How to tell when your meat is ready—with or without a thermometer.

Hilary Meyer

Have you ever taken meat off the grill and declared "dinners ready!" - only to sheepishly return minutes later to put your partially cooked steak, chicken, or burger back on the flames? Perhaps the only thing worse is trying to chew through an overcooked, tough piece of meat.

So how do you make sure that your meat is done before whisking it off the grill, or worse- overcooking it? While the most reliable way to know if your meat is really cooked is to use a thermometer, there are some other trustworthy methods to use:

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1. Use a meat thermometer . . . correctly

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When you are using a meat thermometer to check for doneness, insert it in the thickest part of the meat. If you're cooking meat on the bone, make sure the thermometer isn't touching bone-it's a conductor of heat and could give you a false reading. Also, know your temperatures. The USDA's recommended safe minimum internal temperatures are as follows: beef, veal, lamb and pork (steaks and roasts): 145°F; fish: 145°F; ground beef: 160°F; and poultry: 165°F.

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2. Feel the meat

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Some meat-cooking aficionados like to use the "finger test" as a reference for checking for doneness. There are a couple of ways to do it, but my favorite is as follows: to know what raw meat feels like, pinch the flesh of your hand below your thumb, while your hand is relaxed. To know what medium-rare meat feels like, touch your middle finger lightly to your thumb and pinch it. To know what medium-cooked meat feels like, touch your ring finger to your thumb. To know what well-done meat feels like, touch your pinkie and thumb together. It takes some practice to master this touch-and-feel technique. So use your thermometer as backup until you think you have the hang of the "finger test" method. (This method works best on smaller cuts of meat.)

3. Poke the meat to see if juices are red or clear

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This method applies to chicken specifically. If you poke a chicken breast and the juices that escape are clear, then it is probably done. If the juices are red or have a pinkish color, your chicken may need some more time on the heat. Some people don't like this method because a) you really don't want to consume chicken that is cooked below 165°F (and you wouldn't really know unless you used a thermometer or cut into it) and b) those juices that are escaping are arguably better staying in your meat to keep it moist.

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4. Check the size-did the meat shrink?

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It's easy to get thrown off by observing just the exterior color of your meat, especially when it comes to something like grilling. Your steak or chicken breast could look ready to eat on the outside with lovely grill marks, but still be cold on the inside. One thing you can observe when you cook on the grill is the size of your meat. If it looks nice and charred on the outside but hasn't shrunk at all, it's probably still underdone. If it starts to look smaller, then chances are it's close to done. The change will be subtle. If your meat is quite a bit smaller than when you started, it may be overcooked.

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