You should always use all five of your senses when cooking. But sometimes a sixth sure would be helpful.
Not the Haley-Joel-Osment-I-see-dead-people type of sixth sense (although hey, whatever). I’m talking about the extrasensory perception type, the ability to know exactly what your food is telling you.
Namely, is it done?
Thankfully, there is a handy tool for that! And it’s not all that exotic, either. If you don’t have one, friends, it’s time you got an instant-read thermometer.
Cooking already involves plenty of guesswork, or at least educated guesswork, so why introduce another element of surprise. Go for a digital thermometer, ideally one with a probe long enough to keep your hands clear of hot liquid and reach the center of large cuts of meat.
Many culinary professionals swear by the $79 ThermoWorks Thermapen (a souped-up version for $99 is the most recent winner in an America’s Test Kitchen equipment test). It may be the gold standard — and we have it in our Food Lab — but for years I’ve been more than happy with this less than $20 model from CDN. Or go with ATK’s budget pick, the $29 ThermoWorks ThermoPop.
Here are the times when an instant-read thermometer will be most useful.
Getting your meat to the right temperature is not only a matter of taste. There’s that whole preventing food poisoning thing, too. On the flip side, overcooked meat isn’t pleasant either (at least for most of us).
Poultry (including ground) is easy to judge — go for 165 degrees, making sure not to hit bone or empty cavities when cooking a whole bird. Beef, lamb and pork are a little different, ATK says, because their temperature will continue to rise after being removed from the heat source. This carry-over cooking is why it suggests stopping the cooking process when the meat is 5 to 10 degrees below the serving temperature. Those serving temperatures for beef and lamb are 120 to 125 degrees for rare, 125 to 130 for medium-rare, 135 to 140 for medium, 140 to 145 for medium-well and 155 to 160 for well-done.
In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration lowered the safe minimum cooking temperature for pork to 145 degrees (previously 160, although ground pork should still be cooked to that temperature), again assuming at least a three-minute rest time to allow for a bit of carry-over cooking.
Like chicken, fish does not experience carry-over cooking. The FDA recommends an internal temperature of 145 for fin fish, while ATK says you can aim for 110 degrees for rare tuna, 125 degrees for medium-rare tuna or salmon and 135 to 140 degrees for medium white-fleshed fish.
Can you tell when water is boiling just by looking at it? If you’re anything like me, you can’t. For most of my cooking life, I assumed my water was boiling when it wasn’t. Water boils at 212 degrees, and only after I started using an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature did I realize that boiling water bubbles more vigorously than I thought it did. Getting water sufficiently boiling may not sound like the biggest deal, but I have found that it has improved how I cook my pasta and boil my bagels.
You also want to know how hot your oil is if you’re frying, as in that all-American classic, fried chicken. I found that keeping the oil in the 275- to 300-degree range maintained good color and moisture on the chicken in my recipe, although for deep-frying, the general guidance ranges from 325 to 375 degrees.
Other situations where you might want to know the temperature of a liquid: If you’re making caramel (get the sugar to 350 degrees) or an egg custard for an ice cream base (160 degrees).
Some folks recommend a separate candy thermometer for monitoring liquid temperature, but who needs another piece of equipment? Most of the time I can get away with just dipping my thermometer in as often as I need to (stay away from the bottom and sides of the pan), but if your probe is long enough to reach into the pot and liquid, for a few bucks you can hack your way to a kind of candy thermometer with a simple metal pot clip.
Alas, underbaked or — gasp — raw cakes and breads are not a mere “Great British Bake Off” plot twist. It can happen to us, too. The toothpick, cake tester or knife method that involves poking into the top of your quick bread or pound cake can be hit or miss, especially depending on the size of your testing implement, the moisture content of the batter or the mix-ins you have added. King Arthur flour has this nice primer on knowing when your banana bread is done, in which it recommends getting your quick bread to 200 to 205 degrees, as measured in the center.
As to yeast breads, you might have seen those same “Great British Baking Show” contestants knocking on the bottom of a free-form loaf of yeast bread to test for doneness. Again, makes for good TV, but those of us who are less experienced bread bakers might benefit from something more precise. Your standard, more rustic yeast bread is done when the temperature at the center reaches 200 to 210 degrees, according to ATK, while those rich in butter — “enriched doughs,” such as brioche — should be cooked to between 190 and 200 degrees.
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