Standing the heat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


The news that the United States Department of Agriculture had lowered its recommended cooking temperature to 62 degrees Celsius for whole (unminced) cuts of pork was met with relief among chefs and foodies recently. It could be argued that the new guidelines don't go far enough, even though it's understandable the USDA would err on the side of caution.

Most of the chefs who had been following the department's previous recommendation of cooking pork to 71 degrees were ones working for big restaurant chains, which are afraid of being sued by customers claiming food poisoning from undercooked meat. Chefs at more upmarket restaurants had been ignoring the old recommendations for years and, if a customer ordered a pork dish, the waiter would ask the same question as if the diner had requested a steak: 'How would you like your meat cooked?'

Pork is overcooked at 71 degrees and the new recommendation of 62 degrees gives us meat that is still at least a little pink. Along with the decrease in recommended cooking temperature, the USDA advised a 'rest time' of three minutes before serving, which means the temperature continues to rise although the meat has been removed from the heat.

At 62 degrees, the new pork temperature is now the same as the USDA's recommendation for whole cuts of beef and veal that would be considered cooked to 'medium' (which is overcooked, for my palate).

The main reason for overcooking pork in the first place is trichinosis - a parasitic disease which, in the past, mainly infected pigs and wild animals. Back in the old days, when pigs were allowed to forage for food, they could easily pick up the parasite, which was then passed on to humans who ate undercooked meat from the animal. In terms of taste and texture, fully cooking pork to 71 degrees was less of a problem back then than it is in modern times, because pigs used to be valued for their fattiness, and the fat kept the meat succulent. Domestic pigs are raised in hygienic environments, so the chances of getting trichinosis now is extremely slim, as long as you buy your meat from a reputable source.

As for the USDA's 62 degree recommendation for pork, beef and veal, I'm taking it with a grain of salt. I like pork chops cooked to slightly pinker than the USDA would consider safe, and I like my beef steaks rare (50 degrees), and yet I don't feel I'm taking a risk with my food safety.

Bacteria reside primarily on the surface of meat, not within the tissue, writes food scientist Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking. He says that if it's 'an intact piece of healthy muscle tissue, a steak or chop, and its surface has been thoroughly cooked' to 70 degrees or higher, then it's not a risk for a healthy adult to eat whole cuts of beef, pork or veal that the USDA would still consider to be undercooked. Just the process of searing, steaming, stir-frying or browning meat brings the surface into temperatures far above 70 degrees, which will kill off any bacteria.

Ground meat is another matter, McGee writes, because 'the contaminated meat surface is broken into small fragments and spread throughout the mass. The interior of a raw hamburger usually does contain bacteria, and is safest if cooked well-done.'