Meat Temperature Guide for Safe and Tasty Cooking

One of the most underrated tools in your kitchen drawer is the ordinary meat thermometer. When paired with a detailed meat temperature guide, the thermometer becomes your best friend. 

You never have to worry about cutting into an undercooked turkey or charring your steak until it’s dry and unappetizing. That thermometer is your key to reliably cooked food that is both safe and tasty.

Safe Meat Temperature and Doneness

Many home cooks associate meat thermometers with food safety. Indeed, cooking to a specific internal temperature ensures that harmful bacteria are killed off.

The USDA specifically recommends that all cooks heat foods to recommended temperatures before consuming.

Below is a table with our cooking temperature recommendations for different types of meat. The table also includes USDA minimum temperature recommendations for food safety.

Our recommended temperatures for each doneness for beef, lamb, and pork can also be found on the table. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to leave your steak medium rare even the temperature is below USDA recommendation.

Our RecommendationUSDA Recommendation
Beef & Lamb
Rare120-130°F (49-54°C)
Medium rare130-140°F (54-60°C)
Medium145°F (63°C) + 3 minute rest145°F (63°C) + 3 minute rest
Medium well150-155°F (66-68°C)
Well done155-160°F (68-72°C)
Ground160°F (72°C)160°F (72°C)
Pork
Medium145°F (63°C) + 3 minute rest145°F (63°C) + 3 minute rest
Medium well150-155°F (66-68°C)
Well done155-160°F (68-72°C)
Ground160°F (72°C)160°F (72°C)
Chicken & Turkey
Whole & Parts165-170°F (74-77°C)165°F (74°C)
Ground165-170°F (74-77°C)165°F (74°C)

Bacteria

Bacteria in food can be closely regulated by controlling the temperature.

According to the University of Rhode Island, bacteria grow slowly at cold temperatures, reproduce rapidly at moderate temperatures, and get killed off quickly at high temperatures.

For a proper food safety system to work, the food needs to be stored at appropriately cold temperatures and cooked to high enough temperatures. Using a thermometer is the single best way to prevent undercooked food.

Taste

Having a thermometer or two in your kitchen toolbox is not just for food safety. Cooking is as much science as it is an art, despite what many will have you believe. 

It can be done by formula and careful measuring as much as by feel or touch. Everyone knows they need to measure with cups and tablespoons when baking, but equally important is measuring in Fahrenheit or Celcius when cooking.

The fact of the matter is that you cannot cook things accurately based on time. There are too many variables in the system.

medium rare steak
Many like their steak medium rare. With a thermometer you can get it right every time.

Steaks are different thicknesses, grills and pans have hot spots, oven thermometers are notoriously inaccurate, and the list goes on. The only way to ensure consistent and correct results every time is to cook your food based on internal temperature.

With this in mind, it is no logical leap that cooking to internal temperatures affects not only the safety but also the quality and taste of your food.

By ensuring that steaks are cooked to precisely the right temperature, your preferred level of doneness is all but guaranteed — no more dry and overcooked lumps of disappointment. Even with the finickiest of grills, you can nail the perfect steak every time.

So not only does using a cooking thermometer prevent illness from undercooked food, but it also prevents disappointment from overcooked food. It’s a win-win!

Carry-Over

When cooking by temperature, the most important tip is to realize is that dense meats will continue to cook after they are removed from the heat source. 

The latent heat from the hotter outer layers of the meat will work their way to the core for another five or ten minutes after cooking.

That means that if you cook it to your desired temperature, you will overshoot it by as much as 20 degrees in the end.

How do you solve this problem? 

Actually, it’s much more science than art. Plan for the carry-over, and build it into your cooking scheme.

meat in foil
It’s important to let the meat rest after cooking it.

Measure the internal temperature, and when it’s ten or so degrees below your desired doneness, remove the item from heat. Wrap it in foil, and set aside for five or ten minutes to rest.

Types of Meat

Chances are, once you pick up an instant-read thermometer and start using it, you won’t run out of things to measure. You can cook pretty much anything based on temperature, from meats to bread or sauces to eggs.

The beauty of using a meat temperature guide and thermometer is that it takes all of the worries out of cooking.

As long as you know the ideal temperature, all you have to do is get it there. You don’t need to worry about burning the meat or it being undercooked in the middle.

You can also stop worrying about trying new things. Whatever you want to try to cook on your grill or oven, you can go ahead and slap it on. Look up the temperature beforehand, and give it a whirl.

Beef, Lamb, and Mutton

Heavy and dense red meats are most commonly associated with temperature cooking. Indeed, most guides you will find online focus on these meats because they’re the ones with the most variability.

People like their red meat anywhere from rare to well done, which means the thermometer has got to come out.

All of these meats have a USDA-recommended minimum cooking temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63°C). Since they all have slightly different densities and different cuts and roasts come in different sizes, that will require a wide range of times to get it right.

However, just because the USDA recommends a 145-degree minimum doesn’t mean that’s what you should do.

That temp roughly corresponds with a steak cooked to medium, and when you include carry-over, it will likely land in the medium-well category. 

