Ask Peter: Cooking meat
Can you please advise whether it is safe to use a standard meat thermometer when cooking a roast in a gas barbecue with a lid or hood? Thanks, Lee.
When you say "safe", I assume you mean will the thermometer explode or not. If it is a metal thermometer, the sort with a dial at the top that you poke into the meat and keep there as it cooks (as you would use in an oven for things like a turkey or large joint of meat), then you should be fine, as it will be made of metal and, possibly, heat-resistant glass, and will be safe so long as the barbecue doesn’t get hotter than the sun. If it’s a battery-operated thermometer of any description, then do not leave it poked into the meat as a) it will stop working, and b) the batteries may well explode! Not what you want during lunch.
If you don’t have a thermometer to hand, you can still cook your meat and test it fairly accurately by one of several methods. The first is the "hot juice" technique. This involves poking a thin sharp knife, or a metal skewer, into the thickest part of the meat. The juices for red meat will run out red when cooked rare, through to pink juices when cooked more medium. If no juices run out, you’ve incinerated the meat and it’ll be dry and fairly tasteless. With poultry, you definitely want the juices to run out clear with no trace of pink. While it’s okay to eat a duck breast or quail breast pink (which I’ve written about previously), you certainly need to make sure chicken and turkey are cooked thoroughly, until the meat is fully cooked, especially when it comes to leg meat, either boneless or a cut such as a bone-in chicken thigh. Undercooked chicken has probably ruined more barbecue gatherings than mosquitoes, as a bad tummy isn’t pleasant.
For poultry, if you’re not entirely certain, take the bird off the barbecue and cut into it on a clean chopping board at the thickest part to make certain it’s cooked. If it needs more cooking, make sure to wipe down your board once it’s back on the heat. A butterflied whole chicken will cook more successfully on the barbecue than a whole bird as the heat needs to get around and inside the bird evenly to cook it evenly. In an oven this is what happens, but on many barbecues the heat on top of the food will be less than on the underside — unless the fold-down cover is insulated and draught-free. A thinner piece of meat (whether it be a butterflied leg of lamb vs a whole leg, or a bird) will cook more evenly and quicker. The trick to cooking thick chunks of food on the barbecue is not to cook them over too high a heat as they will simply burn on the outside, and because you’ll likely take it off if that is the case, you risk them being uncooked in the middle.
For red meats, you can obviously cook them anywhere from blue to well done. The "fleshy hand" technique is you guide here. If you’re right handed, then hold your left hand out flat. Poke your right index finger into the area between your left thumb and forefinger and you’ll find it’s a little squishy. When meat feels like this, then it is going to be rare in the middle. The flesh in the area 2cm above your wrist, 3cm from the base of your thumb, is what medium rare feels like — slightly firmer. For medium, try 1cm from the base of your thumb and, if you poke the barbecue itself —then that’s showing you what well-done feels like!
The "metal skewer heat" technique is the final, non-thermometer way to tell. Poke a skewer into the thickest part of the meat and leave it there for 5 seconds. Take it out and gently rest it just above your upper lip, beneath your nose. The tip of the skewer represents the centre of the meat you just poked and if it is hot, you’ll have medium-to-well-done meat. If it’s cold it’ll be raw in the middle. Warm and it’ll be medium. If you’re testing poultry this way, only do it if the juices run out clear — you don’t want to be dribbling uncooked poultry juices on your lip for obvious reasons!
And lastly, make sure you rest the meat for at least 10 minutes before serving it — or you run the risk of all the juices coming out when people cut into it. Having said that, a sausage won’t mind being eaten straight away!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.