Nothing conjures up fears about food safety and food poisoning faster than the sight of undercooked and bloody chicken, and with good reason.
Salmonella, the principle fear of people dealing with undercooked chicken, is no joke. The bacteria, commonly associated with chicken because of its presence in raw poultry and eggs, can cause severe gastroenteritis and even typhoid fever.
Because of the risk, the FDA Food Code recommends cooking chicken to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. While this will kill off the Salmonella, which can survive temperatures of up to 117°F, it does tend to result in dry and unpleasant chicken.
But there is another way! Read on, and we’ll show you how to cook juicy, delectable chicken without the risk of stomach flu.
What are the risks of eating undercooked chicken?
As we mentioned, raw poultry can harbor a number of nasty bacteria, including Campylobacter, E. coli, Clostridium perfringens, and the slightly more infamous Salmonella. The CDC estimates that around one million Americans every year get sick from exposure to these bacteria through contact with raw or improperly cooked poultry.
Each of these bacteria can cause food poisoning, which can result in high fever, vomiting, dehydration, and diarrhea. These symptoms are bad enough for a healthy adult, but they can be dangerous to the very young, old, and already infirm.
To avoid the risk of food poisoning, the FDA recommends that all poultry be cooked to a minimum internal of 165°F.
FDA recommendations: Why 165°F?
The reason that the FDA recommends that you bring your chicken internal temperature up to 165°F is that this results in a 7-log10 reduction or the reduction in the number of living microorganisms by 10000000-fold.
At this temperature, even the most stubborn strain of Salmonella will be killed off. It is also recommended that dark meat should be brought up to 170-175°F because of the higher amount of connective tissue and the greater density of the more actively worked leg muscles.
The key fact to take away from this is that the chicken internal temperature, not the look of the chicken, is the most important factor. Many people incorrectly assume that even the slightest blush in chicken meat means it is undercooked and dangerous.
So, ditch your visual checks and old wives’ tales, there is only one accurate method to know if your chicken is cooked correctly.
How to know when chicken is cooked
If you want to know if your chicken is properly cooked, get yourself a reliable instant-read meat thermometer. The internal temperature of the chicken, not the color of the meat or the clarity of the juices, is what you set your standard by.
Pasteurization of meat is a function of temperature and time and occurs on a microscopic level, so your eyes are not the right tool for this job.
Additionally, there are plenty of reasons why chicken meat, and its juices, might be a little pink and still be perfectly safe to eat.
If your preferred cooking method is grilling, we also have a whole blog post explaining appropriate grilling times for chicken.
The age of the chicken
Most chicken that you buy from your local supermarket comes from pullets, which are chicken less than a year old. Most are between 6 and 8 weeks of age.
One of the reasons you might see some pink or purplish color in the meat is that the bone marrow of these chickens, which is naturally a purple color, can seep through the still porous bones of these young chickens. This is particularly common with frozen chickens as the freezing process causes the marrow to expand.
The presence of myoglobin
The presence of a red liquid in cooked meat is often misinterpreted as blood.
With beef, this liquid is often discounted as beef can be safe to eat at a variety of temperatures. With chicken, the presence of what looks like blood is often more concerning.
The reality is that, unless something has gone drastically wrong in the cooking process, that red liquid is probably a pigmented protein called myoglobin. Myoglobin is used to deliver oxygen to the muscles and is the reason that the more heavily used leg muscles of the chicken are a darker color.
When a packaged chicken has sat for a while on a supermarket shelf, myoglobin can pool in the lower extremities and can be mistaken for blood. If the liquid you are seeing is thin, pinkish, and not obviously clotted, it’s probably just perfectly safe myoglobin.
The chicken’s PH level
Depending on the type of chicken and the method used to store it, the meat you’re eating might be a little less acidic than other birds. This can result in a pH level, which can turn the meat a little pink.
Again, this is nothing to be worried about. If your thermometer reads 165°F (170-175°F for dark meat), then a slight blush to the meat doesn’t indicate that it’s unsafe.
Overall, a misunderstanding of why chicken needs to be brought up to temperature, a reliance on outdated ways of assessing the “doneness” of the meat, and overblown fears about the color of the meat have led to people overcompensating and overcooking their chicken into a dry, tasteless mess.
The good news is that there are a couple of ways you can cook chicken safely without compromising on its flavor or texture.
Tips for perfectly cooked chicken
Here are a couple of easy to use tips to help you get the best out of your chicken.
