Millions of turkeys come with these little devices already built-in. What could be easier? Keep an eye on the embedded doneness gadget, and you’ll know the turkey is safe to eat. Once the little red indicator pops up you’re guaranteed to serve the perfect turkey…right? Wrong. Once you understand how pop-up turkey timers work, it’s easy to see why they’re the culprit of so many Thanksgiving dinner fails.
The pop-up timer was developed in the 1960s when home cooks would prepare Thanksgiving turkeys from time and temperature charts based on the weight of the bird (food thermometers were not widely used by home cooks). Almost everyone was used to eating overcooked birds at the time, and the easy and inexpensive pop-up timer seemed like a foolproof method for even the least experienced cook to achieve a beautiful holiday bird.
Anatomy of a Pop-up Turkey Timer
A quick look inside the pop-up thermometer reveals, however, its unreliability. Inside the housing is a spring-loaded plastic pop-up shaft held in place with a small amount of a soft metal alloy. Once this alloy melts, the spring is released popping the shaft up. The idea is that the metal alloy should melt and release the spring at roughly the same temperature that is required for food-safe turkey.
➤ But there are two major pitfalls with relying on this device:
- The metal alloys used in pop-up timers perform inconsistently in testing, leading to unsatisfactory or even unsafe results
- The shallow depth of the timer’s placement doesn’t give you any information about the thermal center of the turkey meat
1. Inconsistent Melting Temp
The metal alloys in pop-up timers melt at different temperatures under testing, but almost never at the USDA’s recommended poultry food safety doneness temperature of 165°F (74°C). Some pop-up turkey timers have been observed to spring at temperatures as high as 185°F (85°C). At this high temperature, the meat’s protein fibers have tightened and shrunk to the point of squeezing out enough of its juices to render the breast meat dry and tough.
Pop-Up Turkey Timer Research Study
Consumer Reports performed tests with several pop-up timers and discovered that nearly all yielded unacceptable results. In their testing, 21 turkeys were cooked, and they tracked the temperature at which each turkey timer popped up. Most of the timers popped up at temperatures well above 165°F (74°C). But three of the timers indicated doneness below a food safe 165°F (74°C), including one that popped up at 139°F (59°C)!
A turkey pulled at 139°F (59°C) could potentially be a food safety risk for everyone at your Thanksgiving dinner.
…neither can you trust the pop up thermometer that comes inserted in the bird. The plunger that pops up is anchored in metal that is supposed to melt at a set temp, often at 185°F [85°C]. At that temp a turkey breast is more particle board than party. —Meathead, AmazingRibs.com
2. Shallow Immersion Depth
A pop-up timer’s shallow depth does not allow for an accurate reading of the turkey’s thermal center. The thermal center is the point in the turkey meat furthest from its exterior that takes the longest to cook. The largest mass of the turkey is its breast meat, and the deepest part of the breast in its thickest area is the thermal center. The pop-up timer has a very limited immersion depth (and that depth even varies with different timer manufacturers. There isn’t a consistent standard) and does not sense the correct area within the meat.
Your meat is only as done and safe as the lowest temperature found, and tracking your turkey’s internal temperature with an unreliable device leaves too many variables to chance, risking food safety.
➤ Turkey Tip: If your Thanksgiving turkey has a built-in pop-up thermometer, experts recommend that you leave it in and simply ignore it. Removing it may leave a hole where juices can escape.
The Bottom Line
There are many different methods to go about cooking your turkey this year, but accurate temperature tracking is a key element of the perfect cook regardless of the method. Ignore the pop-up and trust your thermometers.
For detailed step-by-step information on how to cook your Thanksgiving turkey this year, check out our series, Turkey: 5 Things You Need to Know.
Trust a Meat Thermometer Over a Pop-up Timer for Your Turkey, Consumer Reports