How do you tell if the meat or poultry you’re cooking is done?

Some professional cooks say they can squeeze a piece of chicken or poke a steak with their finger and determine if it’s done.

The Thermapen Mk4 sells for $99.

Some people go by cooking time, and some by appearance.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urge cooks to take the temperature of the turkey, beef or pork they’ve got in the oven or on the grill or stovetop.

So, if you want to follow the rules, you’re going to need a kitchen thermometer, and the choices vary from what appears to be the Cadillac of food thermometers that goes for $99 to a $60 digital thermometer to an $11 analog instant-read device.

Of the $99 ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4, New York Magazine writer Maxine Builder said this: “The Thermapen is shockingly versatile, and over the last year, it’s become one of the most-used tools in my own kitchen, perhaps second only to my knife.”

“I was initially skeptical about this meat thermometer’s utility, but it’s the only tool that helped me overcome my anxiety of roasting whole chickens, something I long avoided for fear of accidentally giving myself salmonella while simultaneously worrying that I’d overcook the bird until it became inedibly dry,” Builder wrote in an article in The Strategist. “Same goes for steak, which I never wanted to buy and cook on my own because there’s nothing sadder than cutting into a beautiful (and expensive) slab of meat only to realize that it’s gone from perfectly medium-rare to well-done.”

According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), using a food thermometer is the only reliable way to ensure safety and to determine desired “doneness” of meat, poultry and egg products.

“To be safe, these foods must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy any harmful microorganisms that may be in the food,” the FSIS says. “’Doneness’ refers to when a food is cooked to the desired state and indicates the sensory aspects of foods such as texture, appearance, and juiciness.

“Unlike the temperatures required for safety, these sensory aspects are subjective. Color is not a reliable indicator.”

So there goes the it-looks-done-to-me theory.

For example, FSIS says, ground beef may turn brown before it reaches a temperature where pathogens are destroyed. A consumer preparing hamburger patties and using color as an indicator is taking a chance that pathogenic microorganisms may survive. A hamburger cooked to 160 °F, as measured with a meat thermometer, regardless of color, is safe.

The temperature at which different pathogenic microorganisms are destroyed varies, as does the “doneness” temperature for different meat and poultry, the agency says, adding that it’s essential to use a food thermometer when cooking meat, poultry, and egg products not only to prevent undercooking but to verify that food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature and prevent foodborne illness.

The FSIS recommends letting meat rest for at least three minutes before carving or eating.

Fans of the Thermapen say it is the fastest, recording the internal temperature of a piece of meat in less than 3 seconds.

“That speed makes a noticeable difference when you’re balancing a roasting pan on a hot oven door as you try to take the temperature of whatever’s inside without burning yourself or letting out too much heat,” Builder writes.

FSIS lists a variety of food thermometers, including the thermocouple, which shows the temperature on a digital display after measuring at the junction of two fine wires located in the tip of the probe. Thermocouples used in scientific laboratories have very thin probes, similar to hypodermic needles, while others may have a thickness of 1/16 of an inch.

The Strategist piece features a digital thermometer called the Lavatools PT12 Javelin Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer, which sells for $25 and has a magnet that sticks to the side of your stove.

Wireless remote digital thermometers include the ThermoPro TP20 Wireless Remote Digital Cooking Food Meat Thermometer that sells for $60 and has a dual probe.

For $24, the Eleckcity 1022D Dual Laser Digital Infrared Thermometer Temperature Gun measures everything from meat to pottery to a cat’s body temperature, according to an online review.

And $18 will get you a ThermoPro TP-16 Large LCD Digital Cooking Food Meat Thermometer that you can stick into a piece of meat and leave in place while it cooks.

For $11, you can get an OXO Good Grips Chef’s Precision Analog Instant Read Meat Thermometer.

Just Google meat thermometers or stop in at a kitchen, discount or department store and you’re sure to find something that meets your needs.

And finally, here’s a CDC chart that shows what temperatures you need to reach to eat safely.

Category Food Temperature (°F) Rest Time
Ground Meat & Meat Mixtures Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb 160 None
Turkey, Chicken 165 None
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb Steaks, roasts, chops 145 3 minutes
Poultry Chicken & Turkey, whole 165 None
Poultry breasts, roasts 165 None
Poultry thighs, legs, wings 165 None
Duck & Goose 165 None
Stuffing (cooked alone or in bird) 165 None
Pork and Ham Fresh pork 145 3 minutes
Fresh ham (raw) 145 3 minutes
Precooked ham (to reheat) 140 None
Eggs & Egg Dishes Eggs Cook until yolk and white are firm None
Egg dishes 160 None
Leftovers & Casseroles Leftovers 165 None
Casseroles 165 None
Seafood Fin Fish 145 or cook until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. None
Shrimp, lobster, and crabs Cook until flesh is pearly and opaque. None
Clams, oysters, and mussels Cook until shells open during cooking. None
Scallops Cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm. None

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)