During a busy work week I do rely on picking up a fast food dinner now and then. For us, ‘fast food’ would be a whole roast chicken or sausages from the grocery store or perhaps a pickup of pastrami or turkey and rye bread from the deli a few blocks from my office. Minimal prep, except the ten minutes it might take to cook the side vegetable to go with the dinner.
My go-to roast chicken of choice is from Costco, but as a shopping experience, Costco is not a convenient lunch hour stop. My purchase of a roast chicken the other day from the fancy chain referred to by many as “whole paycheck” was a disappointment. Twice as expensive and half as good. Thought it was advertised as a lovely Mary’s bird, the Sonoma based brand that I like to buy at the butcher counter, this chicken had been overcooked.
Not just a little overcooked. A lot. The breast was dry, the meat on the drumstick was pulling away from the bone in dark, almost crystallized tendrils. I was seriously annoyed to have bought a well-sourced, precooked chicken from people who profess to be pros, but who in reality didn’t take the bird off the spit until the meat had hit about 180 or 190 degrees Farenheit instead of 165. I may not know exactly where those Costco birds are coming from, but they have never, ever overcooked them until they were tasteless fiber you couldn’t even use in leftovers the next day.
And yeah, they would have almost certainly taken the chicken back if I had the time and inclination to make a case of it, but my soapbox subject today is not about returning merchandise for a refund but it is about urging, nay, begging those who don’t have one or use one to get thee a meat thermometer.
They’re so useful, so simple and they’re not expensive. Every kitchen should have one, or every kitchen that has one should dig it out of the back of the utensil drawer and put it to work. Guessing when the meat is ready is really not a badge of honor or a sign of a better, more gifted cook. It’s a risk you take that perhaps one in six meat based meals served, you might poison somebody. Like that time I made arroz con pollo the first time – thinking that if I had the chicken cooking in the rice for 25 minutes it ought to be cooked. I started to serve it, but double checked the temp with the meat thermometer after I cut into it and saw how undercooked it was, releasing lots of lovely undercooked chicken juice into the rice. I unexpectedly had to cook it another 15 minutes before it was actually ready but on the plus side I didn’t poison my husband and child or myself and lay us up with day-after repercussions. As I said, the meat thermometer is our friend.
Take for example my friend who at Thanksgiving said she was anxious about preparing a turkey for the first time. It seemed like a very daunting task. I had recently seen the wonderful blog post from Heather Diane’s Illustrated Bites with instructions for cooking a turkey and sent it to her. She later reported that it had gone very well, had been easy, and was particularly happy that she had used a meat thermometer. It had made all the difference.
We have a digital thermometer that has a little flip switch between Farentheit and Celsius. This has tripped me up once in a while, when I don’t notice the switch got flipped to Celsius. But that’s why meat thermometers are part of the picture with estimated cooking times, and the cook’s observations, of course. They sell analog versions as well. I would have pointed you to the Cook’s Illustrated or Consumer Reports site for a comparison analysis, but they are fee based for that level of info, so you have to subscribe up if you want to learn what they recommend. The Taylor brand thermometer we own works fine. I’m sure OXO is very good too.
Most general cookbooks have a temperatures chart on proper temps for particular meats. Here’s one from the FDA just for fun:
Once I started using a meat thermometer I came to rely on it and I feel more confident about food safety and consistently serving up chicken, steak, turkey or ham at the just-right range and not undercooked or overcooked. The unwelcome surprise of sitting down to chicken or turkey that had been senselessly overcooked was not going to happen on my watch. (Though of course sometimes it does, but with a thermometer you can catch your mistakes as in the Arroz con Pollo incident.) The next time I went to “whole paycheck,” I bought the DIY, uncooked chicken from the butcher counter and cooked it myself. My husband made a teriyaki sauce to go with it to much acclaim. Not as fast, but much better.
So go forth and grill today, my friends. Grill with confidence, grill with good BBQ tools, including a meat thermometer at your side, and be free of doubt and contagion on this glorious Independence Day. To me, that is indeed the pursuit of happiness! 🙂