When your alarm thermometer’s high alarm sounds, the breast meat is done and the turkey is ready to be pulled from the oven, right? Wrong. There’s still one more step. It’s important to verify that the lowest temperature in the turkey really has reached its target. Keep reading to find out why.
Track and Verify the Turkey’s Temperature
Before the thawed turkey goes into the oven, it’s mostly at one equal temperature from edge to edge. When placing your thermometer’s probe properly for temperature tracking during the cook, the probe’s sensor is likely very close to the thermal center of the breast meat. After cooking, temperature gradients exist (read more about temperature gradients in our post, Proper Probe Placement in Turkeys).
With the presence of temperature gradients, the only way to know if the reading on your Leave-in Probe Alarm Thermometer is the lowest temperature in the meat is to spot-check the internal temperature of your turkey with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen®.
A clock cannot tell you when food is cooked. Only a thermometer can do this. …Actual cooking time will vary depending on how well it is defrosted, whether or not you brined or injected, what temp your fridge is, if it sat at room temp for a while, how close your bird is to the gravy pan, how well your cooker holds a steady [temperature], the quality of your thermometers, airflow within the cooker, humidity in the cooker and the breast size of your bird. —Meathead Goldwyn, AmazingRibs.com
⚠️ How NOT to Verify Your Turkey’s Doneness
There are many who rely on these inaccurate methods of knowing when a turkey is done:
- Slicing the turkey and making sure that the juices run clear
- The juices may never be colorless or clear even when a safe doneness temperature is reached.
- Wiggling the legs
- The legs become loose in their joints when connective tissue has broken down, and that begins to happen most effectively in the range of 160-170°F (71-77°C). The breasts could be overcooked and completely dry by the time the legs wiggle freely.
- Waiting for the Pop-up Timer to pop up
- Turkey pop-up timers embedded by the manufacturer are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. Check out our post, Turkey Temperature: Don’t Rely on the Pop-Up Timer. If your turkey comes with a pop-up timer, leave it where it is and just ignore it (pulling it out will leave a hole for hot air to get in and help dry out the breast).
- Strictly following turkey cook time chart recommendations
- Because so many variables affect the length of a cook, charts and recipes with cook time recommendations are a very rough estimate, not a gauge of doneness at all.
Use a Thermometer
None of these methods can be used to accurately verify the doneness of your turkey. There are multiple factors contributing to how your turkey cooks such as oven temperature and oven accuracy, depth and size of the roasting pan, tenting with foil, convection vs. conventional ovens, whether the turkey is trussed, and where the turkey is positioned in the oven, just to name a few. Verifying the internal temperature is the only way to know your turkey is thoroughly cooked.
Forget about timing charts, checking for juices, or poking your meat with your finger. The only 100% reliable way to tell when your turkey is cooked is to use a thermometer like the instant-read Thermapen®. —The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt
We suggest the Thermapen Mk4 because its super-fast 2-3-second readings make it easy to spot-check multiple areas quickly. Verifying the bird’s internal temp within a matter of seconds means less time for the oven to lose heat.
As we’re passing the probe through the meat, it’s easy to see the temperature gradients from edge to edge with the constantly changing readings. The reading constantly changes because that’s what’s going on in the meat—so cool!
How to Verify Your Turkey’s Temperature
Here’s what to do:
➤ Remember, your turkey is only as done as the lowest internal temperatures you can find.
- Use an instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen.
- Plunge the probe deep into the breast meat from the top and then pull the probe tip slowly back through the turkey meat.
- Do this in at least two places in the breast and at least two places in the thigh.
- You’re looking for a lowest temperature reading of at least 157°F (69°C) in the breast meat (to allow for carryover cooking, more on this next week)…
- …and 175°F (79°C) or above in the thigh.
- If you encounter temperatures below 157°F (69°C) in the breast, return the turkey to the oven. If a lower temperature is found, replace the ChefAlarm’s probe to track the lowest temperature area and return the turkey to the oven to continue cooking until 157°F (69°C) is the lowest temperature found.
- The thigh meat will taste better at temperatures above 175°F (79°C) but is perfectly safe to eat above 165°F (74°C).
Why Spot-Check in Multiple Areas?
When tracking your turkey’s internal temperature with an alarm thermometer only one area is being monitored (or two if you’re using a dual-channel thermometer like Smoke™). So why is it so important to check multiple areas in the bird with an instant-read thermometer?
Many different temperatures exist in an oven at any given time (see the illustration below). These different temperature areas will transfer heat at different rates—especially since a whole turkey isn’t a uniform piece of meat.
