The number of dinners in America that include chicken is astonishing. From freezer meals to BBQ chicken to fried cutlets, from restaurant chefs to college-dorm cooks, chicken is truly one of America’s favorite meats.
And yet chicken is too often woefully overcooked. Fearful of contracting a food-borne illness from undercooked poultry, many Americans roast, fry, bake, or grill their chicken until it is dry, tough, and rubbery. Overcooked chicken doesn’t “taste like chicken” anymore, it tastes more like chalk.
Why is that? Read on to learn!
Cooked chicken temps: safety concerns
All poultry, chicken included, have Salmonella bacteria endemic to their bodies—meaning that every single chicken has some Salmonella in it. The truth is that the chance that there is Salmonella in the particular portion of raw chicken you are preparing to cook is extremely high.
Of course, you needn’t necessarily freak out about that, because Salmonella, just like other harmful bacteria, can easily be killed by cooking food to a high enough temperature.
The USDA publishes critical food safety temperatures for all foods, including chicken, that reflect the heat needed to kill the bacteria commonly associated with those foods. And most people know that the recommended doneness temperature for food-safe chicken is 165°F (74°C).
The mistake most people make is not bothering to check the actual temperature of their chicken! Instead, they rely on physical indicators of doneness from a pre-technological era. Many people will check their chicken’s doneness by checking to see if it is firm when pressed, if it is no longer pink inside, or if the juices run clear when the chicken is cut.
But those methods are seriously flawed! By the time chicken is “firm,” the proteins in the meat will have squeezed out much of their water, making the chicken dry. (As the proteins in the chicken breast denature and curl up, and, if they cook far enough, they squeeze out the water molecules that cling to them.) The color of meat is also a bad indicator of doneness because pinkness can be caused by non-temperature related factors, such as pH. As for cutting the meat to see how the juices run, I suppose it could be a good doneness indicator if you want to eat chicken that has had its juices literally drained out of it before it reaches your plate.
Below we’ll cover three thermal paths to getting better chicken.
Beginner solution: check the chicken temp
The first—and most basic—solution to under- or over-cooked chicken is to use a thermometer when you cook your chicken! (A Thermapen® Mk4 is ideal for this task, as you’ll see shortly.) Yes, your grandmother checked it with her thumb, but she learned to cook before computers were invented! Now we have fast, accurate thermometers that can give us far more information about our meat’s doneness than a tactile push could.
To use a thermometer correctly in temping chicken, you’ll need a thermometer that is fast enough to show the differences in thermal gradients in the chicken.
It goes without saying that a chicken breast cooks from the outside in. As the outermost layer of molecules heats up, they share their heat with the next layer, and those with the next, so on down to the coldest spot in the chicken breast, the thermal center. Those differences in temperature make up the thermal gradients.
To take the temperature of your chicken, push the tip of your thermometer’s probe through the thickest part of the meat and pull it slowly up through the meat. Watch the display for the lowest number that it reads: that is the doneness of your chicken. That’s why you need a fast thermometer, to read the gradients as you move the probe through the meat.
By checking actually using a thermometer you can nail your target temperature without going over. Better chicken is within reach…
Is 165°F really key? Bacterial death is dependent on temperature and time
Ok, so most people know about 165°F (74°C), but what most people don’t know is that food safety (bacterial die-off) is a function of both temperature and time. You can achieve the exact same bacterial death by holding your chicken at lower temperatures for longer times with the exact same assurance of safety.
The USDA provides guidelines for industry on food safety and uses pasteurization tables to indicate how long it takes to kill enough bacteria at a given temperature. Below you can see one such table for medium-lean chicken.
Chicken Safe Temperature Chart
|Temperature||Time to achieve bacterial death
(in lean white meat)
|145°F (62.8°C)||9.8 minutes|
|146°F (63.3°C)||7.9 minutes|
|147°F (63.9°C)||6.3 minutes|
|148°F (64.4°C)||5 minutes|
|149°F (65°C)||3.9 minutes|
|150°F (65.6°C)||3 minutes|
|151°F (66.1°C)||2.2 minutes|
|152°F (66.7°C)||1.7 minutes|
|153°F (67.2°C)||1.3 minutes|
|154°F (67.8°C)||1 minute|
|155°F (68.3°C)||49.5 seconds|
|156°F (68.9°C)||39.2 seconds|
|157°F (69.4°C)||31 seconds|
|158°F (70°C)||24.5 seconds|
|159°F (70.6°C)||19.4 seconds|
|160°F (71.1°C)||15.3 seconds|
|161°F (71.7°C)||12.1 seconds|
|162°F (72.2°C)||9.6 seconds|
(This chart is based on guidelines from the USDA for food manufacturers. You can read the whole article and get expanded charts in PDF version of the document below.)
