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The grill is fired up and your mouth is ready for a thick juicy hamburger.
When talking food safety, how do you know when it is done? I bet you say: color. When it’s brown, it’s done. Not always.
Ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to destroy any possible illness causing bacteria in the meat. Some ground meat may prematurely brown before this internal temperature has been reached. One out of every four hamburgers turns brown before it reaches 160 degrees.
On the other hand, research findings also show that some ground beef patties cooked to 160 degrees or above may remain pink inside.
So what’s all this really mean? Color is not a good indicator of doneness.
The best way to know for sure is to use a thermometer. I know, most people aren’t used to taking a thermometer to the grill with them, but it’s a good habit to get into.
According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s website, “some thermometers are meant to stay in the food while it’s cooking; others are not. Some are ideal for checking thin foods, like the digital. Others, like the large-dial thermometer many people use, are really meant for large roasts and whole chickens and turkeys.”
The temperatures of other foods are important, too. Poultry products, such as chicken breast, thighs or wings, should be cooked to 165 degrees. By the way, if you’re using ground turkey or chicken to make your burgers, the temperature should be 165 degrees, too. It’s hard to test the temperature of a hot dog, but they should be cooked until steamy.
You may ask why can I cook a steak rare (145 degrees) but need to make sure hamburgers are at 160 degrees? Most of the bacteria on steaks would be found on the surface. Hot temperatures searing the steak will kill any bacteria found on the outside.
When meat is ground, the outside surfaces are combined with the inside and the complete mixture is exposed to the harmful bacteria, which can multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees.
The same thing happens when meat has been tenderized by poking lots of holes into it. There is a chance that bacteria from the surface have been transferred into the interior of the meat. In this case, those steaks or chops should be cooked to 160 degrees, too. To keep bacterial levels low, store ground beef at 40 degrees or less or freeze. Bacteria are killed by thorough cooking.
Just because the meat looks or smells good does not mean it is free of bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere in our environment and food or animal origin can harbor bacterial that came make us sick.
There are several different possible foodborne illnesses that we’re talking about related to ground meat. The most critical is Escherichia coli (most people call it simply E. coli.) It is primarily found in undercooked hamburgers, but can also be found in water or foods that have been contaminated with human or animal feces.
Symptoms of this illness are watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps and some vomiting. The young, old and those with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to illnesses associated with undercooked ground meat. E.coli has been known to cause kidney failure, which leads to death of young children.
One more tip on grilling burgers. Ground meat will shrink in both size and weight during cooking. The amount of shrinkage will depend upon its fat and moisture content, the temperature at which the meat is cooked and how long it is cooked.
Cooking at a moderate temperature will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavors. If the meat had been frozen, you may lose more moisture or juices because the ice crystals in the frozen meat break down the cell membranes, permitting the release of meat juices during cooking.
Don’t worry about poking holes in your burgers with the thermometer. This should not cause excess juice or moisture loss. It will give you confidence that your burgers are safe.
Additional information about cooking meats and poultry and using a meat thermometer can be obtained from the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline at (888) MPHotline (674-6854).
Sources: FDA Consumer, USDA Meat and Poultry Hot Line and Doug Powell, Kansas State University (www.barfblog.com) and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (www.fsis.usda.gov).