Perfectly cooked chicken is a masterpiece and one of the many reasons that chicken is the most popular poultry in the world. Cooking a whole chicken can be one of the most rewarding recipes but can also result in undercooked thighs and overcooked breast meat. Learning the tricks for properly cooking a whole chicken begins with knowing the right way to use a meat thermometer to gauge the doneness of the meat while cooking.
Whether you are smoking a whole chicken, roasting a whole chicken in the oven, or deep-frying a whole chicken, getting the meat thermometer probe in the proper place is vital to knowing when the meat has reached the ideal internal temperature.
How to Use a Meat Thermometer
There are basically two types of meat thermometers on the market. One is intended to be inserted into the meat while it is cooking. The other type is called an instant-read thermometerand it is intended to be used as an inspection tool to verify temperatures but can't be left in place for constant temperature monitoring like a meat thermometer probe.
In order to get an accurate thermometer reading from either type, you will need to insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat away from bones to get the most accurate reading. Measuring temperature in too thin of an area will give you a false reading and may result in parts of the chicken being undercooked.
With beef and pork cuts, you will insert the thermometer from the side toward the center of the meat to avoid touching any bone with the probe. The tip of the probe is where the temperature probe measures temperature so you will need to insert the thermometer anywhere from 3/8 inches to about one inch depending on the thickness of the cut.
Where to Probe Chicken: Tips on Getting the Right Readout
Chicken, turkey, duck, and other poultry should always be measured at the thickest part of the thigh. Knowing where to place a temperature probe in a whole chicken lets you get the proper internal temperature. With the chicken laying on its back, you can insert the probe down and at a slight angle from where the knee of the leg meets the inner thigh area into the thigh meat.
Press firmly but not too aggressively. If you feel the probe contact bone, remove the probe and re-insert it. You can also insert the temperature probe from the back of the thigh toward the rib, again making sure to avoid bones.
The fewer times you insert the thermometer, the better since each time you are puncturing a small hole in the meat that can allow juices to escape.
The thigh is chosen for measuring chicken because it is the most likely to be undercooked. One of the downsides of measuring from the thigh is that occasionally the breast meat and chicken wings will slightly overcook while waiting for the thigh meat to come to the proper temperature.
From a food safety standpoint, overcooked chicken breast is always better than undercooked thigh meat. Undercooked poultry is one of the main ways that people are infected with food-borne illnesses.
A Chart of Minimum Internal Temperatures for Beef, Poultry, and Other Meats
Everyone has a preference for the best way to cook meat. Some people prefer rare or medium-rare doneness while others want their meat black. Most people prefer beef at a medium-rare or medium doneness, while very few people appreciate poultry or pork that is anything less than well-done.
You should have a chart handy in your cooking area that breaks down the USDA-recommended temperatures for various types of meat and poultry, but we will give you a quick breakdown below.
- Medium-rare: 135 degrees
- Medium: 145 degrees
- Well-done: 155+ degrees
- Medium-well: 145 degrees
- Well: 155+ degrees
- Minimum: 165 degrees
- Thighs and dark meat are better when cooked to 170-175 degrees
The Importance of Internal Temperature for Poultry
There is a very good reason chicken's internal temperature must reach a minimum of 165 degrees. There are a number of bacteria that exist naturally in chickens. The only way to kill these harmful bacteria is to raise the temperature of the meat beyond a specific point for a period of time.
Very few organisms can survive temperatures in excess of 145 degrees and by the time that chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 99.9% of any potential bacteria will have died. There is always a rare chance that some types of bacteria may still survive, but raising the temperature to the proper level is still the most reliable and effective way to prevent food poisoning from undercooked chicken.
What's the Best Smoker Temperature to Use For Chicken?
Smoking a whole chicken is one of our favorite things to do. We use a process called spatchcocking when we smoke chicken that helps the breast meat and thighs cook at a similar rate while ensuring the bird is tender, juicy, and succulent. The ideal smoker temperature should be within 225 degrees to 275 degrees.
Higher temperatures will cook faster, but also might result in overcooked breast meat while the lower temperature may take a long time and could also result in dry breast meat. We prefer to put our smoker at 250 degrees when smoking a whole chicken.
The Breasts Are Finished, But the Thighs Aren't – What Should I Do?
Breast meat tends to have the least amount of fat and often is done sooner than other parts of the chicken. Breast meat is usually best at a temperature of 165 degrees while other parts of the chicken are better when cooked a little longer. If you are experiencing a situation where the breast meat is hitting 165 degrees but the thighs are still a long way off, you have a few options to choose from.
The first option is to do nothing. Continue to cook the chicken until the thigh meat hits 170 degrees or so, then remove the bird from the oven or smoker. This runs the risk of drying out the breast meat but ensures the rest of the chicken is properly cooked. It is always better to overcook chicken rather than undercook it.
Another option is to remove the whole bird from the oven or smoker and remove the breast meat, then put the remainder of the chicken back in and allow it to cook until done. This is a good strategy when you are planning on serving the breast meat separately.
One of the best tricks around is to spatchcock a whole chicken. Simply cut uncooked chicken along the side of the spine with kitchen shears, flip the chicken breast side up, then press down in the center until you hear the breastbone pop. Arrange the legs and thighs nicely and you are ready to cook. Spatchcocking a chicken allows the thighs and breasts to cook at a more even rate that gives you a better-finished product.
The Best Meat Thermometer to Use
It wasn't too long ago that a meat thermometer was a rare bit of equipment few people outside of competition circles had at their disposal. This is no longer the case and today, there are a number of good-quality options around for meat thermometers. A leave-in oven or BBQ probe thermometer is a handy tool, but everyone should have an instant-read thermometer available. Our favorite is this one that has all of the most important features without any gimmicky nonsense you don't need. It works instantly, gives an accurate temperature reading, and has a few features that make it easy to use such as a temperature hold and a minimum/ maximum feature. We like it so much that we put our own Bearded Butchers logo on it and added a handy temperature chart for quick and easy reference while you are cooking.
Cooking a whole chicken is best when you keep the temperatures fairly low throughout the cooking process. Cooking the thighs and the breasts evenly is easiest when you avoid too high of temperatures. Probably the best advice you'll get for perfectly cooking a whole chicken is to use a reliable instant-read thermometer that gives accurate temperature information and learn to find the thickest parts of meat with as few stabs as possible.