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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
When you’re grilling or smoking some prime cuts of meat or fish, you want the result to be tasty and delectable. You also need the food you present to loved ones and family to be safe.
Humans have grilled, smoked, and otherwise cooked the meat they hunted for thousands of years, setting themselves apart from the rest of the mammals with one spark of fire. As people did in ancient times, humans still use heat to make their meat safe.
If you’re serious about your smoking or grillwork, you need to know the essential temperatures that kill all dangerous pathogens in the meat you intend to eat.
1. Four Tenets of Safe Cooking
Four main rules help you keep a pristine and safe workspace when dealing with meat, be it poultry, fish, lamb, chicken, or beef. Keep your ingredients separate, especially in their raw state; clean the meat and tools and surfaces well, before and after using them; cook them adequately, and chill leftovers.
Raw meat is a magnet for bacteria and pathogens that can make you ill. Some examples like Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens (or. C. perfringens), staph, E. coli, and the norovirus are just a few of the gross illnesses you can contract from mishandling raw meat or letting it cross-contaminate.
Especially when you’re transporting lots of food to and from your grill or smoker on a cutting board or plate, ensure that the juices from one food don’t contaminate other food.
Being vigilant about cleaning your tools, surfaces, and anything else the raw meat touches is a great way to ward off E. coli or staph poisoning. To rid your implements, plates, and hands of nasty, harmful bacteria, wash them with very hot water and soap, and dry them thoroughly.
Cutting boards, carving knives, and dish rags or sponges used to wipe down your grill and smoker should all be thoroughly washed and dried before being used for anything else. Lysol wipes or another disinfectant is also useful for a quick wipe-down of surfaces.
Cook Your Meat Thoroughly
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers guidelines for different types and cuts of meat – minimum temperatures to which meat should be cooked to kill all pathogens. At the very minimum, cook all foods to 140°F. Like poultry or ground beef, some food must be cooked to 165°F to be sure they’re safe to eat.
A cooking thermometer is a tool you need for exact readings and no guesswork when you’re smoking or grilling, and you think something’s done. You should also make sure that there are no cold spots in your food.
After you’re done cooking, resting, and enjoying your meat off the grill and smoker, store it correctly to enjoy it later with no dire health consequences. Many portions of meat can grow bacteria after they’re off the flames, so you need to cover your meal and chill it soon after you’re done eating it.
2. Different Types of Meat
After reviewing a cooking temperature chart, you can then base your cooking time and temps on your taste. Always allow your meats to rest, as this seals in the juices and enables them to finish cooking, resulting in mouth-watering meals.
There’s nothing like a good medium-rare steak for melt-in-your-mouth flavor. However, you must be careful when cooking red meat to ensure you’ve eliminated any pathogens. Steak, roasts, and chops made from beef, lamb, veal, venison, and goat need to be heated to a minimum of 145°F. They should rest for 5-10 minutes. Any kind of ground meat or mixture should be heated to 165°F.
The minimum poultry internal temp should be 165°F, including ground meat mixtures. Poultry like turkey burgers, a whole chicken, or thighs also benefit from a resting period of at least 3 minutes.
Pork can reach a minimum temp of 145°F, especially if it’s fresh chops, and pre-cooked ham can go as low as 140°F.
You want to be very careful when smoking or grilling seafood, as meat that comes from the ocean can be some of the most dangerous if it’s not handled correctly. For most fish with fins and shellfish, you want to see the items turn opaque. For shelled clams, mussels, and oysters, the shells will open when they are done.
3. Thickness and Type of Cut
Ensure that all your meat is cooked through, and the thicker the cut, the longer it will take. If you’re grilling a rack of ribs or smoking a whole turkey, use a cooking thermometer so that you can check the most internal parts of the meat.
Patties made of ground meat cook more uniformly than a cut with the bones still in. There’s a rabid debate in the grillmaster world about leaving your meat on the bone or off when you’re grilling it.
Whether you’re grilling your steaks with the bone in or not, consider whether the meal you’re preparing has bones, which may cause cold spots, or if you’re cooking ground meat, which will cook quickly and thoroughly.
4. Cooking Temperature Chart
Charts often let us absorb critical information at a glance. Here’s a cooking temperature chart that specifies the cut of meat and the degree of doneness. Resting times are always at least 3 minutes to allow juices to seal themselves in the meat cut.
Ground Meats and Mixtures
Chicken and Turkey
Beef and Lamb
The DHHS recommends avoiding serving pork too rare because there is no guarantee that existing bacteria were successfully killed at temps below 145°F. For all poultry, ensure it hits 165°F before serving. Knowing how to make safe food is the first step in becoming a master chef at the grill or smoker.
5. Letting it Rest
Knowing the basics of safe food handling and proper temperature control is integral to being a confident grillmaster turning out tasty treats from your grill or smoker.
Follow these guidelines to avoid any unwanted contamination or pathogens for your food. With the right guidelines committed to memory, follow your gut for safe food preparation.