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 is truly safe.
Food Safety 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 is more accepting of 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 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 meats, including 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 are destroyed instantly. 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 the 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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