Some people prefer their meat on the rare side. But as a registered dietitian, I want my patients to be aware that tasting or eating undercooked meat can cause food poisoning. It’s important to understand what “undercooked” really means as it applies to different meats and cuts.
How long to cook meat
Meat may contain poisonous bacteria or parasites (e.g., E. coli, salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Yersinia enterocolitica, Listeria, trichinosis). These bacteria or parasites can cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever and chills. The symptoms can be very painful and sometimes last for several days.
Here are some tips to avoid foodborne illness. Keep in mind, these are minimum temperature requirements, so it’s okay to cook your meat a little longer if you prefer it more well done.
- Ground beef must be heated throughout to a temperature of 160 degrees F.
- Steaks, roasts and pork should be heated to 145 degrees F.
- Poultry should be heated to 165 degrees F.
- Beef, veal, lamb and pork should also be allowed to rest three minutes after cooking before being served. During the rest time, the temperature of the meat will remain constant or continue to rise, which will destroy harmful germs.
How you can tell when meat is done
Unfortunately, you can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked just by looking at it. Any cooked, uncured red meats – including pork – can be pink, even when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature. A safely cooked hamburger patty may look brown, pink or some variation of brown or pink.
The only fail-safe method for determining whether or not meat is done is to check its internal temperature using a meat thermometer. Of course, this isn’t practical in a restaurant. Restaurants do use varying guidelines to determine what temperatures constitute rare, medium rare, medium, etc. But in most instances, if you order steaks to be cooked at least to medium and burgers to well done, you should meet the minimum temperature requirements.
The dangers of overcooking meat
Turns out, undercooked meat isn’t the only hazard. Meats cooked at a very high temperature can also cause problems.
When beef, pork, fish or poultry is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame, they form chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs and PAHs cause changes in DNA that may increase your risk for cancer.
Meats cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300 degrees F (as in grilling or pan frying), or that are cooked for a long time tend to form more HCAs. For example, well done, grilled or barbecued chicken and steak all have high concentrations of HCAs. Cooking methods that expose meat to smoke or charring contribute to PAH formation.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there are several methods for reducing your risk of exposure to HCAs/PAHs, including:
- Avoid prolonged cooking times (especially at high temperatures).
- Use a microwave oven to cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures to reduce the time the meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
- Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source as opposed to just leaving the meat on the heat source without frequent flipping.
- Remove charred portions of meat.
- Do not make gravy from meat drippings.
When it comes to cooking or ordering meat in a restaurant, keep these tips in mind to lower the risk of foodborne illness or exposure to HCAs.