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How to Know When Food Is Done

By Elizabeth Bomze Published

Don’t flub a beautifully rosy roast or a perfectly chewy batch of cookies because you couldn’t pinpoint the moment to stop cooking.

Knowing the optimum temperature for meats, poultry, and fish will help you achieve the results you desire without fear of undercooking or overcooking. Taking the temperature of certain baked goods will also help you know when they're done. Other recipes require more visual cues to determine doneness. In this guide, you'll learn about the following: 

First Things First: Get the Right Thermometer

The axiom “knowledge is power” holds especially true in the kitchen—the more you know about what’s going on inside your food as it cooks, the more you can control the result. That’s why we’re so gung ho about using an instant-read thermometer, as more control means less stress and better results.

Our Favorite Instant-Read Thermometers

  • Winner: ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4

    This is the best instant-read thermometer on the market. It's dead accurate, fast, and so streamlined and simple that it's a breeze to use. Its long handle gives you plenty of room to maneuver, allowing for multiple grips, and a ring of slightly tacky silicone keeps your hands confidently secured. Bonus: It's waterproof in up to 39 inches of water for up to 30 minutes.

  • Best Midprice Option: Lavatools Javelin PRO Duo

    This thermometer is fast and accurate, with a large handle that keeps your hands safely away from the heat. A big, clear display rotates two ways, and the long probe works great at various angles.

  • Best Inexpensive Option: ThermoWorks ThermoPop

    We love this smaller thermometer that's extremely fast and accurate. It makes the most of its size with a grippy, ergonomic design that's secure and easy to push and pull out of dense foods. The display rotates and has a backlight. 

How to Know When Meat and Poultry Are Done

Don’t Forget Carryover Cooking

The temperature of many proteins will continue to rise once they’re taken off heat and allowed to rest before serving, a phenomenon known as carryover cooking.

This is particularly true for thick roasts cooked at high temperatures, which must be removed from the heat as much as 10 to 15 degrees below the desired doneness temperature.

Cook Some Cuts Longer

Whereas most proteins are best cooked just to an internal temperature at which they’re safe to eat, items such as braised or slow-roasted dark-meat chicken, pork butt, and beef chuck often taste better when they’re cooked longer. That’s because these tough cuts are loaded with collagen, which breaks down into gelatin between 140 and 195 degrees and lubricates the muscle fibers, making them seem more moist and tender. It’s also important to cook these cuts slowly. The longer they spend in that collagen breakdown window, the more tender the meat will be.

Learn More About Carryover Cooking

Pink Poultry and Pork Can Be Safe

Pink-tinted turkey and pork aren’t necessarily undercooked. Often, the color is an indication that the pH of the meat is relatively high, which stabilizes the meat’s pink pigment so that it doesn’t break down when exposed to heat. As long as the meat registers the prescribed temperature, it’s safe to eat.

Meat Type Cook To Serve At

Beef/Lamb

Rare

115–120°F

125°F

Medium-Rare

120–125°F

130°F

Medium

130–135°F

140°F

Medium-Well

140–145°F

150°F

Well-Done

150–155°F

160°F

Ground Beef

Medium-Rare

125°F

125°F

Medium

130°F

130°F

Medium-Well

140°F

140°F

Well-Done (The USDA Recommends cooking all ground beef to 160 degrees.)

160+°F

160+°F

Pork

Medium

140–145°F

150°F

Well-Done

150–155°F

160°F

Chicken/Turkey

White Meat

160°F

160°F

Dark Meat

175°F

175°F

Tips for Taking Meat's Temperature

  • Steaks and chops

    Hold the steak or chop with tongs and insert the thermometer through the side of the meat. This method also works for chicken parts.

  • Burgers

    Leaving the burger in the pan (or on the grill), slide the tip of the thermometer into the top edge and push it toward the center, making sure to avoid hitting the pan or cooking grate.

  • Roasts

    Insert the thermometer at an angle, pushing the probe deep into the roast and then slowly drawing it out. Look for the lowest temperature to find the center of the meat.

  • Whole poultry, breast

    Insert the thermometer from the neck end, holding it parallel to the bird. (Avoid hitting the bone, which can result in an inaccurate reading.)

  • Whole poultry, thigh

    Insert the thermometer at an angle away from the bone into the area between the drumstick and breast.

  • Whole stuffed poultry

    In addition to taking the temperature of white and dark meat, insert the thermometer directly into the center of the cavity. The stuffing is food-safe at 165 degrees.

Tips for Knowing When Fish and Shellfish Are Done

Salmon: With less fat than farmed salmon, wild salmon is more prone to drying out and overcooking, so we cook it to a lower temperature.

Swordfish: The exterior of cooked swordfish should feel firm while the inside is just opaque but still moist.

Shrimp: Cooked shrimp should look pink, feel just firm to the touch, and be slightly translucent at the center.

