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Tips for Using a Food Thermometer

Meat ThermometerUsing a food thermometer helps ensure food is cooked to a safe and flavorful temperature. Here are four guidelines based on information from the International Food Safety Council, a coalition of restaurant and food industry professionals certified in food safety; USDA and FDA.

CAUTION: Follow manufacturer's instructions for your thermometer on how to periodically check its accuracy. Some thermometers have a calibration nut under the dial that can be adjusted. Check the package for instructions.

1. Use a Clean Thermometer

Use a clean food thermometer to ensure that food is cooked to the proper internal temperature. This also applies to food cooked or reheated in a microwave. Refer to the temperature chart in this article. To prevent cross-contamination, wash the thermometer probe (the part inserted into the food) with hot water and soap after each use.

NOTE: In addition to using a clean thermometer, don't put cooked food back on the plate that you used for raw food. Prevent cross-contamination by transferring cooked food to a clean serving dish.

Also, prevent cross-contamination by using clean utensils each time you flip, stir and remove cooked food from a skillet, saucepan, etc.

2. Cook Food Completely at One Time

Do NOT partially cook food and then finish it later. Harmful bacteria will grow between the time you start and finish cooking, even if you refrigerate the food in between.

3. Follow Thermometer Style Usage Guidelines

Food thermometers come in several styles. The two types most commonly used in the home kitchen are INSTANT-READ and OVEN-PROOF thermometers.

Instant-Read Dial and Digital Thermometers

Instant-read thermometers aren't meant to be left in food while it's cooking. They give a quick reading when they're used to check the internal temperature during cooking and after food is cooked. They can be used on larger foods and are the best choice for smaller items such as steaks, patties, chops and poultry pieces.

To register an accurate temperature, the temperature-sensing section on the probe end of instant-read thermometers should be fully inserted into food. Instant-read DIGITAL thermometers are easiest to use with THIN food, such as ground beef patties and boneless chicken breasts. On digital instant-read thermometers, the sensing section is only about 1/2 to 1 inch long while it's between 2 to 3 inches long on dial thermometers. Check manufacturer's instructions for more information.

Leave an instant-read thermometer inserted for about 15 to 20 seconds to register an accurate temperature.

If you insert and re-insert an instant-read thermometer into several foods or the same food, wash with hot soapy water between insertions to prevent cross-contamination from food that's not done to food that's done.

It's easier to read the numbers on a digital thermometer face than on a dial thermometer. Digital instant-read thermometers tend to cost slightly more than dial instant-read thermometers and are battery-operated. While dial instant-read thermometers are readily available in many stores, you're more likely to find digital thermometers in "kitchen" stores or stores with "kitchen sections."

Oven-Proof Dial Thermometers

Place oven-proof dial thermometers into food at the beginning of cooking and leave them throughout the cooking period. Their temperature-sensing coil on the probe portion is between 2 and 2 1/2 inches long and relatively thick. They work best on foods 3 or more inches thick such as roasts and whole or large pieces of poultry.

4. Place Thermometer Correctly

As a general rule, insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest portion of the food. If a food is irregularly shaped, you may need to check the temperature in several places. Here are some examples of where to check temperatures:

  • Whole Poultry: insert into the inner thigh near the breast, but not touching the bone.
  • Thin Food: insert an instant-read thermometer sideways, or at an angle for thin food such as patties.
  • Large Roasts, Steaks, Chops: insert in the center of the thickest part, away from bone and fat.
  • Casseroles and Egg Dishes: insert in center or thickest area.

Allow microwaved food to stand for a few minutes after cooking; this distributes the heat, cooking the food evenly.

NOTE: The small, disposable T-Stick thermometers are intended for use for smaller thin cuts of meat such as hamburgers. Do not use these with thicker cuts where the temperature sensor won't reach the center.

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Last Modified: 11/28/11.