For Great Chicken, You Have To Know When It's Done - Don't You?
You've all seen those directions in your roast chicken recipes: "Roast until Done." Gee, thanks for all the help. The same directions can be found in recipes for grilled chicken, sauteed, pan fried or any other way there is to cook this favorite bird.
Intuitively, we know what "done" looks like - the meat should be white all the way through, not pink. It should also be completely opaque, no translucent spots. And pink or bloody liquid is a no no. The juices should always run clear.
That's all well and good, and important, too, especially with salmonella's being such a problem when it comes to poultry. But how can we tell for sure when the meat is done all the way through to the bone and not overcooked? The skin can be golden brown and the chicken can smell great, but it might not be done in the center or it may be completely overcooked and dried out.
For starters, and most importantly, it is almost impossible to go by stated cooking times in recipes. Start looking at those times as estimates and estimates only. There are so many different variables at play when it comes to timing recipes; the size and make of the oven, whether or not it's a convection oven, did you preheat the oven and the precise size of your chicken and its temperature when you put it in the oven in the first place.
If you pull a chicken out of the refrigerator and it's 40ºF, common sense tells you it will take longer to cook than a chicken that's sat out for 30 minutes and reaches a standing temperature of 60ºF. For these reasons, "350º F for 45 minutes" is not very helpful.
Besides all the variables just mentioned, most of us are so afraid to undercook food that we tend to let it cook longer forgetting that all meats and poultry need to rest to redistribute the juices and while it is resting, it is continuing to cook.
At best, consider "time and temperature" a ball park estimate. Set the oven to 350º F, but start checking the internal temperature at 35 minutes, realizing it could take well over an hour. Forget the notion that the time and temperature estimations for doneness is the holy grail.
Sure it's much easier to cook this way, but also a great way to get over or under cooked chicken.
Remember - Time & Temperature is just an estimation
Whether you poach, grill, saute or roast your chicken, you need to find a reliable measure of doneness. Cooking a bird for several hours "just to be on the safe side" is just as bad as serving undercooked meat. It might be even worse. You can always cook the chicken more, but there is no way to uncook it.
Popular Suggestions That Don't Work
Many cooking resources advise that you cut into the leg to see if juices run clear. There are a couple of problems with this method. For one, and rather obviously, not everyone cooks whole chicken, and often we cook boneless cuts.
Another issue is that when juice runs out of the chicken, as it most certainly will when you slice it open, you end up with dry chicken. So, even if you haven't overcooked the bird, it might still taste overcooked just because it is drier than it should be.
Other cooking resources advise you to jiggle or tug on the leg to see if the bone feels loose in the socket. I don't think much of this method, especially since it's the way I test for doneness when I'm slow cooking a rack of baby back ribs.
Yes, the meat will be done when the bone is loose in the leg socket, but most likely it will be overdone, as the looseness is a sign that the connective tissue that holds the bone in place has gelatinized. This is a good thing when what you are looking for is lip-smacking goodness.
It's not such a good thing when you want tender, juicy, perfectly cooked roast chicken. Plus, as I stated before, you might not always have a bone in a socket to wiggle.
How to Know When the Chicken Is Done
The most reliable and accurate way to test for doneness, regardless of cooking method, is using an instant read thermometer. Just pierce the meat in the thickest part, being sure not to hit bone (the bone will be hotter than the meat).
Try to aim for the center of the piece of meat. If you're not sure, go ahead and pierce all the way to the bone (or all the way through, if you're cooking a boneless cut) and then back it out halfway.
You're looking for a final internal temperature of 165º F for white meat and about 180º F for dark meat. Keep in mind that these are the USDA recommendations, and many people feel that they are set too high.
They are set for your safety though, so I find it is best to stick with these temperatures, especially when dealing with poultry.
Once you take a piece of meat out of the oven, its temperature will continue to rise. How much it rises depends on the size of the piece of meat and the temperature at which you were cooking it.
For smaller pieces of meat, such as breasts, the temperature may only rise one or two degrees. For larger cuts and whole birds, the temperature can continue to rise as much as 10-15 degrees over a half hour to forty-five minutes.
Keep carryover cooking in mind when you roast any sort of meat, and allow for it in your temperature readings. For example, when roasting a whole chicken, take it out of the oven when the breast reads an internal temperature of 155º F-157º F, cover it and let it rest, allowing the temperature to rise to 165º F.
When roasting a chicken breast, remove it from the oven at an internal temperature of 162-163F, letting it rest, covered, until it reaches 165º F. Not only will resting the bird allow for carryover cooking, it also gives the juices in the bird time to redistribute evenly throughout the meat, resulting in a juicy, tender bird.
You might ask if professional cooks use instant thermometers and I can tell you they all carry them on their person at all times because it is the law and I imagine most of them use them. I'm also sure after cooking thousand and thousands of chickens they intuitively know when they are done.
I've even been told by one chef she could hear when a chicken breast is perfectly cooked while sauteing. Cooking by ear - sounds interesting.
You may find it a pain at first to check everything you cook with an instant thermometer but I think after a few perfectly cooked outcomes, you will make it a standard part of your cooking experience.
Please share with us your tips for cooking delicious, moist chicken in the comment section below.