Raw chicken seasoned on cutting board

Food safety: Cooking safely

How to cook safely

Clean and Separate
Safe cooking temperatures (Chart)
Using a thermometer
Importance of resting
Using a microwave

Food safety doesn’t have to be intimidating. Really, at it’s most basic, cooking safely is really just being aware of the potential issues that arise from handling and cooking raw meat and using common sense. The USDA has even broken it down into four easy steps. Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. Follow their guidelines every time you cook and safety will become a habit.

Clean and Separate

Preparing your work area is an often overlooked but critical part of cooking safety. Your work area, containers, cutting boards, plates and tools should be organized and clean (washed with hot, soapy water). Other supplies should be stocked and easily accessible. Make sure to wash your hands and wrists with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before cooking or after handling raw meat. Use separate cutting boards for produce and meats. Use disposable gloves to handle raw meat. Clean the lids of canned goods before opening them. Those are the things you should be doing according to safety guidelines. Here is a list of things you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t put cooked food on plates or containers that have held raw meat, seafood or eggs.
  • Don’t use utensils you’ve used on raw meat on cooked food.
  • Don’t use marinades that have been in contact with raw food on cooked food unless you bring them to a  boil first. (You should also do this when reheating soups, sauces and gravy.)
  • Don’t wipe your hands on your pants, shirt or apron if you’ve just handled raw food. Also, avoid direct contact with handles, table edges and door knobs if possible.
  • Don’t touch surfaces in your work area that are going to be used for cooked food if you’ve just handled raw meat (platters, plates, containers, utensils, etc.).

The main idea here is to prevent cross-contamination. Basically, you should do your best to keep raw food — and the things that raw food have touched — separate from the food you’ve cooked. It might seem like a lot to remember at first, but these safety guidelines were formulated to protect you and everyone you cook for from foodborne illness and worse. It’s worth the time and effort to make these rules a habit.

Some of you, I know, are rinsers. I was too. But there isn’t a council or relevant federal agency — including the CDC — that hasn’t warned against this practice as ineffective and potentially dangerous. Cool water doesn’t kill bacteria it only spreads raw juices and contaminates you and the surrounding area. Listen to the thousands of specialists, doctors and scientists, don’t rinse your meat,

Safe Cooking Temperatures

After the all that cleaning and preparation, it’s finally time to cook. The USDA has put together a lengthy chart of their recommended cooking temperatures and resting periods for the meats most people are likely to cook. Cajun cooks may need a supplemental chart.

CategoryFoodTemperatureRest Time
Ground Meat,Meat MixturesBeef, Pork, Veal, Lamb
Patties, Sausage, Meatballs
160°F (74°C)None
Turkey, Chicken
Patties, Sausage, Meatballs
165°F (71°C)None
Fresh Beef, Veal, LambSteaks, Roasts, Chops145°F (63°C)3 minutes
PoultryWhole Chicken, Turkey165°F (74°C)None
Breasts, Roasts165°F (74°C)None
Thighs, Legs, Wings165°F (74°C)None
Duck, Goose165°F (74°C)None
(Cooked alone or in bird)
165°F (74°C)None
Pork, HamFresh Pork145°F (63°C)3 Minutes
Fresh Ham145°F (63°C)3 Minutes
Precooked Ham140°F (60°C)None
Eggs, Egg DishesEggsCook until yolk and white are firmNone
Egg Dishes160°F (71°C)None
Leftovers, CasserolesLeftovers165°F (74°C)None
Casseroles165°F (74°C)None
SeafoodFin Fish*145°F (63°C)
or cook until flesh
is opaque and separates easily with a fork
Shrimp, Lobster**, CrabsCook until flesh
is pearly and opaque.
Clams, Oysters, MusselsCook until shells
open during cooking.
ScallopsCook until flesh
is milky white or opaque and firm.
Game AnimalsVenison, Elk, Bison160°F (71°C)None
Game BirdsOstrich, Emu, Rhea
Grouse, Quail, Squab
Ducks, Partridge, Pheasant
Wild Geese, Wild Turkeys,
Other Species
165°F (74°C)None

* FDA guidelines recommend cooking fish to 145 degrees F. However, tuna steak and swordfish are commonly served at restaurants medium-rare (125 degrees F). Furthermore, Thermoworks recommends cooking to the individual species: Salmon (115-125 degrees F), Halibut (130 degrees F), Shrimp (120 degrees F) and Scallops (130 degrees F).** It is important to cook lobster just through, as it will turn rubbery and dry very easily. When grilling lobster, Thermoworks recommends cooking to 140 degrees F and cooking to 175 degrees F when steaming or boiling.

