Using an instant thermometer and target temperatures to get a perfect result.Afraid of ruining a roast or any other piece of meat? That was me for years -- for good reason. I almost always overcooked them -- until I discovered the answer: use an instant thermometer and know the perfect internal temperature for each type of meat.
When I first began to cook, some of my first efforts were roasts. No fancy cuts because they were too expensive, but a pork loin or a chicken seemed easy enough. I was wrong. I either under-cooked or more often, over-cooked them, with all my chickens ending up all cut up and rotated back to the oven just to make them edible. What a mess! Pretty soon I had enough bad experiences that I just stopped trying. Although my cooking skill progressed and I made very successful beef stews and coq au vin, a simple leg of lamb remained outside my reach.
I used to think that good cooks, and certainly chefs, well, they just knew how to do something that I couldn't seem to learn. Wrong. Instead they HAD something I didn't: an instant thermometer and a target cooking temperature.
There's no magic. The answer is in having the right tool and the right information. Once you have these it won't matter if you're using high heat, low heat, a convection oven or stove-top roasting. You'll get a perfect result.
When we roast meat -- as opposed to stewing or braising it -- we want to cook what is typically a better (more expensive) cut of meat to the perfect doneness. If underdone, it can be unappealing, or worse, dangerous to eat, as with undercooked chicken. If it's overdone, it can be just awful and a terrible waste of money and effort. That's why we have to cook to the ideal temperature and this is where the data and the thermometer come in.
The Instant Thermometer
First, the thermometer. You can buy these in any cookware store or cookware department. They cost $8 to $20 and they look like a 6" spike with a small, nickel-sized gauge on top. Most also come with a plastic, pen-like sleeve that covers and protects the spike.
Next, how to use it. Unlike the old-fashioned meat thermometer, these do not remain in whatever you're cooking. Instead you remove what you're cooking from the oven (or if you're cooking on top of the stove, simply uncover it), and stab the meat with the spike and let it stay a moment. In a couple of seconds, you'll watch the needle move, letting you read the current internal temperature. You then remove the thermometer (use a towel or pot holder as it now will be hot) and either put the meat back for more cooking, or if it's done, remove it from the oven.
Tip: Don't let the spike hit a bone or spear through to a cavity or else you'll get a false reading. What you're aiming for is a thick piece of muscle. With poultry you should check the temperature of both the dark meat and the white to make sure both are done.
Target Internal Temperatures
What internal temperature are you aiming for? Each meat or poultry has a different desired temperature of doneness. After checking with a score of cookbooks, from Julia Child to Thomas Keller (I skipped my older copies of Joy of Cooking and other cookbooks because it was conventional wisdom to cook meats to higher temps than we do today ) I came up with this guide:
Meat Target Internal Temperature
Poultry - Whole Birds (chicken, turkey, duck, goose) 155-160 degrees (F)
Poultry - Breasts 160-165
Poultry - Thighs, Legs, Wings 165-170
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb/Rare 125-130
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb/Medium Rare 135-140
Fresh Beef Veal Lamb/Medium 140-150
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb/Well-done 160
Fresh Pork/Medium Rare 140-150
Fresh Pork/Medium 145-155
Fresh Pork/Well-done 160-165
Ground Meat - Chicken or Turkey 165
Ground Meat - Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork 160
Fresh Ham 160
Pre-Cooked Ham/Re-heating 140
Tip: Always cook chicken and turkey until their juices run clear. Never eat undercooked or raw chicken or turkey.
Also important to remember: after you remove a roast from the oven, it will continue to cook. You can check this for yourself: next time you cook a roast, note the temp when you take it out of the oven, loosely tent it with a piece of foil and let it rest for 10 minutes, and then take the temperature again. It will be up as much as 10 degrees. So if some of the above target temperatures seem low, this is why.
Finally, aside from making sure your poultry is fully cooked, most of this is personal taste. I prefer my meats more rare but what's rare to me may be medium-rare to you. Expect to have some trial and error until you know which temperature gets you the result you want. Then just write it down in the front of your favorite cookbook so you'll do it the same way next time.