Dietitians Dish: Color of meat does not ensure it's cooked

Lindsay Adams

We are right in the middle of one of my favorite seasons in Texas - grilling season. Knowing the proper preparation methods and cooking temperatures for meat can help prevent foodborne illness. Cooking meat safely begins with the preparation process. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are three main options for thawing meat.

The first and best choice for thawing is to set the package of meat on a plate or pan in the refrigerator. Make sure that the juices from the meat or poultry cannot drip onto other foods. With this method, the meat will typically be thawed within about 24 hours.

A quicker method to thaw foods is to place the meat in a leak-proof plastic bag. Submerge the bag in cold tap water, and change the water every 30 minutes so it remains cold. Using cold water helps to slow bacteria that might be growing in the thawed portions of the meat while the thicker parts are still thawing. Continue this process until the food has thawed. Cook immediately after thawing.

The third method of thawing foods is to use the thaw function on your microwave. The health department also approves placing frozen meat packages under cool running water to thaw it as a safe thawing method.

When preparing your meat for cooking, make sure to keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from other foods. After cutting raw meats, wash your cutting board, knife and counters with hot, soapy water. Remember that cutting your cooked meat with the same unwashed utensils you used when the meat was raw can lead to cross contamination.

If you marinate your meat or poultry, put it in a covered plastic or glass dish in the refrigerator. It is best to avoid using a metal pan to marinate meats. Cutting boards can be sanitized by using a mixture of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach into 1 gallon of water.

Now, here's some juicier information. It is very important to recognize that the color of your meat does not indicate that it is has been thoroughly cooked. To ensure that a meat has been cooked well enough to kill harmful pathogens that may be present, it must meet a minimum interior temperature.

So, even if you receive a steak or pork chop that is pink in the center, eating the meat is safe as long as it has reached the recommended minimum interior temperature. These temperatures hold true no matter the cooking method (i.e. baking, grilling, roasting, etc.). For some meats, you should also allow them to sit outside of the cooking appliance for a certain period of time after being cooked. During this rest time, the temperature either remains constant or continues to rise which allows more harmful bacteria to be destroyed.

Meat thermometers can be purchased at most grocery stores. To properly measure the internal temperature, you should place the food thermometer into the thickest part of the food. The thermometer should not be touching bone, fat or gristle. Begin checking the temperature of your meat toward the end of cooking, but prior to when you expect it to be done, so you do not overcook the meat.

To find the specific recommendations for thermometer insertion based on cut of meat, check out http://www.fsis.usda.gov. Don't forget to wash your thermometer with hot, soapy water before each use.

The USDA has established recommendations for the minimum interior temperature of different meats. Ground beef, pork, veal and lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (no rest time necessary). Cook steaks, chops and roasts to an internal temperature of 145 degrees and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes before carving or consuming. All poultry (chicken and turkey) should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees (no rest time). Eggs should reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees (no rest time).

Fish and shellfish should be cooked to 145 degrees (no rest time). Also, when reheating leftovers, a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees should be reached. When cooking fresh or smoked (uncooked) ham, heat to 145 degrees internally, and allow it to rest for 3 minutes. Fully-cooked ham inspected in USDA plants that only needs to be reheated should be heated to 140 degrees, and any hams inspected in other plants should be heated to 165 degrees.

So, the next time you are served a rare steak, don't worry, just make sure the cook checked the thermometer. For more information regarding food safety, check out fsis.usda.gov.

Lindsay Adams is a registered dietitian with DeTar Healthcare Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.