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Temperature, Not Time is the Key To Cooking


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - October 15, 2003
Mark R. Vogel - - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel

Many recipes furnish an oven temperature and time frame for roasted items. This can be fraught with inaccuracies. Cooking time is influenced by the type, size, and shape of the food, the degree of intended doneness, the initial temperature of the food and the oven, the idiosyncrasies of your particular stove, the presence of other items you are cooking concomitantly, opening the oven door, and the cooking vessel.  Not to mention that your actual oven temperature can vary greatly from the dial setting. The solution?  An instant read thermometer.

     Taking your food’s temperature is the only way to assure your item is properly cooked.  Insert the thermometer into the center of the meat and wait for the reading to stabilize. With fowl it is inserted into the deepest part of the thigh since it takes longer to cook than the breast. Do not touch the bone or you risk a false reading.

     Remember that food will continue cooking after it has been removed from the heat. This phenomenon, known as carryover cooking, will raise the temperature of the item five to ten degrees depending on it’s size and density.  The following temperature guidelines take carry over cooking into account and are approximations.

     Beef and lamb are rare at 125 degrees, medium rare at 130, medium at 135 to 145 and medium-well beyond 145. For those of you who insist on dry, tough meat, aim for 165 for well done.  Fowl is usually cooked to 165. Cuts of fish are usually too thin for the services of a thermometer.  But for a large piece, 130-135 degrees will put you in the zone. And that brings us to pork.

     A generation ago people were advised to cook their pork well done, usually in excess of 170 degrees. This was to prevent trichinosis, the disease that resulted from an infestation of trichinae, a parasitic roundworm. The first problem with that advice is that trichinae die at 137 degrees. Moreover, modern methods of raising swine have almost eliminated this problem. For example, in 1998 there were only 19 cases of trichinosis reported in the US. So where does that leave us?

     For starters, I would allow for a few degrees of inaccuracy on your thermometer and cook pork to at least 140 degrees. Carry over cooking will raise it further. However, some claim that cooking it to 155-160 will develop the best flavor. But now we are confronted with a catch 22. 


     The higher the temperature of any meat, the drier it will become. Increasing temperature causes the protein strands in the flesh to tighten, progressively releasing their moisture. Due to increased health concerns, lower trichinae infestation is not the only change in modern porcine production.  Specialized breeding eventuates in pigs far leaner, significantly less fatty, and hence less juicy than their forefathers. Ergo, temperatures approaching the 160 mark may accent certain flavor components, but with some loss of succulence. You will have to decide for yourself where your loyalty lies.  

     A final issue remains with instant read thermometers. Your roast has been cooking for a half hour.  You open the oven door, insert your thermometer, and arrive at 105 degrees.  You promptly remove the thermometer and usher the uncooked food back into the oven.  You wait a while and check again.  120 degrees.  You’re aiming for 130 and no more. When should you check again? You give it ten minutes and poke the poor thing again. 140. You curse as you realize that the rib roast will not be medium rare like your dad likes it.  And it was his birthday dinner too.  

     Every time you open that oven door you drop the temperature and extend cooking time. Worse yet, each time you impale the food with the thermometer you create a little canal that will leak juice and make your finished product drier. The answer is a programmable thermometer. Polder makes a good one that can be procured for about $25 on most cookware websites. If you wish to leave no room for error, and be unshackled from the guesswork of checking your food, a programmable thermometer is the ticket.  It consists of a main unit upon which you preset the desired temperature. A wire extends from this unit into a probe.  Insert the probe into the center of your food, close the oven door, and get this: an alarm will sound when you have reached the target temperature.  To make this device even handier, the increasing temperature is constantly displayed on the unit.  Now you can more accurately judge when to start the side dishes so they can be done simultaneously. Hmmmm, the rack of lamb is ten degrees from being done. Better start sautéing the asparagus! Invest in this wonderful gadget and your days of overcooking your roasts will be as long gone as the succulent pigs of yore.

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