You should learn and practice good kitchen hygiene: separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, cleaning cutting boards which have touched raw meats with boiling water or a weak bleach and water solution, and taking care to clean your knives and hands after working with raw meat and before turning right to the salad. E. coli or Salmonella can be unpleasant in the young and healthy, and deadly with the elderly, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems. You should establish habits in the kitchen that will minimize accidental contamination and prevent the movement of bacteria from meats and eggs to vegetables.
Food Safety Temperatures and Times
Years ago, a doctor friend told me that there was basically no such thing as what we commonly call the ‘stomach’ flu: it’s food poisoning.
To prevent this, many cookbooks and cooking authorities encourage the overcooking of food: sacrificing texture and flavor to err on the side of safety. If you take care with your food and your kitchen safety habits are in place, overcooking food in this way is unnecessary.
The old rule of thumb is that cooking food until the core temperature is 167 °F / 75 °C (or above) will ensure that harmful bacteria are destroyed.
But, the temperature at which harmful bacteria are destroyed can be lower, provided the core temperature is maintained for a specified period of time. To wit:
140° F / 60° C for a minimum of 45 minutes
149° F / 65° C for a minimum of 10 minutes
158° F / 70° C for a minimum of 2 minutes
167° F / 75° C for a minimum of 30 seconds
176° F / 80° C for a minimum of 6 seconds
One needs to remember that these recommended cooking conditions are only appropriate and will protect your diners if initial bacterial numbers in the uncooked food are small. Cooking does not overcome poor kitchen and food preparation and storage hygiene.
Internal Temperatures for Specific Meats: From Master Chef Tom Colicchio
In 2000, Tom Colicchio authored one of my absolutely favorite cookbooks: Thinking Like A Chef. I’ve given away a dozen copies over the past decade. His premise in this book is that there are a number of basic techniques that one should master: roasting in the oven and on top of the stove, braising, sautéing, making stocks and sauces. Then go play with your food.
Colicchio de-constructs specific dishes, offers a wonderful array of ingredients which he like to have on hand (salt-cured lemons, for instance). The book has recipes, but is technique-oriented, which pleases me deeply. I learned a lot from his work here and, if you haven’t seen this book, my guess is you’d enjoy it.
In Thinking Like a Chef, Colicchio provides a very useful chart of internal temperatures. He encourages his readers to touch their food, and learn how it feels when a steak is rare, medium rare, or well done. Pairing personal sense knowledge with a good meat thermometer will gradually equip you to know what’s going on in your pans. His motto is “test early and often.” You may remove a roast from the oven 5-7 degrees before it is done and it will finish cooking and reach the desired temperature while it is resting.
Here’s the information Colicchio provides in his excellent book, Thinking Like A Chef:
120º F. – rare (red, cool center)
125º F. – medium rare (red, warm center)
130º F. – medium (pink center)
135º F. – medium well (small pink center)
140º F. – well done (no pink)
Pork or Veal:
140º F. – medium
150º F. – well done
170º F. – dark meat cooked
160º F. – white meat cooked
120º F. – medium rare
130º F. – medium/cooked through
*Colicchio notes that density and thickness of fish portions varies so widely that these temperatures and hence cooking time can only approximated. Firmness, flakiness and color will be your best guides for fish, and with time, you’ll be able to judge these other meats as well.