Times Food editor Russ Parsons asks: Are the new meat temperature recommendations really on target?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finally recognized what a lot of cooks and food scientists have been arguing for some time –- that previously recommended doneness temperatures for meat were wrong. But before you leap to your feet to applaud let's think for a minute about those revised recommendations.
Essentially, the USDA is now calling for three doneness temperatures. The old recommendations of 160 degrees for ground meat and 165 for poultry remain (the poultry was revised down from 180 several years ago), while calling for 145 degrees for "whole cuts of meat," including roasts, chops and steaks, whether they are from pork, beef or lamb. Previously, they recommended 145 for beef and lamb and 160 for pork.
The department is also recognizing the benefit of a "rest" period, though their recommended three minutes is not enough to make much of a difference culinarily (admittedly, their purview is guaranteeing food safety, not deliciousness).
But here's the rub, albeit from the standpoint of flavor: Though some really good cooks do recommend cooking pork to less than 160 degrees, I think there is a good reason not to, and it has nothing to do with food safety — it just doesn't taste as good. Granted, the meat will be moister (particularly if you're talking about lean cuts from the loin and tenderloin). But as repeated taste tests have shown, pork cooked to lower temperatures has what is generally called a "serumy" or "metallic" flavor. Probably better to brine the meat for moisture, then cook it to at least 155 for flavor.
The recommendations err in the other direction when it comes to cooking other whole cuts to 145 degrees. That's not a bad recommendation for something like a leg of lamb, which has a lot of sinew and connective tissue that needs to be softened. But cooking lamb chops, racks or an expensive cut of beef to 145 degrees puts it squarely in the "medium" doneness range -- a culinary crime against good meat.
Of course, the sheer willingness to reconsider previous positions is something to be praised. I remember years ago trying to track down the source of the recommendation of 180 degrees for poultry (which has probably resulted in more bad Thanksgiving turkeys than any other single factor). I worked my way up the phone chain at the USDA until finally somebody admitted that they had, essentially, plucked the number from thin air, but that they were going to stick with it because, essentially, most home cooks didn't know how to use a meat thermometer correctly anyway.
-- Russ Parsons
Photo: Despite a new, lower USDA standard, boneless pork chops may taste better when cooked to 155 degrees. Credit: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press