Don’t wash your chicken
We first covered this in our safety tips for thawing a turkey, but there really is no benefit to washing your chicken. The bacteria on the surface of the chicken are not going to be killed by a brief splash of room temperature water, and there is a good chance you will simply be transferring bacteria to your clothes, hands, sink, and worksurfaces.
Use a dry brine
Dry brining your chicken will both increase the flavor by permeating the seasoning through the meat, denaturing the proteins in the meat to keep it juicy, and creating a saline environment that inhibits the spread of bacteria.
For a full rundown of how to dry brine your bird, you can check out our dry brining guide.
Spatchcock your chicken
One of the common issues with cooking a whole chicken is that different parts of the bird cook at different temperatures because of variations in thickness. This can often result in areas that are under, or more commonly, overcooked.
Spatchcocking, also known as butterflying, solves that problem by removing the backbone of the chicken and laying the carcass flat. The flat carcass then cooks in a more consistent manner, reducing the chances of your under or overcooking your meat.
For a full guide on how to spatchcock a chicken, and how to cook it in a smoker, check out our spatchcocking guide.
Use a meat thermometer
We’ve mentioned this a few times already, but it bears repeating. The best way to ensure chicken, or really any kind of meat, reaches the correct level of doneness is to use a good instant-read thermometer.
As we addressed in our food myths article, a lot of the “traditional” ways of testing the doneness of food using sight or touch checks are wildly inaccurate.
The best possible way of ensuring your food has reached a safe temperature is to use a meat thermometer.
You can cook thighs more than breast
While almost everyone agrees that chicken breast is done at 165°F, you might not know that chicken thighs will still taste good up to 175°F.
This is because the higher fat content keeps the thighs moist, and they can actually taste undercooked if you’re not careful.
Allow for some carryover cooking while resting
Removing your chicken from the oven doesn’t magically stop it from cooking. Remember, if you are going to rest your chicken, it will continue to cook while it is fresh out of the oven. With steak, this can result in a 5°F climb in temperature over the course of a few minutes and you can expect the same from your chicken.
If you are planning to rest your bird cook it to 160°F and let the carryover bring it up to the last 5°F instead of overcooking it.
Can you ever cook chicken at lower temperatures?
One of the most common issues encountered when cooking a chicken is that the more delicate breast meat starts to dry out at around 150°F while the leg meat is still 20°F below the recommended minimum safe chicken internal temperature and will still be tough because the plentiful connective tissue hasn’t got hot enough to render down into collagen yet.
The good news is that food scientist and all-around chicken wizard Kenji López-Alt has come up with a way to have your chicken (reach a safe temperature) and eat it too.
As it turns out, pasteurization is a function of temperature and time, so you can get a similar 7-log10 reduction by keeping your chicken at 145°F for at least 8.5 minutes, as by getting the meat to reach 165°F.
By keeping the meat at 145°F, you can keep your breast meat “Pale, pale pink but completely opaque; very juicy, a little soft,”, as opposed to a state where “Muscle fibers in breast meat have become almost completely squeezed dry. Meat is dry and chalky,” when it rises over 150°F.J. Kenji López-Alt – The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
Here are the steps to Kenji’s perfect simple roast chicken method.
- Preheat your oven to 260°C.
- Place an approximately 3-1/2 to 4-pound whole chicken onto a cooling rack over a sheet pan lined with foil.
- Make sure you have removed the giblets and dried the skin with paper towels.
- Gently separate the skin from the meat and rub around 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or olive oil under and on the skin. The butter that is traditionally used with chicken contains about 18% water, which will stop the skin from getting crisp.
- Place the chicken in the oven, reduce the temperature to 177°C and cook for approximately 1 to 1-1/2 hours depending on the size of the bird. Towards the end of the cooking time, check the thickest part of the breast meat to ensure it has reached 145°F. By this time, the legs should have reached 170-175°F.
- Once the various parts of the chicken have reached the correct pull temperatures, take the chicken from the oven and place it in a warm room, uncovered for at least 15 minutes. The carryover will ensure the chicken holds an internal temperature of 145°F in the breast meat, giving you delicious, juicy, and, most importantly, safe chicken.
Trussing it all up
So, there you have it. Pink meat, red liquids, even chicken cooked at temperatures well below 165°F can be both safe and delicious as long as it is prepared using the proper method and with a good instant-read thermometer to accurately track the temperature.
Do you have a foolproof method for keeping chicken moist and juicy? Would you be happy to eat chicken cooked at 145°F? Let us know in the comments below.