Newbie and seasoned cooks alike can be stumped by the same question: Is the chicken done? More so than any other meat, we live in fear of consuming undercooked chicken. To find out how afraid (or not!) we should really be, we talked with Marianne H. Gravely, a Senior Technical Information Specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As it turns out, yes, it's good to be cautious — but there is one easy way to know for sure whether your chicken has reached the right temperature.
The reason meat needs to be cooked to a certain internal temperature is so that pathogens like campylobacter or salmonella can be destroyed. Pathogens can be introduced to raw meat in a number of ways, from processing all the way to bacteria found in your own kitchen or hands. Gravely explains that scientists at the USDA have found, based on their testing, that a safe internal temperature is 165 degrees F.
As to how to tell when your chicken has reached that temperature? There's really only one way: a meat thermometer. While there are lots of commonly accepted methods (like seeing when the juices run clear, or looking at the color of the meat), Gravely emphasizes that there has been no other reliable indicator found. In fact, a whole roast bird that has safely reached 165 degrees F may still show some pink color around the bones but is still safe to eat. If you want to cook it more, Gravely says, that's fine, but that's about taste preference and not food safety.
Though there is nothing inherently more dangerous about eating undercooked chicken than, say, beef or lamb, there is also a way to cook red meats to a medium doneness that still adheres to USDA standards. The USDA says that cuts of beef, pork, or lamb cooked to 145 degrees F (which would still have a pink but warm interior) and rested for three minutes are just as safe as meat cooked to 165 degrees F (which would be well-done all the way through). No such recommendations exist for chicken simply because we don't like eating undercooked chicken as much as red meat, and no one is clamoring for USDA recommendations for safely consuming medium-well chicken.
But before this news sends you running for the hills (or away from the meat aisle), a meat thermometer can be obtained cheaply (this one is only $10.49 on Amazon) and make you a better cook. After all, Gravely says, you won't have to continually cut the chicken open to test the doneness. A good meat thermometer will let you check multiple times without hacking into your dinner. Simply place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat without allowing it to touch bone, fat, or gristle. If it's not yet to 165 degrees F, put it back in the oven (or on the grill) for a bit. It will be worth the piece of mind — and may also save you from overcooking your chicken in order to avoid underdone meat as well.