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. Apparently “chicken is cooked when the juices run clear”. Why can’t chicken be nice and simple to cook like a brisket? All you have to worry about with a brisket is getting a perfect smoke ring.
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?
The USDA certifies that “Scientific research indicates 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. Which 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, and it can be quite embarrassing when 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.
Why is There Pink Chicken Juices?
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.
In chicken, turkey & even pork, the pink meat and juice 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. This juice is different from the think, the dark red blood you find in the animal.
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.
Recommended Chicken Thigh Temperature
What about the recommended chicken thigh temperature? Or what about pink chicken drumsticks? Thighs and drumsticks generally have a higher level of myoglobin and require an even higher internal temperature to denature, this is usually around 175 – 185°F. These temperatures are well over the 165°F that is recommended by the USDA to kill all the harmful bacteria in chicken, this ends up in overcooked and touches chicken.
On the flip side, if the pH level is low in the piece of meat the myoglobin is denatured at a much lower cooking temperature. So you may start to see clear juices when the internal temperature of the meat is much lower (150 – 160°F) ad this is very unsafe to consume.
So what can cause different pH levels? There a few different factors that can play a part in this. Firstly it can be in the animal’s genes. Secondly, pH levels can fluctuate from bird to bird depending on the pre-slaughter stress levels of the bird. Stress can occur during transporting, holding and unloading of the bird. The climate can also have an effect on the bird’s pH levels.
So that is why you should not be too concerned about serving up a bird with pink juices at your next bbq. However, do make sure that you have an internal temperature of 165°F before serving. That way you can be sure that you are not serving up uncooked chicken to your guests.
What Are The Purple Chicken Bones?
Photo credit: Epicurious
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 and 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.
Are Chicken Livers Safe to Eat?
Just like the rest of the bird, chicken livers need to be cooked to 165°F for safe eating. In 2013 the CDC (Center for Disease Control) reported outbreaks of Campylobacter jejuni, this is a bacteria found in undercooked chicken livers. The report goes on to say “These outbreaks should not come as a surprise, given that previous studies have shown that 77% of retail chicken livers are contaminated with Campylobacter and that, when contamination is present, it is usually in internal tissues, as well as on the surface.”
Interestingly enough the report continues to say “In this investigation, the livers were found to be intentionally cooked lightly to maintain a desired texture and taste. This practice might be common, particularly when preparing chicken livers for use in a mousse or pâté. A popular recipe for this dish instructs readers to cook “until the livers are just stiffened, but still rosy inside“.
So the lesson here is if you are eating chicken livers please do not follow the chicken liver recipe books and lightly cook your chicken livers. Make sure you have thoroughly cooked your livers so they are at a safe eating temperature of 165°F to remove the risk of Campylobacter Jejuni.
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.
Final 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.