There has been a saying going around for years now that has got the whole culinary (and the rest of the) world putting themselves in danger.
The danger of horribly overcooking your chicken, or in worst case scenarios, putting yourself or others in the hospital with a nasty case of food poisoning.
Apparently "chicken is cooked when the juices run clear". This statement can be very misleading. It has been printed in millions of cookbooks and you have heard it come out of every celebrity chefs mouth. However, this statement is not 100% correct. So what is the correct temp for chicken then?
In short chicken is cooked when the internal temperature is at 165°F. Its really that simple. However, lets break down exactly what and why this is.
What Is The Correct Temperature For Chicken?
The USDA certifies that “that foodborne pathogens and viruses, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and the avian influenza virus, are destroyed when poultry is cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. This means that your chicken is safe to eat when the meat has reached a temperature at which the harmful bacteria have been killed.
Depending on the piece of chicken you are cooking this does not necessarily mean that the juices inside of the chicken are going to be completely clear once it is at 165°F.
Chicken is not seen in the same light as a rare tender steak. It could be quite embarrassing if your cooking for a crowd and someone bites into their piece of chicken and screeches that they have pink meat, pink juices or they have a pink bone. It can put off a whole crowd from eating your delicious BBQ.
So why is it that you can have pink chicken even though you have cooked your chicken to the right temperature? Well, there are a couple of different explanations for this.
So, Is It Safe If There is Pink Chicken Juice?
In the past, the general rule of thumb for chicken and turkey has been that ‘safe to eat’ means when the juices run clear. This might have worked once upon a time, however, this has proven to have lead to either terribly overcooked meat, or a trip to the emergency room.
The pink meat and juice from chicken, turkey & pork, come from a protein called myoglobin. This protein is stored in the muscles of the meat and is usually mixed with water, thus creating the pink juice you find.
Once cooked the protein structure of myoglobin changes, this is through a process called denaturing. When the molecules are changed, they absorb light in a different way, this changes the colour of the meat and the juices. This is what causes your meat to lose its pink tint. So the question is, what temperature does myoglobin start to change colour?
That is where things start to get a little more tricky, there is no fixed temperature at which myoglobin starts to change colour. A few other factors come into play.
The acidity of each individual piece of meat plays a major factor in at which temperature the myoglobin starts to denature. When the meat has a high pH (low acidity) it takes a higher temperature to denature the myoglobin. This could be as high as 170 - 180°F in cuts such as the breast until you see the juices running clear.
What About Those Purple Chicken Bones?
The chicken in this photo was cooked to an overcooked temperature of 180°F. As you can see there is still pink or purple chicken bones showing.
So if this piece is cooked past the safe cooking temperature why is this? This is because these days there is such high demand for chicken that they are taken to slaughter at as little as 6 ½ weeks old. This is so young that the chicken has not yet developed fully and their bones are too porous.
Let's explain, bone marrow is purple or red, this is because that is where blood is made. As each bird ages more and more calcium is deposited around their bones hiding the bone marrow and covering the red/purple colour.
However, since demand is so high for chicken they are raised on feed that has growth additives.
This grows the chicken from an egg to 3 pounds in as little as 6 ½ weeks, when it is ‘ready’ to go to slaughter. This means no matter how much you cook your chicken past the safe 165°F if its bones where purple/pink at slaughter it will not change when cooked.
Why is My Chicken Meat Purple or Pink?
Where does purple / pink meat come from? Again there are a couple of explanations for this.
If the bones inside the bird are purple/ pink this can cause discolouration to the meat close to the bones, even if the meat is safely cooked through to 165°F.
The purple/ pink colour can also come from carbon monoxide or nitric oxide produced from the cooker you use. Both carbon monoxide & nitric oxide can be byproducts of a gas oven or grill, wooden grills and charcoal grills.
The purple/pink can be spread right through the meat, or it can be in a more distinctive ring. This ring is called a smoke ring.
Meat from younger birds can often be pink because of the thinner layer of skin that is more easily penetrated by gases. Older birds have a layer of fat below the skin which gives them an added layer of protection against these gases.
Nitrates and nitrites which are used as preservatives and are sometimes found naturally in water supplies and feeds can cause the meat to become purple/pink in colour.
Charlie Hot Tip
The best thing to do is to get a decent meat thermometer and always check the internal temperature of your meat. Always ensure that you don’t serve any chicken under 165°F and you can't go wrong.
I use a Pit Barrel Smoker, which comes with a built in thermometer, which I find is usually spot on with the temps
What Happens If You Eat Undercooked Chicken?
Chicken has some very nasty pathogens. These pathogens can be very dangerous and can cause some nasty side effect sfor us humans. Some of the pathogens that are found in chicken are:
Salmonella, Campylobacter, Enterococcus, Klebsiella, E. Coli and Staphylococcus Aureus
These pathogens can make us very sick. Here is what happens if you eat raw chicken, these symptoms are also possible if you eat slightly undercooked chicken.
Your body will come down with some or in first cases all of these symptoms. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, abdominal cramps and muscle pain.
Here is what to do if you eat undercooked chicken:
In most cases the 'food poisoning' will take care of itself. Usually you will be in quite a lot of discomfort for anywhere from 8 - 72 hours. This will include the above symptoms of stomach cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting and general nausea.
The best thing to do is to keep your fluid intake up to replace all the fluid that you will loose due to vomiting, diarrhoea and sweating. It is also very important to get as much rest as possible. Your body will be working overtime to get rid of the pathogens so don't make your body unnecessarily work itself more than it needs to.
If symptoms persist for longer than 72 hours it is very important that you seek medical attention. Antibiotics can be prescribed in the sort case to lessen symptoms. Antidiarrheal can also be prescribed to help.
Now at your next cookout, you will be armed with all this great information & the knowledge that you first need to check the internal temperature of the meat before serving.
If someone tells you your chicken is undercooked, please be sure to advise them that even tough the chicken or the bones may be pink, you have cooked the chicken to the right temperature!
One of my favourite ways to cook chicken is to smoke it, and to do this I use the charcoal snake method on my charcoal grill