Knowing the proper doneness temperatures when cooking chicken will ensure juicy results. But what if the meat or juices are pink, and it looks bloody? If you’re like many, the sight of anything but perfectly opaque meat with clear juices can make you cringe when chicken is on the menu.
Keep reading to find out what actually causes this the pink color in chicken and how to be sure your family’s chicken temperature is truly safe.
Chicken Doneness is a Temperature, Not a Color
Chicken meat cooks to a creamy-white color—unlike the more robust hues of cooked beef, pork, or lamb. This white color provides a much starker contrast to the occasional pink tones that can naturally occur in any meat.
Dr. O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D. of the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management says, “If consumers were taught to eat safely prepared, bloody chicken, as they want to do with beef, they would be able to enjoy juicier chicken.” The trick is to learn how to prepare safe-to-eat chicken and get over our fear of a little blood in our birds.
So, how do you know for sure if your chicken is safe to eat? One word: temperature.
Overcorrecting with Overcooking
Perhaps one reason society accepts red and pink hues in steaks is that beef can be safely cooked to varying degrees of doneness. Chicken, on the other hand, is either safe to eat or it’s not. There is no such thing as medium-rare chicken. Nevertheless, too many cooks overcook their chicken temperature for fear of undercooking it. Overcooked chicken is just like overcooked beef: dry, tough, and less flavorful than properly-cooked meat
Regardless of the type of meat being cooked, the higher the doneness temperature, the more juices will be lost and the less tender the results will be. Properly gauging the internal temperature of chicken is the only way to guarantee safe and juicy results every single time.
Internal Temperatures for Doneness and Eating Quality of Chicken
What is so magical about 165°F (74°C)? At 165°F (74°C) all foodborne bacteria instantly die This instant death for foodborne pathogens is recommended for poultry because even the most stubborn salmonella bacteria will be completely pasteurized at this temperature. Even if a slow, low-accuracy dial thermometer is off by as much as 10°F (6°C), a final cooked temperature of 155°F (68°C) in chicken will only need to stay at that temperature for just under 60 seconds in order for the meat to be safe. (Does that sound like it goes against everything you’ve ever learned about chicken safety? If so, you might need to read our complete guide to chicken temps to brush up on the nuances of bacterial kill times.)
➤ 170°F and Higher for Dark Meat
Leg and thigh meat is still safe at 165°F, but it is recommended to cook it to an internal temperature of about 170-175°F (77-79°C). The chicken’s legs are actively worked muscles, and the meat is tougher because of it.
The leg pictured to the right was cooked to the recommended range of 170-175°F (77-79°C) (as verified with a Thermapen® ONE). Leg meat needs to be cooked to higher temperatures than the leaner and more delicate breast meat because it contains more connective tissue that needs time at high temps to dissolve properly. This higher temperature will ensure that the dark meat becomes tender and juicy. Even at this higher temperature, the meat still appeared quite pink.
Common Myth: “Chicken is Done When the Juices Run Clear”
One common but inaccurate method of verifying the doneness of chicken is to cut into the meat and watch to be sure all of the juices are running clear. When probing chicken over the grill or in the oven, we sometimes look for anything pink in the meat as a clear indication that its not yet properly cooked. The fact of the matter is that depending upon where you probe your chicken, the color of the meat or juices may never be free of pink, red, or even purple tones.
So why does chicken so often appear undercooked?
Why Cooked Chicken Can Still Be Pink
Reason 1: Young Chickens
The chickens available at grocery stores that we purchase are usually between 6 and 8 weeks of age. These young chickens aren’t yet fully mature, and their bones are porous rather than completely calcified. The bone marrow inside of chicken bones is purplish and can often permeate through soft, porous chicken bones (pictured at right).
The liquid contained in the mass of a chicken expands during freezing, including the bone marrow. The dark marrow can push through the bone’s surface as it expands. The bones and meat adjacent to them become stained, and will remain a deep red/purple color regardless of the final internal temperature of cooked chicken.
Reason 2: Myoglobin
Myoglobin is another culprit for the purple and red colors found in poultry. It is a richly pigmented protein that delivers oxygen to cells to muscle fibers. The more active an animal is, the more oxygen is contained in their muscle, giving it a darker color.
Chickens are flightless birds, so the breast meat is never heavily oxygenated. Low levels of myoglobin are why chicken breasts have such delicate white flesh. The heavily worked legs have darker meat because of higher levels of myoglobin.
While chicken is packaged and readied for purchase in a grocery store, myoglobin can tend to pool in the meat fibers.
