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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.
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.
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.
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.
Because of their abundance of connective tissue and collagen, chicken pieces such as chicken legs and chicken thighs are actually better when cooked to a temperature higher than 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
An internal temperature of 185°F in a chicken thigh will result in converting its tough collagen into rich and silky gelatin, going from a rubbery thigh to a tender and juicy thigh.
This higher temperature tolerance is helpful when you’re trying to get crispy chicken skin on your thighs and legs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
———————————– 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
- Time-Temperature Tables for Cooking Ready-to-Eat Poultry: https://www.canr.msu.edu/smprv/uploads/files/RTE_Poultry_Tables1.pdf
There are 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 to know when chicken is done. However, sometimes you don’t have a meat thermometer 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 using methods that include poking and wiggling are just as useful as a crystal ball. You know what’s better and cheaper than a crystal ball? A meat thermometer.