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 exact directions can be found in recipes for grilled chicken, sauteed, pan-fried, or any other way 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, with no translucent spots. And pink or bloody liquid is a no-no. The juices should always run clear.
That's all good and important, especially with salmonella's being such a problem when it comes to poultry. But how can we tell when the meat is done 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 completely overcooked and dried out.
For starters, and most importantly, it is almost impossible to go by stated cooking times in recipes. Instead, 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. Therefore, "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. While it is resting, it is continuing to cook.
At best, consider "time and temperature" a ballpark estimate. For example, 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 are the holy grail.
Sure, it's much easier to cook this way, but also a great way to get over or undercooked chicken.
Remember - Time & Temperature is just an estimation.
Whether you poach, grill, saute, or roast your chicken, you must 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 cutting into the leg to see if the juices run clear. However, 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 the 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 you are looking for lip-smacking goodness.
It could be better when you want tender, juicy, perfectly cooked roast chicken. But, as I stated before, you might not always have a bone in a socket to wiggle.
How to Know When the Chicken Is Done
An instant-read thermometer is the most reliable and accurate way to test for doneness, regardless of cooking method. Just pierce the meat in the thickest part, being sure not to hit the bone (the bone will be hotter than the meat).
Try to aim for the center of the piece of meat. If unsure, pierce to the bone (or all the way through if you're cooking a boneless cut) and 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. Remember that these are the USDA recommendations; many people feel they are set too high.
They are set for your safety, so I find it 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 are cooking it.
The temperature may only rise one or two degrees for smaller pieces of meat, such as breasts. However, 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, please 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, but 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. But, after cooking thousands of chickens, I'm sure 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. So cooking by ear - sounds interesting.
You may find it a pain at first to check everything you cook with an instant thermometer, but after a few perfectly cooked outcomes, you will make it a standard part of your cooking experience.
Please share your tips for cooking delicious, moist chicken in the comment section below.
Some of My Favorite Chicken Recipes
- Chicken Baked in Cornbread Recipe
- Sheet Pan Chicken with Roasted Plums Potatoes and Onions
- Quick and Easy Sweet and Sour Chicken Recipe
- Chicken Mushroom and Spinach Comfort Food Recipe
- Southern California Style Chicken with Rice and Beans Recipe
- Chicken Thighs with Mushrooms and Artichoke Hearts Recipe
- Simple Chicken - Tomato - Pasta Recipe
- Chicken Korma Recipe