If you enjoy your steaks rare, medium-rare, or medium, you’ll need to aim a little lower.

lamb shank on a plate
A nicely prepared lamb shank is delicious. They need to cooked slowly and to a high internal temperature.

Some dishes like beef briskets and pot roasts are cooked to an even higher temperature. Since there is plenty of moisture included in the cooking process, these meats use the extra time to break down muscle fibers and produce that melt-in-your-mouth texture associated with them.

Pork

Pork gets a category of its own simply because it lies somewhere in between red meats and poultry.

Generally, pork chops are cooked to either medium or well done. Anything less is not desirable.

If you’re cooking barbecue like pork ribs, shoulders, or brisket, you’ll want to aim higher. The extra fats and collagens in the meat mean it will need more time to break down during cooking to make the meat delicious and so soft it will fall off the bones.

If you are planning on grilling some pork, I recommend this recipe for delicious cider marinated pork chops.

Poultry

Poultry requires a special level of handling due to the possibility of salmonella.

Chicken and turkey come in one temperature, which is done. It’s at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74°C).

Duck breast, however, is often cooked to only 135 °F (57°C) to have that perfectly juicy interior although the USDA recommendation is the same 165 degrees as for other poultry.

Wild Game

There are no secrets to cooking wild game that hasn’t already been covered.

USDA recommends minimum internal temperatures of 160°F for wild game and 165°F for wild fowl.

The slightly higher recommendation of 160°F for animals like elk or deer compared to beef is based on the fact that they could carry bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, as well as some parasites. Yet, I personally like to leave my elk steak at medium doneness.

Mind your cooking methodology, as well. Whatever the cut you are working with, try to treat it like you would the equivalent butcher-bought cut. 

Don’t throw shanks on the grill, and don’t try to make stews out of nice steaks. Stick to tried-and-true cooking methods for the best results.

How to Check Meat Temperature

The College of Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island lists three types of thermometers commonly used in kitchens. 

There are liquid-filled thermometers, bimetal analog units, and digital units using either thermistors or thermocouples. All of them vary in how they can be used and how long they take to produce an accurate measure.

Bimetal Thermometers

Bimetal thermometers can be oven-safe or instant-read styles. Oven safe units are designed to be left in the food while it cooks.

bimetal thermometer
A good old oven-safe bimetal thermometer.

Since they are left in the oven, any heat conducted by the metal parts of the thermometer may cause false high readings.

Instant read thermometers, on the other hand, get a measurement in 15 or 20 seconds. They still have to be inserted two inches or more into the food, so they can’t be used with very thin cuts, and they can’t be left in the oven while cooking.

Thermistors and Thermocouples

Thermistors and thermocouples are the most popular digital thermometers. Both provide quick, accurate readings in under ten seconds, and both only need to be inserted a half-inch into the food. 

Thermistors are readily available online and in kitchen stores, while thermocouple thermometers are harder to find and more expensive. Either one produces excellent results.

Liquid-Filled Thermometers

Liquid-filled thermometers are most commonly associated with fry or candy thermometers.

These clip on the side of a pot, and they take a minute or two to produce an accurate measurement. They have to be submerged, or if they have a probe, it must be inserted at least two inches deep.

Calibrating Your Thermometer

No matter which sort of thermometer you select, it’s essential to make sure that it’s calibrated accurately. The best models will have a calibration adjustment, but you can still check its accuracy even if yours doesn’t.

To calibrate, use either iced or boiling water. Both have known temperatures with little variation.

If your thermometer reads both accurately, you know it’s calibrated spot on. For reference, ice water should be 32 °F (0°C) and boiling water at 212 °F (100°C).

However, boiling water is affected by impurities in the water and atmospheric pressure. To be accurate at 212 degrees, you should use distilled water at standard pressure (29.92 inches of mercury).

Safe Storing and Reheating

As mentioned above, cooking is just one component of the food safety triangle. You also need to ensure that food is stored at a safe temperature. 

In general, anything above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4°C) is considered a danger zone. Any time food spends above 40 degrees needs to be carefully controlled.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), your fridge should be set at or below 40 degrees. Freezers should be set at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18°C).

Any perishable foods or leftovers should be put in the refrigerator immediately. And as we all know, nothing lasts forever, even under perfect refrigeration. Discard anything with any signs of fridge funk, moldiness, or other spoilage.

To ensure that you are storing food safely, invest in a set of refrigerator and freezer thermometers. Remember, most indicators on appliances indicate the set temperature, not the actual temperature. 

An inexpensive bimetal thermometer is a cheap insurance to tell you if your appliances are working correctly.

When reheating leftovers, the USDA recommends they be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74°C).

Conclusion

Few kitchen items will change your cooking quite like a good set of thermometers will. They will give you the confidence to produce predictable and repeatable results every time, and they will take the guesswork out of cooking. 

With oven-safe digital thermometers, you can leave the probe in place while cooking and the unit will alert you when it’s done. Nothing could be easier!

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Joonas!

As soon as I learned to walk, I started to assist my dad and uncles with grilling and smoking. I always loved helping them and later took over the role of the grill master in my family.

My goal is to cook tasty barbecue food, enjoy it with family & friends, and help others do the same!

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