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When is Food "Done"?

Recipe directions often say to cook a food until "done." What is "done?"

While we worry about a food being done enough for safety, we also should be concerned about a food being too done for quality. You can assure 100 percent safety if food is overcooked until it tastes and looks like cardboard, a piece of shoe leather or a hockey puck -- no one will eat it!

Doneness Tests - Here are some tests and temperatures to help you know when a food is "done." Remember: "Doneness" helps ensure quality as well as safety. See accompanying chart for a summary of temperatures based on recommendations from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The best way to determine a safe temperature has been reached is by using a thermometer.

1. Cakes, Bars - Insert a clean toothpick near the center. It should come out perfectly clean. Cakes and bars will start to shrink from the sides of the pan. If pressed with a finger, they should spring back into shape. Very rich cakes and chocolate cakes (including brownies) may dent slightly upon touching and still be done.

2. Combination Dishes - Cook casseroles and other combination dishes to 160 F the first time. When reheating or when cooking casseroles containing previously cooked foods, cook to 165 F.

At this temperature, the food will be hot and steamy throughout. Use a food thermometer to take the guesswork out of whether your food has reached this safe temperature. Thoroughly cook meat and poultry BEFORE combining it with other ingredients in casseroles.

3. Cookies - In general, bake cookies until they are lightly browned. If pressed with a finger, they should spring back into shape. Help assure uniform doneness by baking cookies of similar shape and size on the cookie sheet.

4. Custard, Pumpkin Pie, Cheesecake, Quiche - Heat these foods until they reach 160 F. Bake until a metal table knife inserted near the center comes out clean. For softer top-of-stove custards and sauces, the mixture should coat a metal spoon. For greatest safety, use a food thermometer to test the temperature.

5. Eggs - Cook eggs thoroughly so both yolks and whites are firm, not runny.

6. Fish and Seafood - Cook FISH (whole fish, steaks and fillets) until they're opaque and flake easily with a fork. SHRIMP, LOBSTER AND CRAB should turn red and flesh should become pearly opaque. SCALLOPS should turn milk white or opaque and firm. Cook CLAMS, MUSSELS AND OYSTERS until the shells open.

7. Meat - Here are some general guidelines for determining when meat is safely "done."

Ground Meat - Cook ground beef, veal, lamb and pork to an internal temperature of 160 F and ground poultry to 165 F. When you cut into thoroughly cooked GROUND meat, the color is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety. Research indicates that a brown middle doesn't always signal doneness. Some ground meat may turn brown before it has reached a temperature at which bacteria are destroyed. Using a thermometer helps assure a safe product.

Hamburger patties are a common ground meat food. A 1/2 inch thick ground beef patty is more likely to cook thoroughly in the middle without being overdone on the outside than one that is too thick. You get approximately four patties measuring approximately 1/2" by 4" -- BEFORE COOKING -- from a pound of beef.

Adding sauces or spices to hamburger patties may make them look brown before they're done. It's easier to tell if your patty is done if you brush or sprinkle sauces and spices onto the surface of COOKED burgers rather than add them to the raw burger.

Large Cuts of Beef, Veal, Lamb - Large cuts of beef, veal or lamb -- like roasts and steaks -- can stay slightly pink in the center if they have reached at least 145 F. Steaks and roasts cooked to an internal temperature of 145 F are medium rare, 160 F are medium, and 170 F are well done.

As described by USDA: "Beef roasts cooked to 160 F will generally have very little pinkness to the meat, and the juices will not be pink or red. Below the temperature of 160 F, the center of the roast will be pink or red, depending on the internal temperature. A beef roast cooked to 145 F in the center can be considered safe since the exterior of the roast would have reached a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria, unless it is a rolled roast or one that has been mechanically tenderized. A consumer would not be able to determine if a roast that was pink in the center had reached the safe temperature of 145 F without a food thermometer." ("Doneness Versus Safety," USDA, October 1998)

Do not serve any large cut of BEEF, VEAL or LAMB at 145 F if it is rolled, tenderized or scored (cut or poked with a fork) before cooking, thus forcing any surface bacteria into the center. Cook these types of roasts and thick cuts of meat to 160 F. When in doubt as to how a piece of meat has been handled, cook to 160 F.

Pork - For safety and taste, cook pork to 160 F. At this temperature, the center of pork roasts may be somewhat pink and pork chops may have just a trace of pink color. Again, using a thermometer is the only way to know if the center has reached 160 F.

8. Poultry - Cook whole poultry, thighs and wings to 180 F; poultry breasts and roasts to 170 F.
Cook ground poultry to 165 F. When poultry is pierced with a fork, the juices should be clear, not pink.

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