Mussels: An opened mussel is cooked, but one that remains closed might just need more cooking. Microwave it for 30 seconds. If it still doesn’t open, discard it.

Clams: Open clams are done—and overcook quickly. Remove clams as they open and keep them warm in a covered bowl while the rest finish cooking.

Type of Fish Cook To

Salmon

Farmed

125°F

Wild

120°F

Tuna

Rare

110°F

Medium-Rare

125°F

Other

White-Fleshed Fish

140°F

Sea Scallops

115°F

Lobster (tail)

140°F

Temp Your Baked Potatoes

Baking a potato to between 205 and 212 degrees ensures that the interior will be uniformly fluffy. Learn why.

Using Temperature to Know When Yeast Breads, Cheesecake, Custards, and Puddings Are Done

We use a thermometer to gauge the doneness of not just proteins but also many baked goods and desserts. 

Yeast Breads

We have found that yeast bread can reach its recommended temperature for doneness well before the loaf is actually baked through. You should take the temperature of your bread as a backup, but stick to the recommended baking time and make sure the crust is well browned before removing the loaf from the oven and checking its temperature.

Lean (e.g., rustic loaves such as sourdough bread): 205–210°F

Enriched (e.g., sandwich bread): 190–195°F

Loaf-Pan Loaves: Insert the thermometer from the side, just above the pan edge, and direct it at a downward angle into the center of the loaf.

Free-Form Loaves: Tip the loaf (cover your hand with a dish towel) and insert the probe through the bottom crust into the center.

Cheesecake

New York–Style Cheesecake: The velvety consistency of this style is achieved when the center registers 165 degrees.

Other Baked Cheesecakes: For an all-over creamy consistency, we bake them to between 145 and 150 degrees.

Custards and Puddings

Stovetop Custards: We cook custards such as crème anglaise to a relatively low 175 degrees to prevent the egg proteins from curdling.

Ice Cream Bases: Custard bases for ice cream should be thicker than conventional stovetop custards, so we cook them to 180 degrees.

Baked Custards: Custards such as flan and crème brûlée should jiggle but not slosh when gently shaken and should register between 170 and 180 degrees (depending on the ratio of eggs to other ingredients).

Custard Pie Fillings: Because baked custard fillings such as pumpkin pie filling continue to set up as they cool, it’s important to remove custard pies from the oven when they’re slightly underdone. The edges of the filling should be set, while the center should jiggle slightly (but not slosh) when the pie is shaken and should register between 170 and 175 degrees.

Using Visual Cues to Know When Cakes, Muffins, Cookies, and Other Baked Goods Are Done

When a food doesn’t lend itself to temperature-taking, our visual guidelines can be just as helpful.

Cakes, Muffins, and Quick Breads

For thin (less than ¾-inch) items: Test for springback. Gently press the center of the food; it should feel springy and resilient. If your finger leaves an impression or the center jiggles, it’s not done.

For thick (at least ¾-inch) items: Use a skewer. Poke a wooden skewer or toothpick into the center; it should emerge with no more than a few crumbs attached. If you see moist batter or lots of crumbs, bake it longer.

Cookies, Bar Cookies, and Brownies

For chewy centers, underbaking is key—but tricky to gauge. Look for these visual cues.

Drop Cookies: Cookies should hang over the edge of a metal spatula blade.

Crackly Cookies: Cracks should appear shiny.

Stamped and Sliced Cookies: Edges should be light brown and centers slightly moist.

For uniformly crisp cookies, remove the cookies when the edges are deep golden brown and crisp and the centers yield to slight pressure.

For perfect brownies, poke a wooden toothpick into the center and look for a few moist crumbs. Moist batter means they’re not ready. Overbaking will yield dry, chalky results with diminished chocolate flavor.

Pie Crust

The pastry should be well browned (deep color equals deep flavor). We bake in glass pie plates, which allow us to monitor browning on the sides and bottom of the crust.

Fruit Pies

Filling should bubble at the edges and in the vents.

Now You Can Make Some of Our Favorite Recipes

Recipe Classic Roast Beef Tenderloin

The classic approach to roasting this prime cut sacrifices juiciness for crust. Why settle for anything less than perfection?

Recipe Pan-Seared Scallops

Juicy, crisp-crusted perfection means overcoming two obstacles: chemically treated scallops and weak stovetops.

Recipe Classic Sourdough Bread (Pain au Levain)

For a classic sourdough bread recipe, we used a mixture of bread flour and whole-wheat flour for complex flavor.

Recipe Foolproof New York Cheesecake

Our recipe produced lush texture and a beautiful brown top—but not for everyone. To solve this mystery, we had to delve into the secrets of ovens.

Recipe Chewy Brownies

Ever since box-mix brownies appeared on the scene, these industrially engineered treats have held the key to chewy texture. It was high time to break the monopoly.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.