Technique, Tools

Cooking Temperatures and Thermometers

McGee in On Food and Cooking says that cooking can be defined as the transfer of energy from a heat source to food.  The common kitchen measurement we call temperature is an indicator of the affect an energy source has on the food we are cooking.  It is also an indicator of the state or condition of a food product—ambient, frozen, boiling, medium-rare, etc.

It follows that we know a lot about food temperatures.  Indeed, the art of cooking has a lot to do with temperatures.  We learned in an earlier article on food safety that cold foods should be kept cold and hot food hot and that the temperature range of 40º to 140ºF is defined as the “temperature danger zone.”  We know what temperatures to cook meat and poultry for (a) safety and (b) taste.  Regarding safety, the United States Department of Agriculture
(USDA) has a hotline (1-800-535-4555) where you can obtain the recommended safe temperatures for preparing meats and poultry of all kinds.

Regarding taste, we also know that following USDA’s recommended temperatures might result in food more done than we’re used to, hence the disparity between chefs, cookbooks and the USDA.  Nonetheless, in addition to adhering to 40º to 140ºF for the storage of food, chefs know, and you should too, that 160º – 165ºF is the safe temperature range for the cooking of all ground meats and chicken products. (While at, I helped research their “Cook it Safe” feature.  It is very useful, balances USDA and chef’s preferences and is cleverly organized and constructed.

On the other hand, try to imagine yourself in a restaurant kitchen grilling steaks all night and using a thermometer to determine rare, medium-rare
and well done.  Of necessity, grill cooks don’t use thermometers; instead they are trained to learn by touch when a steak is done to order.  Larger pieces, such as whole tenderloins and roasts are timed and touch-tested, as well.  However, when eight veal hotel racks, at $60 apiece, are roasting in the oven, for a banquet special that is not an every day menu item, the prudent banquet chef will use a thermometer.

At home every night is special.  You need a thermometer.  Follow the temperature recommendations in your favorite cookbook for roasts, steaks, turkeys and deep fried foods and use a thermometer to achieve them.  An important attribute of a good thermometer, besides accuracy and ease of reading, is the thinness of the probe.  Fat probes poke huge holes in meat that juices leak out of and that never close up.   Most common kitchen thermometers have really fat probes, nearly ¼-inch.  A few have thinner probes that can be inserted and left in the meat as it cooks.  There is even one of this type with a probe that sends a signal to a responder in your pocket, as you schmooze with your guests away from the stove.  It beeps like a cell phone when it reaches a set temperature!  “Oh, excuse me, I have to answer my thermometer.”

The only thermometer I use and recommend is the Thermapen.  It’s hand held, digital, fast reading and certified accurate from 50º to 572ºF.
It features a “thermister” at the very tip of its needle thin probe.  It’s British made.  They have a Web site in Utah:
Bad news:  the Thermapen costs about $80. It’s worth it.

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