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Growing up, my mother never used a meat thermometer - so I guess it's no surprise that when I grew up, I didn't either. Instead, I cooked meat the length of time the recipe stated, and then cut the meat a little bit to see if it looked cooked thoroughly. Nowadays (thanks to my superb barbecuing husband), I know there are several problems with this method:
* Different ovens and stoves cook at different rates (faster or slower), so even if you follow the recipe exactly, your cooking time may be different.
* Small changes in temperature - for example, medium temperature as opposed to medium high temperature - make a big difference in cooking times, too.
* Cutting open meat to test for doneness makes the meat more prone to drying out - even if you only do it once.
* Not using a thermometer often leads to either dry, over-done meat that no one enjoys eating, or under-done meat, which can pose a health risk.
By simply using a meat thermometer, you can avoid all that and get perfectly safe and wonderfully edible meat every single time.
What Kind of Thermometer to Use
If you're really serious about cooking, a Thermapen is considered the thermometer to have. All the pros use it because it's accurate, reliable, and gives a quick reading. However, Thermapens are pricey. So I use a less expensive model. Currently, I have a Taylor digital thermometer that cost under $9 - and I'm happy with it.
Whatever brand you choose, just be sure it's actually a meat thermometer, not a candy or oven thermometer. I also recommend choosing a digital instant-read thermometer, since it will save you time in the kitchen and do a much better job of giving an accurate temperature on thin cuts.
How to Use a Meat Thermometer
1. First, read the instructions that come with your thermometer. Every model has slightly different instructions on accurate use. (Keep the instructions, too, and refer to them now and then.)
2. Test the meat shortly before you think it will be done. (Some digital thermometers can stay in the meat the entire time you're cooking. If you have this type, insert it as soon as the meat goes in the oven or pan.)
3. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Don't let it touch fat, gristle, or bone, or you won't get an accurate reading. (For whole poultry: Insert the thermometer in the inner thigh area, near the breast.)
4. Once you have a reading, remove the thermometer and wash the tip in hot, soapy water.
What Temperatures To Aim For
The USDA has a handy chart of the safe minimum temperatures for all meats. I printed this out and keep it in my recipe binder. Other ideas for keeping the chart handy include laminating it and taping it the inside of a kitchen cupboard; taping it to the inside cover of your favorite cookbook; or keeping the chart in a container that also holds your meat thermometer.