Using a thermometer

Although it isn’t absolutely necessary to use one, the USDA strongly recommends using a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature of your food. Many people (66% of us, in fact) feel that we can gauge our food’s “doneness” and relative safety by juiciness, color and texture changes alone but recent research has shown that this is unreliable and can lead to foodborne illnesses — as pathogens can and do survive these subjective judgements (48 million people a year get sick this way every year). So don’t guess when it comes to your safety and the safety of others. The only way to be certain you’re safe is to verify the temperature of the meat with a thermometer.

To properly use a food thermometer, be sure to insert the thermometer away from the fat, bone or gristle in thickest part of the meat, checking in multiple places. You may even need to insert the sensor sideways into thinner cuts of meat.

Importance of resting

The USDA recently lowered their recommended temperatures for some meats but added a three minute resting period. Why? It’s just as safe as cooking to the previous recommended temperature (in fact, it’s the method used at federally inspected meat establishments). But what does it mean when meat “rests” and why does it matter? As it applies to food safety, rest time is the amount of time the meat remains at its final cooking temperature once removed from the heat. In those vital three minutes, the temperature is constant or continues to rise, destroying harmful bacteria.

However, there is a little more to it than that. Meat, larger pieces especially, continue to cook after they’ve been removed from the heat, something called carry-over cooking. So many cooks remove their meat from the oven or grill about five degrees sooner than the final temperature so as not to overcook their steak or roast. Of course, you still need to make sure your meat hits that minimum safe temperature mark.

For larger pieces of meat, you may also want to let your steak or roast rest for at least 10 minutes to allow the muscle fibers to relax and let the juices redistribute back into the meat. Cutting into into it too soon will result in a steak or roast that is considerably less tender and juicy.


The danger zone for food — when food-borne bacteria can grow and multiply — is between 41 to 145 degrees F. So, be sure to hold hot food above 140 degrees F and cold food below 40 degrees F. Leftovers need to chill. They should be be placed in shallow containers and refrigerated or frozen immediately. Food bacteria can double every 20-30 minutes or so, so anything left out after two hours needs to be discarded (one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F). If you’re keeping food hot to serve guests, verify that it’s being held at a safe temperature (140 degrees F). Conversely, food being chilled for guests needs to be at or below (40 degrees F).

Using a microwave

As thirty seconds on Facebook will quickly reveal,  the internet is often a source of conflicting, frequently incomplete or erroneous information. According to some claims, microwaves are irradiating and poisoning the food that we cook in them. Others believe that a minute or two in the microwave will completely, magically, sterilize whatever is placed inside. Neither is true of course. While the non-ionizing, absolutely-not-radioactive microwaves from the magnetron can sterilize food, a microwave oven is just that — an oven. It needs sufficient time to sterilize food, just like any other heat source.

In fact, microwaves only penetrate about 1 to 1-1/2 inches into the outer layer of the meat, relying on heat conduction to cook the inner area. This is similar to frying and grilling which can cook unevenly, so it is still important use a food thermometer to check for the internal temperature. Test the food repeatedly in several places, rotating and stirring (if necessary) to aid the cooking process. Allow the food to rest covered for two minutes to achieve temperature equilibrium. Note: If you’re reheating food in the microwave, cook to 165 degrees F.

Sources: FSIS (USDA) 1, 2, 3, FDA, CDC, FoodSafety, StateFoodSafety, The National Chicken Council, Gordon Food Service, The Daily Meal, SeriousEats, TheKitchn, Epicurious, NY Times

Image: RawPixel