Reason 3: pH Levels
The acidity of the meat can affect its color, too. The higher the pH level (lower acidity), the pinker the meat will be. This is why some chefs use an acidic marinade with citrus or vinegar to help reduce pink colors in chicken meat. But marinades will do little to protect against tinges of pink from marrow and myoglobin.
Eat Pink Chicken Confidently
Now that you know why your chicken can sometimes be pink, it’s time to eat chicken more confidently. Most importantly, stop overcooking your chicken!
Armed with an accurate thermometer like the Thermapen, you can verify the safety and quality of your chicken—regardless of its color. A probe inserted into the thermal center of a chicken breast, leg, or thigh should read 165°F (74°C) when it’s time to eat.
(Thanks to AmazingRibs.com for the inspiration for this article.)
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Dr. Kyle Anderson says
While most of this article is good there are many thermophilic bacteria that can withstand temperatures at or above 165F (even as high as 220F), but NONE of these bacteria are known to cause disease, nor would they ever be found on a chicken or in a kitchen.
How funny – I JUST had this happen tonight with some HUGE bone-in breasts that I baked, but I knew I was good to eat it because I did check with my Thermapen and got a reading of 167!
Alan Bowman says
From Alan Bowman via Facebook: Interesting. As a competition judge, we are taught to automatically disqualify any entry that contains any trace of blood…and I’m OK with that.
Keiko Bakko says
Thanks for the data on Is bloody chicken an indication that it’s been undercooked? | ThermoWorks.com, it will likely be genuinely helpful.
john harper says
It’s funny how we will eat raw fish, or rare beef, but cringe at bloody chicken.
Thank you for the update. You changed my mind (but probably not my guests).
It’s an interesting topic for sure. Read through our post, Thermal Tips: Simple Roasted Chicken for more information on poultry pasteurization temps. Everyone should be able to prepare chicken without overcooking it “just to be safe.”
Thank you for your comment,
Ray Huffman says
My wife has been burning our food for 43 years. Dry and I nearly choke sometimes. I refused to buy chicken breasts because she always overcooked them so badly. I think she uses the smoke alarm as a timer. The Thermapen has me doing the cooking of all our meats and enjoying juicy and flavorful meats at home for the first time ever. Thanks for a great product and great advice!
So glad to hear the Thermapen has been so helpful in improving your family meals! Understanding how temperature affects food, and using professional temperature tools is really a game-changer. Hopefully this info will have you confidently preparing juicy chicken!
Thanks for your comment,
Alison Richards says
QUESTION: Does altitude affect the temperature for properly cooked chicken (or other meats)?
Great question! There is lower air pressure at higher altitude, and because of that water doesn’t have as much pressure to overcome in the boiling process. The most profound effects of high altitude are with boiling points and landmark temperatures for sugar cooking stages. Read through our article, High Altitude and Its Effects on Cooking. With all the havoc high altitude can wreak in the kitchen, it does not affect doneness temperatures with meat. No need to worry about adjusting temperatures there.
Thank you for your question!
So which temperature is it? First it said the magic number is 165 and all food born pathogens would be instantly killed, but then it said to cook the leg until 175.
There are two different major landmarks with cooking chicken and turkey: 165°F and 175°F. 165°F is the temperature the food should be cook to for food safety. The higher temperature for the legs is for eating quality purposes, not food safety. The legs are more actively worked muscles of the animal, the meat is tougher and contains connective tissues that need higher temperatures in order to properly dissolve. The leg meat is safe to eat at 165°F, but for tender and juicy leg meat it is recommended to cook it to higher temperatures.
Thank you for your comment,
Could bacteria such as salmonella continue to survive in the marrow of chicken cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F, and then leak out of the bones into the meat?
Great question! As long as the bones and marrow reach a safe pasteurization temperature, there isn’t any reason to worry about pathogens from the marrow leaching into the meat.
I looked around for some information on the level of pathogens contained in chicken bone marrow since most pathogens live on the surface of the skin and meat. According to this dissertation on the the level of salmonella in the carcass bone marrow and neck skin of a broiler chicken at the University of Georgia, salmonella prevalence in the bone marrow was only 0.8%, while the level in the neck skin was 21.4%.
The level of salmonella in the marrow is very negligible in comparison to the rest of the bird. As long as your temperatures are held at pasteurization levels for the appropriate amount of time, there isn’t any reason to worry about pathogens contaminating the meat from absorbed marrow.
Thank you for your question!