Our local food pantry, where I volunteer, asked me to put together a write-up on how to cook the turkey that was part of the Thanksgiving baskets distributed this year. On reviewing the draft, they asked me to put in something about how to tell it was properly cooked for folks who might not have a thermometer or who hadn’t studied at Culinary Education Programs – CulinaryLab, California. I did, and it got me thinking about this issue in general. How do you know if meat or poultry has been cooked properly, if you don’t have a thermometer?
Poultry is pretty straightforward; you don’t want it rare. It should be cooked through but still juicy. If you can wiggle the leg, it’s most likely done. To be sure, pierce the thickest part of the thigh with a skewer or the tip of a paring knife. The juices should run clear. If you’ve stuffed your bird, you also want to be sure the stuffing is cooked thoroughly. Insert a metal skewer into the middle of the stuffing and leave it there for a few seconds. Draw it out and immediately apply it to the inside of your wrist. If it’s hot enough to make you remove it quickly, it’s done. If not, cook your bird a little longer, covering the breast if necessary to keep it from overcooking.
Meats are different. Doneness isn’t an issue for any meat dish that’s braised or stewed, because this method of cooking is used for tougher cuts that will only tenderize with long, moist cooking. There’s no such thing as rare beef stew or pot roast.
Beef steaks or roasts, though, cooked by dry heat, take differing amounts of time to cook, depending on the cut, the grade, the amount of fat and bone, and the weight of the meat. If you’ve ever looked up a meat roasting chart in more than one book or source, you’ll know there little agreement on the subject. However, I think it’s generally safe to use these guidelines for roasting:
You’ll need to know the above facts about the roast you have, and decide whether you want gravy or not. (You don’t care? You haven’t made a roast without gravy and gotten the flak, then. I once made a standing rib roast that was one of the juiciest, tastiest ever, using a very low-heat roasting method. That didn’t stand out in anyone’s mind. All they could say was, “What do you mean, no gravy?!”)
To roast beef at a constant 325°F, allow about 15 minutes per pound. If you prefer to sear it at 400°F for 15 minutes first and then turn the temperature down to 325°F, allow 10-12 minutes per pound. Include the searing time when calculating the entire roasting period. The resulting roast should be medium rare to medium.
If you want a rarer roast, reduce the cooking time a bit. If the meat was at refrigerator temperature, it will take a bit longer. Also, bone-in meat cooks faster than boneless, because the bone will conduct heat to the interior of the meat. Don’t forget that what’s called “carry-over cooking” means the internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise as it rests, anywhere from 5° to 10°; take that into consideration if you like your meat rare.
Here’s how to determine doneness without a thermometer. Gingerly poke a lean surface of the roast with your index finger. If the flesh yields easily, the meat is rare; more resistance means the meat is medium rare, and firm meat is well done. The same technique applies to steaks.
You can get a sense of the texture described above by using a very convenient tool (I started to write a “handy” one, but as it’s your hand, perhaps I’ll skip that pun.) Relax your non-dominant hand. Touch the area between your thumb and index finger with the index finger of your other hand. It will feel like rare meat, yielding to the lightest touch. Now make a very loose fist, and touch that area again; this is what medium feels like. Lastly, make a tight fist and feel how resistant that area is now. This is what well done meat feels like. Like your meat that tough? I sure don’t—to me, this isn’t well done; it’s overdone. But to each his own.
I’ve been writing about beef, but the same test applies to lamb and pork. The USDA has lowered the recommended minimum temperature for pork because trichinosis is rare these days, and that’s good because today’s pork is bred to be so lean. You used to be able to tuck a pork roast in the oven and forget about it; it would still be juicy if cooked longer than planned. Now you need to monitor it more carefully.
Another kind of meat needs to be monitored carefully, and that’s ground. If you’re making burgers or meat loaf, you want to be absolutely sure they’re cooked enough to kill any nasty e.coli lurking about. (And rare or medium meat loaf? Ugh!) You may be lucky enough to know the source of your beef and feel comfortable eating a medium burger, but if not, apply the metal skewer test described for stuffing. A metal cake tester also works well, and you can buy one for about $1.29. That’s cheaper than a thermometer, and there should be one in every kitchen.