Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Is It DONE Yet?

While barbecuing on Labor Day my coals were quite hot and I was surprised at how quickly everything cooked. That's not necessarily a good thing. With a hot flame it's easy to burn the outside while the inside is still undercooked. While I enjoy meats with a bit of red or pink inside there's a risk of sickness if the center is not sufficiently hot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every year about 48 million people in the United States become ill from harmful bacteria in food; of these, about 3,000 die.

The signs and symptoms of foodborne illness range from upset stomach, diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and dehydration, to more severe illness including death. This can be prevented by cooking food to a safe temperature.

According to the CDC, many people assume that if a hamburger is brown in the middle, it is done. According to US Dept of Agriculture research, 1 out of every 4 hamburgers turns brown before it reaches a safe internal temperature. The only safe way to know if hamburger is safe is to measure 160 °F in the center.
The CDC would like everyone to know that "Thermometers Aren't Just for Turkey Anymore". The food thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the food and should not be touching bone, fat, or gristle. Check the temperature in several places to make sure the food is evenly heated. Make sure to clean your food thermometer with hot, soapy water before and after every use! Imagine you stick the thermometer into meat that is under cooked and bacteria clings to the thermometer. Then later you stick the thermometer into meat properly cooked but now you've reinserted the bacteria!

Cross contamination from bacteria can also occur if you put cooked meat back onto the plate that held the raw meat. I saw one friend rightly freak out after carefully cooking chicken on the grill, another person then started to place raw meat on the grill right next to his chicken. My friend knew the risk of cross contamination.
Raw meat can contaminate everything it touches including your hands! Be sure to wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after handling uncooked meat.

Bottom Line

While watching a cooking competition show for professional chefs, two contestants were challenged to cook filet mignon rare, medium and well done for three judges. I was surprised to see they used thermometers to measure the degree of doneness. I thought "real" professionals could tell by the firmness of the meat.

So I learned that thermometers were not just for safety but also for cooking food "just right".

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