America's Test Kitchen LogoCook's Country LogoCook's Illustrated Logo
Cooking Tips

Is It Safe to Not Cook Chicken and Pork All the Way Through? Ask Paul

Yes! Even the USDA says it’s OK. The key is to cook the meat long enough.
By

Published Jan. 31, 2024.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) instructs us to cook meat to a safe internal temperature: namely, 165 degrees for poultry and 145 for beef and pork. But by the time it reaches those temperatures, meat, especially lean meat, has tightened up and lost a lot of its juiciness. Is that degree of cooking really necessary?

The temperatures provided are intended to kill off pathogenic bacteria in the meat in a hurry. But that’s not the only way to ensure safe meat.

Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter

The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.

How to Ensure That Lower Temperature Meat Is Safe to Eat

Killing bacteria is always a matter of temperature and time. So, the exact same level of food safety can be achieved by cooking the meat to a lower temperature and ensuring that it stays at that temperature for a prescribed length of time. The lower the temp, the longer the time necessary to kill off any potential pathogens.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA has published complete tables of times and temperatures for safe cooking. So, if we prefer the much juicier texture of a chicken breast that’s cooked no hotter than 150 degrees, a glance at the chart (on page 37 of that PDF) tells us that it’s necessary to hold the chicken at 150 degrees for just under 3 minutes in order to make it safe. (If we were cooking a chicken thigh, which contains more fat, we’d need to hold it for an additional minute, since fatty meat heats through more slowly than leaner meat.)

If we want to cook chicken to just 140 degrees, that’s safe too: this ultra-juicy temp, inside a crisped skin, is not uncommon in restaurant preparations! Safe, says the USDA, as long as it stays at that temp for a full 28 minutes. Sous vide is the easiest way to achieve that sort of long, low-temp preparation.

For beef, the idea is the same, but the numbers are different (see page 35). The standard USDA recommendation of 145 degrees actually assumes that the beef will stay at 145 for 4 minutes. If we want an instantaneously safe temperature, we have to go up to 158, where beef becomes dry and crumbly. A 135-degree steak is food-safe after its center has been at that temperature for 36 minutes—again, that’s optimally achieved with sous vide. 

75+ Foolproof Recipes

Sous Vide for Everybody

Sous vide cooking is easy, convenient, and hands-off. This cookbook demystifies sous vide cooking and gives you the tools to try exciting new dishes.

Safe Times and Temperatures for Cooking Chicken

via FSIS/USDA

TemperatureTime to Hold Lean Chicken Less Than 5% FatTime to Hold Chicken Up to 12% Fat

145 °F

8.9 minutes

13 minutes

150 °F

2.7 minutes

4.2 minutes

151 °F

2.1 minutes

3.1 minutes

152 °F

1.6 minutes

2.3 minutes

153 °F

1.2 minutes

1.6 minutes

154 °F

1 minutes

1.1 minutes

155 °F

47 seconds

55 seconds

160 °F

15 seconds

17 seconds

165 °F

instantaneous

instantaneous

Chicken cutlets drying on a paper towel lined baking sheet.

Safe Times and Temperatures for Cooking Beef and Pork

via FSIS/USDA

TemperatureTime to Hold Red Meat

130 °F

2 hours and 1 minute

135 °F

37 minutes

136 °F

32 minutes

137 °F

24 minutes

138 °F

19 minutes

139 °F

15 minutes

140 °F

12 minutes

141 °F

10 minutes

142 °F

8 minutes

143 °F

6 minutes

144 °F

5 minutes

145 °F

4 minutes

Pork being seared in a skillet after sous vide.

For the simplest preparations, of course, we can still cook meats to the highest USDA-approved temperatures, but knowing that safety is a function of both temperature and time opens up many more cooking options.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

0 Comments

This is a members' feature.