How to check your turkey’s temperature and know when it’s done

Peggy Cormary for The Washington Post; food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post
Peggy Cormary for The Washington Post; food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post

The turkey can be a major source of stress during the holidays, whether you're worried about how long it needs to thaw or how to carve it skillfully. Another point of concern: Knowing when it's finished cooking. How can you tell when it reaches the right temperature? What's that temperature, and what's the best way to check it? Here's what you need to know.

What is the safe internal temperature for turkey, and where should you check it?

First thing first: The Agriculture Department says that the safe internal temperature for a turkey is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. It recommends confirming this in the thickest part of the breast, innermost part of the thigh and innermost part of the wing. All those should be taken away from any bone. Keep in mind that dark meat can remain succulent and juicy at higher temperatures, up to 195 degrees.

But plenty of people believe waiting to 165 degrees guarantees dry meat, especially if the temperature continues to rise after the meat is taken out of the oven, also known as carry-over cooking. Eliminating bacterial risk relies on a number of factors beyond a single temperature point, including moisture and fat content, J. Kenji López-Alt notes in "The Food Lab." The combination of temperature and time can help determine when poultry is safe to eat. López-Alt told my colleague Tim Carman that he prefers to cook the legs to 170 degrees but the breast to only 150 degrees, 15 degrees less than the government's recommended temperature, and holding it there for about 4 minutes. Similarly, over at ThermoWorks' ThermoBlog, Tim Robinson recommends taking the breast to 157 degrees and ensuring it holds there for at least 50 seconds.

In a time-temperature chart for turkey, the Agriculture Department confirms these numbers, showing at what point the amount of potential salmonella has been reduced enough to be safe. But the time-temperature matrix depends on a number of factors, including the percentage of fat, relative humidity and how long the meat spends in the temperature zone of 50 to 130 degrees while it's heating. When the meat reaches 165 degrees, there is no need to factor in a holding time, as the meat at that point has already met the threshold of sufficient salmonella reduction. With so many variables, it's easy to see why the U.S. government has settled on this one safe temperature across the board.

Should you use the pop-up turkey timer?

Tim did a fantastic deep dive into the ubiquitous pop-up turkey timers, and the answer was a resounding no. Tim tested a variety of reusable and disposable models, as well as the type already inserted in store-bought turkeys. All went off higher - in some cases much higher - than the recommended temperature. "It tells you when the breast meat hits 180 degrees, a temperature that's supposed to ensure that all other parts of the turkey have reached a food-safe temperature," Tim wrote. Even so, the range varied widely, from the upper 160s to into the 190s and even mid-200s. Whether that's a problem depends on your personal taste, whether the bird was injected before purchase with broth or another liquid, and even the cooking method. Still, the bottom line is these timers are not reliable.

What type of thermometer should you use to check the turkey's temperature?

I always recommend an instant-read digital thermometer when cooking meat, turkey or otherwise. We tend to check temperatures most toward the end of cooking, but especially after experimenting with cooking a turkey in a bag this year - and seeing how much faster it went than I expected - I've really come around to the utility of a leave-in probe thermometer, as well. These gadgets typically consist of a metal probe connected by a wire to a receiver that gives you the temperature reading. You can also program an alarm to go off when the food reaches a certain temperature, particularly handy when it comes to the stress-inducing turkey. (Fancy models will even use WiFi or Bluetooth to notify you in a phone app.) While some experts recommend inserting probe thermometers in both the thickest parts of the breast and thigh, you can get away with one by focusing on the breast, given how much more wiggle room there is to go higher on the dark meat.

When the alarm for the probe goes off, you still want to verify the internal temperature based on the instructions above with an instant-read thermometer in case your placement of the probe was not perfect.

Can the turkey meat or juices be pink and still safe to eat?

Yes. Poultry meat or juices cooked to a safe internal temperature may look pink after cooking for a number of reasons, including whether it was frozen, the age at which and conditions in which the bird was slaughtered. Dark meat is more likely to retain a rosy hue thanks to its higher concentration of myoglobin, which helps move oxygen throughout the body. Certain cooking methods or ingredients, especially those associated with grilling or smoking, can also prevent the myoglobin from changing from pink to brown, as well. So don't rely on the color of the meat or juices to determine whether turkey is ready to eat. If you're trying to get rid of the pink, you may end up with dry, stringy meat. Temperature is what matters most.

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