March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Do you enjoy meat that is cooked until it is just rare or medium-rare? It's okay if you're not a fan of well-done meat. You don't need to give up enjoying foods prepared the way you like. But you will want to know the safest way to savor lightly cooked meat.
What's the Temperature?
A food thermometer is the most important tool in your food safety toolbox. And using it is the only way to ensure meat is prepared to a safe minimum internal temperature, when harmful food bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, will be destroyed. When not destroyed, these bacteria can lead to serious illness or possibly death. An instant-read food thermometer costs only a few bucks and it only takes a few seconds to use. It's priceless if it prevents food poisoning.
Try the "Goldilocks" Approach
Is well-done the way to go? You don't need to aim for well-done meat to make it safe to eat — unless, of course, you prefer it that way. The better approach is simply checking the temperature of your meat to assure you're not undercooking or overcooking it. Ultimately, a food thermometer helps guarantee you're cooking meat until "just-right" doneness for juiciness and deliciousness.
Caution: Your Senses May Be Misleading
Your senses play an important role in cuisine. However, don't rely exclusively on your senses to determine if your meat is cooked safely. Color and texture are not reliable indicators of properly prepared meat. Research confirms that. Specifically, a brown color, firm texture or clear juices should not be counted on to determine doneness or confirm safety. Likewise, a pink color doesn't necessarily mean that a meat is undercooked. A food thermometer will provide the final answer on proper doneness.
The Rules About Rare
Is rare or medium-rare meat ever safe to eat? If beef, veal, pork or lamb are ground, the answer is no. That's mainly because the process of grinding can introduce potentially harmful bacteria on the meat surface into the ground meat. Ground meat needs to reach 160°F internally — at least a doneness of medium. If the fresh meat is a steak, roast or chop, then yes — medium-rare can be safe. That means the meat needs to reach 145°F internally and stand for three or more minutes before cutting or consuming. Unfortunately, even if preferred by foodies, there's no way to guarantee the safety of rare meat. That also means raw meat delights, like steak tartare or beef carpaccio, are not considered safe.
The Bottom Line
Food taste and food safety can go hand in hand. Use a food thermometer to assure meat is prepared thoroughly. And then you can enjoy… thoroughly.