Intermediate solution to dry chicken: cook to 157°F and HOLD it
If you want even better chicken than you get from temping your chicken to 165°F (74°C), use the pasteurization tables to pick a lower temperature to cook to, and hold your chicken at that temperature for the appropriate amount of time.
(Note: the pasteurization tables vary depending on the fat content of the meat, though they don’t differ much across the fat percentages. Breast meat is very lean, while thigh meat is much fattier. Use the tables accordingly.)
With this method, you would pick a temperature from the chart, verify that the chicken has reached that temperature as you we discussed above, and hold it at that temperature for the appropriate time interval. I really like 157°F (69.4°C) for my chicken, so I’d hold it at that temperature for 31 seconds.
You can use the min/max function on your ChefAlarm® to monitor the temperature and make sure it doesn’t dip during your holding time. In the above image, the min temp is 40°F. By pressing and holding the CLEAR button for a few seconds, the min/max will be reset to the current temperature. You can hist start on the timer and watch it for 31 seconds. You can then check the min temp to see if it dipped below 157°F (69.4°C).
Advanced thermal thinking: carryover cooking in chicken
If you’re concerned about holding it at 157°F (69.4°C) for 31 seconds, you certainly needn’t be: carryover cooking will make sure your meat is safe!
Most people don’t realize that when you take a chicken breast off of the heat, the residual heat in the outermost layers of the chicken will cause the internal temperature to keep rising, creating a temperature equilibrium in the whole piece.
This is advanced thermal thinking because it requires more judgment—it entails a dynamic target with two variables: the temperature of the cooking environment and the mass of the meat being cooked.
Meat cooked in a hotter environment will have more carryover because there will be more thermal energy in the outer layers that will be pumped into the center. Hotter cooking means more carryover cooking: chicken cooked in a smoker at 250°F (121°C) will have much less carryover than a spatchcocked chicken roasted at 425°F (218°C).
A large piece of chicken, say a whole bird, will have a lot more thermal mass that can move heat into the center, meaning the internal temperature will rise more than on a small piece of chicken. A breast experiences less carryover than a whole bird does, and a wing even less.
What that means for you is that you might set an even lower doneness temperature on your ChefAlarm when you roast a whole chicken than you would if you were just baking some breasts. As you get used to monitoring temperatures, you will gain a sense for how carryover works in various situations and be able to set your alarms better to get exactly the results you want.
Dark-meat chicken temps: 175°F (79.4°C)
Everything we’ve discussed up to this point is focused on cooking chicken breasts. Dark meat is a whole other kettle of fish. While dark meat does need to be cooked to a safe temperature, it must actually be cooked to a higher temperature to be enjoyable. Dark meat has much more connective tissue in it, and that tissue needs to be broken down to make it tender. If you don’t like dark meat because of its gummy, rubbery texture, then you aren’t cooking your dark meat hot enough! For the connective tissues to break down, dark meat must be cooked to at least 170°F (76.7°C), but it is even better if cooked to 175°F (79.4°C).
But won’t that dry the meat out, like in the breast? No. As the connective tissues break down, they actually release water into the meat, replacing the moisture lost in the initial protein-squeeze. In fact, chicken thighs can achieve a consistency much like pulled pork if cooked just right!
Recap: temp your chicken!
Most people overcook chicken because they use physical artifacts to cook it, instead of actually measuring its temperature. The only way to know how well your chicken is cooked is to use a thermometer, preferably one that is fast (so you know what’s happening now) and accurate (so you know you’re not being lied to by your thermometer).
Though the USDA names 165°F (74°C) as the doneness temperature for chicken, cooking it to a lower temperature and holding it at that temperature for an appropriate time will result in juicier, tastier chicken. Add to ensure safety when cooking to those lower temperatures, track your chicken’s carryover cooking.
And now that you know how chicken temperatures work, take a look at some of our other posts on chicken:
- Sheet pan chicken
- Baked chicken breast
- Delicious fried chicken
- BBQ chicken thighs
- Butterflied whole grilled chicken
And if you want to know more about the difference between the ChefAlarm and the Thermapen Mk4, you can read up on which thermometer to use.
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