you can too.
Technically the name, sous vide, translates as ‘under vacuum’. Mostly because it is very effective if you vacuum seal the food before cooking. In this case, cooking means submerging in a very accurately controlled water bath for extended periods of time. Extended is serious here, with 24 hours fairly common and 72 hours well within the realm of acceptability. This brings us to another form of time and temperature for cooking food with a wholesome safe ending product. Because the temperature and time is so accurately controlled in the sous vide process, you start to get into the realm of commercial food processers guidelines of health and safety.
Federal guidelines suggest the following temperature and time combinations to kill salmonella and E. Coli bacteria in food.
|Core Temperature||Minimum Time To Hold At Temp|
Keep in mind that this is the time needed for the core to be held at the specific temperature. It is essential that you include the ramp time to get the core up to temp. There is such a huge variety of factors from type and cut of meat, thickness, starting temp, etc. that we are not going to drill down into this area. Understand that you will want to do a little basic research about how long it will take to get your meat to the safe temperature, and hold it there.
The beauty of the sous vide however is that it will hold at the exact temperature. You want medium rare meat, set it at 130°F and walk away. Leg of lamb for example, without bone and butterflied to a thickness of about three inches overall will be an amazing dish at 130°F for 8 hours. Because the temperature is held constant this will not overcook the meat and will still help tenderize the meat.
At 140°F chicken breast will have a slight pinkish hue and be amazingly tender. The juice will still have a pink color. These two things may not make everyone comfortable eating it straight away. But it is common for folks to prepare it to that temp, making certain that it is held there for more than enough time to be safe. Now you have a great product for soups, salads, casseroles, pasta dishes, tacos and much more.
It really is important that you understand the guidelines and why they are put out there. Situations will arise when you will work outside of those parameters. Understanding them gives you the opportunity to know when you are deviating, what the risk may be, and how best to minimize it.
Since a gross error can result in sickness or worse, we encourage you to learn from multiple sources. This is definitely one of those areas that it is worthwhile exploring and developing some level of expertise. Safe and wholesome cooking is easy to achieve when you know the best practices.