How to Tell If Chicken Is Done Without a Thermometer

Whole Roast Chicken measuring 159 degrees Fahrenheit on Thermapen MK4 thermometer.
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Can you tell when chicken is done without the use of a thermometer? Yes, you can. However, the end result will be far less flavorful and juicy than if you had a meat thermometer monitoring the middle of your meat.

Without a meat thermometer, you are left making an educated guess using the cooking temperature, size of your meat, and cooking time as guides. Chicken and other poultry must be cooked to a minimum safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit according to the FDA.

However, if you have the benefit of a meat thermometer you can cook your chicken to a lower temperature. How is that you ask? Well, the destruction of bacteria is achieved by temperature and time working together.

Chicken breast cut in half revealing a white middle that's done

Chicken breast cut in half revealing a white middle that’s done.

The same chicken breast from the picture above measuring 155 degrees Fahrenheit.

The same chicken breast from the picture above measuring 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Totally done and free of harmful bacteria due to pasteurization by sous vide.

For instance, if you maintain the internal temperature of a piece of chicken with 12% fat content at over 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 minutes and 12 seconds, it will be safe to consume.¹ More on this later.

There are chefs and home cooks that can tell when a piece of chicken is done without a thermometer, but they have an unfair advantage.

What’s that advantage? Experience. But even then, they too are making an educated guess as to when a piece of chicken is done. They just have the advantage of knowledge gained through years of using their own tried and true methods.

In this article, I will discuss these methods of determining when chicken is done without the use of a thermometer. I will also show you that having a meat thermometer will produce a more flavorful end result every time.

Thinner part of a chicken breast measuring 146 degrees Fahrenheit.

The thinner part of a chicken breast measuring 146 degrees Fahrenheit.

The thick part of a chicken breast measuring 106 degrees.

The thick part of the same chicken breast measuring 106 degrees Fahrenheit, showing the inherent problem of evenly cooking a chicken breast.

Ways to Tell If Your Chicken Is Done Without a Thermometer

The best way to tell if your chicken is done is to use cooking temperature along with cooking time as an indicator of doneness. Using this information in conjunction with cutting into the chicken is your best option if you don’t have a meat thermometer.

Before I start I want to point out that none of the following tips will be nearly as accurate as a meat thermometer in determining when your chicken is done. Also, none of these methods are foolproof. Just keep this in mind when reading through these tips.

Cooking Temperature and Time

If you do not have a meat thermometer then you need to use other pieces of information at your disposal. Cooking temperature and cooking time will be one of your best indicators of when chicken is done. Using this as an indicator you can then cut into the thickest part of the meat to determine doneness.

A good way to ensure that your chicken is cooked to a safe temperature is to follow a recipe from a trusted source or the government guidelines listed in the infographic below.

The main thing that you need to figure out is the size of the whole chicken or pieces of chicken that you are cooking and then go from there.

Another thing to keep in mind is to find out if your oven or grill is actually reading the proper temperature on their respective displays. I’ve seen oven display temperatures off by 30 degrees or more. Most temperature gauges on propane grills are pretty inaccurate as well.

Inaccurate oven and grill temperatures are another reason to get a decent thermometer that can track your food and cooking temperature as well.

The following infographic is based on the USDA’s recommended cooking times for different pieces of chicken. These are just ballpark estimates but should help guide you in the right direction.

Cut into the Chicken

Once you’ve estimated that your chicken is close to done using the cooking time and cooking temperature as indicators you should cut into it to reaffirm its doneness.

Chicken breast cut in half revealing moist center with a little visible pinkness.

Chicken breast cut in half revealing moist center with a little visible pinkness.

The same chicken breast from the above picture measuring 162 degrees Fahrenheit with a meat thermometer.

The same chicken breast from the above picture measuring 162 degrees Fahrenheit with a meat thermometer.

Arrow showing the spot to cut into to check to see if a whole chicken is done.

Arrow showing the spot to cut into to check to see if a whole chicken is done.

For chicken pieces with or without the bone, you want to cut into the thickest part to determine doneness. If there’s little visible blood or pinkness you should be good to go. If it’s still a little raw, continue to cook it a little longer using some of the cooking techniques below to make sure you’re not overcooking your chicken.

To determine if a whole chicken is done without a thermometer you’ll need to cut into the skin between the body and the leg and thigh to see if it’s still overly pink.

Generally, this area will take longer to cook than the breast area so it is a good indicator of how far your chicken is coming along temperature-wise.

If you haven’t started cooking your whole chicken yet I would encourage you to try spatchcocking it following the video below. This will cut down on cooking time and cook your chicken more evenly than the conventional method.

Flawed Methods of Determining Chicken Doneness

I’m not saying the following methods do not have their own merits. I like to think of these techniques as potential indicators of doneness. When used together they could help you determine doneness. They are just less effective than the cooking time/temperature coupled with cutting into the meat indicators of doneness.

The problem with all of these is that they presuppose that everyone’s idea of what is soft  (the poke test) and what feels loose (the leg on a roast chicken) is the same.

  • Shrinkage of meat

Meat shrinks when it cooks, this isn’t a novel piece of information. The idea that you can tell that your chicken breast is cooked because it is smaller now doesn’t seem like the best indicator. “Hey, guys! The chicken breasts are an inch smaller now! Time to eat!”

  • Wiggle the leg of a roast chicken

The idea behind this test is that if you wiggle the drumstick of a roast chicken and it moves freely, it’s done. Ok. To me, this is the same as the “pull the leaves on pineapple to determine ripeness” test. The leaves will come out of an overripe pineapple as well as a ripe one. The same goes for the wiggle test. If your drumstick is capable of 360-degree movement, you’ve overcooked it.

