Thermometers are Timeless
by Mark R. Vogel

            Most recipes rely on temporal guidelines to cook the item in question.  This however can be fraught with inaccuracies, particularly with large pieces of meat such as roasts or whole chickens, etc.  The type, size, and shape of the food, the target doneness, the initial temperature of the food, the oven temperature, the type of oven, opening the oven door, the cooking vessel, etc., can all influence cooking time.  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 reliable 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 implanted 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 fifteen degrees depending on its size and density. 

            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 done to prevent trichinosis, the disease that resulted from an infestation of trichinae, a parasitic roundworm. The first problem with this rule of thumb is that trichinae die at 137 degrees.  Moreover, modern methods of animal husbandry have virtually eliminated trichinae infected pork.  For example, each year there are less than 20 reported cases of trichinosis in the US and most of them come from wild game.  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.  I have doubts about that position but let’s assume it to be true for the moment.  We are now 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 and progressively release their moisture.    Ergo, temperatures approaching the 160 mark may accent certain flavor components, but with a definite loss of succulence. Moreover, to make matters worse, due to American fat-phobia, specialized breeding has produced leaner and subsequently less juicy pigs than their forefathers.  Your choice but I recommend the lower temperature higher unctuousness option. 

            A final issue remains with instant read thermometers.  Let’s assume your roast has been cooking for a half hour.  You open the oven door, insert the thermometer, and arrive at 105 degrees.  You promptly remove the thermometer and usher the undercooked 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 once more only to discover it’s now 140.  You curse as you realize that the rib roast will not be medium rare as you had planned.  

            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.  But how do you know when to check the temperature?  The answer is a programmable thermometer.  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.  Impale the center of your food with the probe, 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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