Only spot-checking one breast and one thigh isn’t sufficient because the temperatures in the other breast will not be exactly the same. Probe each thigh and breast in at least two areas to be sure you have found the lowest temperature in your turkey.
Carryover Cooking in Turkeys
Pulling your turkey from the oven is actually NOT the last step before carving and serving. Resting your turkey is. At ThermoWorks we recommend a 30-minute rest. The fact is that the muscle fibers and internal temperatures are still changing during the rest. Resting your turkey is a critical part of preparing your turkey to be succulent, moist, and delicious. You won’t want to skip this part in finishing your Thanksgiving masterpiece.
Why Rest? 2 Reasons:
1. Carryover Cooking
The higher temperatures that exist on the outside of the turkey will continue moving toward the lower temperature center area of the meat even after you take your turkey out of the oven. For about 30 minutes after being pulled from the heat source, the heat from the outer portion of the meat will increase the turkey’s internal temperature.
The best chefs understand this principle and plan accordingly by removing large cuts of meat, like turkeys, 5-15°F (3-8°C) before their target temperature to allow the muscle fibers time to rest.
This rise in temperature after food has been removed from its heat source is known as Carryover Cooking. The exact amount of carryover cooking your turkey experiences will depend on how big it is and how hot your oven is.
☼ Temperature Equilibration
During the rest, heat transfer toward the center of the turkey will slow, and eventually stop. The internal temperature will reach its maximum, and the entire turkey will begin to cool. We call this evening of temperatures during a rest “equilibration.”
2. Redistribution of Expelled Juices
Another reason to rest your turkey is so it has a chance to reabsorb its juices. While exposed to the intense heat of an oven, smoker or fryer, turkey meat’s protein fibers shorten, shrink, and contract, expelling out the water they’ve retained. During the rest, these protein fibers have a chance to relax and reabsorb some of the juices that are lost. A turkey carved and served without resting will spill more of its juices onto the cutting board and not be as moist.
How to Track Carryover Cooking During the Rest
- Once you have verified that your turkey has reached its pull temperature of 157°F (69°C), remove the turkey from the oven.
- Leave the Pro Series® high temp cooking probe in place, and the ChefAlarm will record the maximum temperature reached by the internal meat of the turkey during the rest.
- Set your ChefAlarm’s timer for 30 minutes, and allow your turkey to rest at room temperature.
- Check the ChefAlarm’s Max temperature reading to see what your turkey’s final resting temperature was. Even if your turkey didn’t reach 165°F (74°C), it only needs to be held for 25.6 seconds at 160°F (71°C) to reach the same level of food safety (a 7-log reduction in pathogens as defined by the USDA).
*See the USDA’s Poultry Pasteurization Table for more information on turkey pull temperatures and holding times.
☼ To Tent or Not to Tent?
Should the turkey be covered or uncovered during the rest? The reason why most people often cover their turkey with aluminum foil while it rests is to help it retain its heat. The problem is that condensation collects beneath the foil and the turkey skin can become soggy.
If you want your turkey skin to stay crispy, keep the turkey uncovered during the rest. If you need to hold the turkey for longer than half an hour before serving, keep it warm in an oven set to 150°F (66°C). Leave your ChefAlarm probe in place and track the Max temp as carryover cooking will still occur.
➤ The intensity of carryover cooking seen in your turkey depends on 2 things:
- Size of the Turkey. The larger the turkey, the more carryover cooking you can expect. We found that a 10 lb. bird cooked at 325°F (163°C) experiences very little temperature increase while resting, while a 23 lb. bird rose almost 10°F (5°C) at its thermal center.
- Cooking Temperature. The higher the cooking temperature, the greater the internal temperature increase during the rest. A turkey smoked at 250°F (121°C) may only see a 2°F (1°C) temperature increase, depending upon its size, while a spatchcocked turkey oven-roasted at 425°F (218°C) may see a 15°F (8°C) rise in temperature. A 20 lb. turkey cooked at 325°F (163°C) should see about an 8°F (4°C) increase at its thermal center.
Once the 30-minute rest is done, it’s finally time to carve and serve your Thanksgiving turkey!
The texture, juiciness, and food safety of your turkey are a direct result of careful temperature control throughout the entire process, from thawing to resting. Follow our thermal tips from start to finish, and this year’s Thanksgiving turkey just may be your best ever.
Learn more about turkey…
Master the critical turkey temperatures and be your family’s Thanksgiving hero this year!