  • The poke test

The poke test does have some merits when cooking something like steak, but for chicken, I wouldn’t trust it. The idea behind the poke test is that the firmer it feels the more it will be done. It’s the same logic as the wiggle test. And due to the fact you don’t have a meat thermometer anything less than firm will probably be dangerous considering chicken’s high minimum safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Covering chicken breasts in a skillet with a lid to ensure even cooking.

Covering chicken breasts in a skillet with a lid to ensure even cooking.

Reliable Cooking Methods to Ensure Your Chicken is Done

If you’re not following a recipe and are freestyling then there are a few ways to help ensure your chicken is fully cooked without totally overcooking it.

Cover it or move it off high heat

If you’re cooking pieces of chicken in a skillet on the stove, the best way to ensure even cooking all the way through is to cover it with a lid on lower heat. This will help cook it evenly and retain moisture as well. You can then brown and crisp up the outside once you’ve determined it’s almost ready by cutting a little incision on the underside.

If you’re cooking chicken on the grill, move it off the hot side of the grill to a cooler side and close the lid and then cut into it when you think you’re close.

Butterfly it

Butterflying whole chickens or large boneless chicken breasts will expedite their cooking. If you’ve never butterflied a whole chicken (also known as spatchcocking), it’s a great way to cook whole chicken fast in the oven or on the grill.

A spatchcocked whole chicken on the grill.

A spatchcocked whole chicken on the grill.

To spatchcock a whole chicken you’ll need to cut out the backbone and splay it out flat. Here’s the master, Jacques Pepin showing you how to spatchcock a chicken: (go to 5:20 in video)

Poach or Sous Vide it

Poaching is technique you can use if you want to quickly cook boneless chicken breasts. Poaching is a cooking process in which you submerge food in a liquid at a temperature of between 158 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since you don’t have a thermometer to tell you the appropriate poaching temperature, there are other ways to tell without a thermometer. Here’s my post on poaching and simmering.

Here’s a solid recipe on perfect poached chicken breasts.

Sous vide chicken breasts at 144 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sous vide chicken breasts at 144 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you happen to have sous vide machine that you got as a gift and have never used well now it’s time to pull it out.

The sous vide method of cooking has many benefits. You can evenly cook something to a safe temperature and then brown the outside. Perfectly cooked and perfectly safe to eat.

This brings me to what I alluded to earlier, cooking chicken to a temperature lower than 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is achieved through holding chicken above a certain temperature for a certain amount of time. This is also known as the process of pasteurization.

Safe Chicken Below 165 degrees? The Wonders of Pasteurization

The most significant aspect of not having a meat thermometer is that you can’t take advantage of cooking you chicken to a lower temperature.

Without a meat thermometer, you have no idea where the internal temperature of your chicken is at. If you did, you would be able to take advantage of pasteurization.

The destruction of bacteria in meat is a function of temperature and time. The USDA prefers a 7-log10 lethality pertaining to the destruction of salmonella in chicken in order for it to be safe to eat. This is a very conservative estimate.

What a 7-log10 lethality means is that for every 10 million bacteria living on your chicken, only one will survive.

This kill rate follows along a temperature/time curve. The more time your chicken’s internal temperature spends above 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the more bacteria are going to die.

This means that with more time you can achieve the same 7-log10 lethality at 140 degrees Fahrenheit as 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Using the table below that equates to maintaining the internal temperature of your chicken above 140 degrees for 35 minutes.

And the higher you go in temperature the time drops as well. What about a final chicken temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit? If you hold it there for 4 minutes and 12 seconds it will be just as safe as chicken cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chicken Time Temperature Table

Times for given temperature, fat level, and species needed to obtain

                              7-log10 lethality

———————————– fat%=12 ————————————

 

      Temperature    time for                           time for

           F         Chicken     unit    .    .    .     Turkey     unit

 

          136          81.4      min                      70.8      min

          137          65.5      min                      58.5      min

          138          52.9      min                      48.5      min

          139            43      min                      40.4      min

          140            35      min                      33.7      min

          141          28.7      min                      28.2      min

          142          23.5      min                      23.7      min

          143          19.3      min                      19.8      min

          144          15.9      min                      16.6      min

          145            13      min                      13.8      min

          146          10.6      min                      11.5      min

          147           8.6      min                       9.4      min

          148           6.8      min                       7.7      min

          149           5.4      min                       6.2      min

          150           4.2      min                       4.9      min

          151           3.1      min                       3.8      min

          152           2.3      min                       2.8      min

          153           1.6      min                       2.1      min

          154           1.1      min                       1.6      min

          155          54.4      sec                       1.3      min

          156            43      sec                         1      min

          157            34      sec                      50.4      sec

          158          26.9      sec                      40.9      sec

          159          21.3      sec                      33.2      sec

          160          16.9      sec                      26.9      sec

          161          13.3      sec                      21.9      sec

          162          10.5      sec                      17.7      sec

          163         <10.0      sec                      14.4      sec

          164         <10.0      sec                      11.7      sec

          165         <10.0      sec                     <10.0      sec

  1. Time-Temperature Tables for Cooking Ready-to-Eat Poultry: https://www.canr.msu.edu/smprv/uploads/files/RTE_Poultry_Tables1.pdf

Final Thoughts

There a quite a few methods floating around the internet for how to tell if your chicken is done without a meat thermometer. Most of these methods will only give you modest indicators of doneness.

Using a meat thermometer is your best bet for how to know when chicken is done. However, sometimes you don’t have one and you need to use other methods.

The best method is following the cooking time and temperature guidelines for chicken stated by the USDA, along with cutting into the chicken to view the inside. These two techniques when used in combination are vastly superior to the other “folksy” methods espoused by some.

Judging doneness by poking, wiggling, are just as useful as a crystal ball. You know what’s better and cheaper than a crystal ball? A meat thermometer.