Bookmark these cooking temperatures for later to keep hot food hot, cold food cold, and avoid foodborne illnesses. 

By Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN
December 11, 2018
Roasted Turkey With Food Thermometer Check Temperature
Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

When you invited a crowd of family and friends over for the holidays this year, the goal was to spread holiday cheer—not a foodborne illness. Unfortunately, the pathogens that cause foodborne illness can crash any party with little warning. There are, thankfully, easy ways to stop the little buggers in their tracks.

"Cooking foods to and keeping them at the appropriate temperature is the safest way to have a happy, healthy holiday feast without any unwanted foodborne illness episodes," says Mary Saucier Choate, MS, RDN, LDN, food safety field specialist at the University of New Hampshire Extension. Taking steps to cook, store, transport, and reheat your foods at safe temperatures is among the most impactful things you can do to keep your guests from being among the 48 million Americans who get foodborne illnesses each year.

Are you playing refrigerator Tetris to pack all of your ingredients into an already-packed fridge? Doing kitchen gymnastics to ensure everything is cooked at the same time when your oven barely has room for the turkey? Us too. Here's what you need to know to stay on top of temperature—and keep your guests happy and healthy.

Monitor Your Fridge. Your refrigerator is one of the best defenses against foodborne illness; keeping foods chilled slows the growth of pathogens that occurs rapidly at room temperature. Adding your own refrigerator thermometer is a smart idea, says Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate at Penn State. The more filled your fridge, the harder it is for air to circulate and for appropriate temperatures (below 40˚ F) to be maintained. If you see temperatures have gone up, adjust accordingly.

Meet Your Thermometer. Dust off that instant-read thermometer you put on your wedding registry—or pick up a good-quality one that's also waterproof, says Bucknavage. Use this gadget to find out when your food has been cooked to the minimum internal temperature, the level at which dangerous pathogens are reduced to safe levels. Test your thermometer before you use it by dropping its probe into a glass of ice water. A functioning thermometer will read 32˚ F.

Test as You Cook. Think the turkey looks ready? Not so fast. Home cooks are far more likely to rely on visual cues rather than internal temperature according to research from Kansas State University—a very unreliable measure, say experts. Instead, use your eyes as a starting point. Then measure the temperature the foods you're cooking by inserting the thermometer into the thickest part of whatever you're cooking. "Try to locate the slowest spot to get warm," says Bucknavage. When that spot and several others have reached the minimum required temperature, your dish is ready.

Know The Numbers. Commit these to memory (or just bookmark for future reference). You can always go higher if you like your food well-done. Lower is a no-go since your food will be more likely to harbor a too-high level of dangerous pathogens.

  • Poultry: 165˚ F
  • Casseroles: 165˚ F
  • Ground beef veal lamb: 160˚ F
  • Egg: 160˚ F
  • Beef, pork, veal, lamb, and fresh or smoked (uncooked) ham: 145˚ F (and then give it a 3 minute rest time)
  • Fish: 145˚ F
  • Fully cooked ham: 140˚ F if packaged in a USDA-inspected plant; 165˚ for all others.

Keep Hot Food Hot... Once prepared, it's important that food stay out of the "temperature danger zone," the range of temperature that pathogens can grow rapidly. "The food temperature should be 140˚ F or hotter to keep any bad bacteria from multiplying to dangerous levels," says Choate. You can keep cooked food safe using a chafing dish, crockpot, or an oven set to 200˚ F (overkill, but the lowest temp many ovens go to) to keep it safe.

…And Cold Food Cold. Just as important is keeping the cooler foods appropriately chilled to 40˚ F or lower. To do this, a clean food storage bag filled with ice can do the trick, says Choate. Setting out smaller amounts of food and refreshing them as they run out is another way to keep things cool.

Toss After Two. "It is OK to leave food out for 2 hours total, and then it should be discarded," says Choate. Room temperature falls squarely in the middle of that "temperature danger zone" between 40˚ and 140˚ F. This rule is especially important with for protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods like turkey, chicken, ham, pasta, rice, and potatoes.

Store Small. "Large amounts of hot food should be separated into smaller containers so they will cool thoroughly and quickly in the fridge," says Choate. A huge container of hot soup (or stuffing, or anything else warm) can mean the middle stays at bacteria-growing temps for too long.

Pack In a Cooler. If you're sending guests home with leftovers, make sure they're storing responsibly. "It's easy for food to be left out for too long once festivities start, and those foods are forgotten for hours," says Bucknavage. And many hosts lose sight of the fact that sending guests home with a doggie bag may result in the food being at room temperature for another long stretch of time. Lending out a cooler or asking guests to bring their own can help you keep the food safe.

Protect Your Leftovers. Not having to cook for the three or four days after you've done over time in the kitchen is one of the great joys of cooking a big holiday meal—after that, you'll want to toss any remains. To reap the benefits and minimize risk of those delicious leftovers, heat them to an internal temperature 165˚ degrees or higher before eating, says Choate. More work than you're up for? Enjoy them cold. It's totally fine, says Choate, as long as your food was cooked properly and chilled quickly in a 40˚ F or cooler fridge.