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Understanding safe cooking temperatures


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We are all aware of the published "safe cooking" temperatures for different meats**, however cooking to these temperatures can result in the meat ending up overcooked. The reason for cooking to these temperatures is to ensure that any surface bacteria on the food are killed and that the food is safe to eat, even after a subsequent period of chilled storage. What is often not understood is that the cooking to reduce bacteria is not all about the temperature reached but also about the time it remains at that temperature. The published safe cooking times are the temperatures at which any bacteria on the food is killed immediately however the same result can be achieved at lower temperatures by maintaining the meat that that temperature for a minimum period of time.

** Link to UK FSA minimum safe cooking temperatures

Does cooking make all meats totally safe?

Whilst taking the food to the required temperature and keeping it there for the minimum period of time will reduce any surface bacteria to a safe level there are some bacterial spores that will not be killed. These include Clostridium botulinum, and Clostridium Perfringens, which can actually thrive in the raised temperatures as the meat is cooling down after cooking. This is why it is important to chill cooked meat quickly after cooking and that it is stored chilled if it going to be eaten later. Also, whilst the heat will kill off most harmful bacteria, if the meat has not been handled safely prior to it being cooked then bacteria may have already produced levels of toxins that can cause food related illness. Some of these toxins are not broken down by normal cooking temperatures.

The important things to remember are:

  • Make sure that the meat has been correctly handled before it is cooked - Sourced from a reputable supplier and remains chilled until cooking.
  • It is cooked until the centre of the meat reaches the appropriate temperature for at least the minimum period of time.
  • Cooked meat that will not be eaten immediately is chilled quickly after cooking and is then stored refrigerated.

Below are graphs showing the minimum safe cooking time at different temperatures for Beef and Poultry (Pasteurisation Tables). Remember though that by cooking to the minimum safe temperature/time simply ensure that the meat is safe to eat - not that it is the best to eat. Cooking at higher temperatures does not only kill bacteria but it also changes the structure of the meat itself, often making it more palatable. 

Click on the graphs to expand



The data used to generate these graphs is from USA FSIS reference sources and can be downloaded here

Pasteurisation Tables PDF.pdf

Edited by Wade
Link added to UK FSA minimum safe cooking temperatures
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