Raw chicken ranges in color from pale peach to dark pink, depending on the cut. We’re therefore accustomed to thinking of pink chicken as being undercooked—but is this always the case? Can you eat pink chicken without worrying about food poisoning?
Can Chicken Be a Little Pink?
Cooked chicken might have a pinkish tinge to it for several reasons. If the chicken is smoked, it’s likely to retain a pink ring around the surface—the fabled “smoke ring.” There may also be a hint of pink around the bones as the result of marrow that seeped out into the surrounding meat.
Why It Matters
Consuming raw and undercooked meat can lead to food poisoning, owing to the possibility that microscopic organisms may have taken up residence on the animal’s flesh.
There are numerous bacteria that can cause serious illness to those who unwittingly consume undercooked poultry. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, campylobacter, trichinosis, and E. coli are a few familiar names, but they’re not the only ones.
Red Meat vs. White Meat
Red meat, like beef and pork, can cook to medium rare and still be safe to consume. That’s not the case with white meat such as chicken or turkey, though. Why the difference? It has to do with the composition of the animal’s flesh.
First of all, let’s discuss what gives raw meat its pink or red color. Those rosy hues denote the presence of myoglobin, a protein that’s responsible for supplying oxygen to muscles. The darker the meat is, the more myoglobin it contains.
The muscles that get more use tend to be darker, because the increase in exercise means that more oxygen was pumped to those muscles. That’s why chicken drumsticks and thighs are so much darker than the breast portion.
Beef contains higher concentrations of myoglobin than most other meats, which is what gives it that distinctive cherry-red color. Pork doesn’t have quite as much myoglobin as beef does, but it’s still considered red meat.
For the purposes of food safety, what you need to understand is that red meat is much more dense than white meat. Since the bacteria that cause food poisoning are found primarily on the surface of the meat, you can cook steak to medium rare without worrying.
Conversely, since white meat is less dense, those bacteria could have burrowed deep beneath the surface. That’s why you need to cook chicken and turkey thoroughly before you serve them.
One interesting caveat: All ground meat, including pork and beef, needs to cook thoroughly. Because the grinding process mixes all the meat together, the bacteria could be spread throughout the mixture as well.
What’s Considered the Safe Internal Temperature For Chicken?
The USDA recommends cooking poultry products to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the temperature will continue to rise for several minutes after cooking, it’s fine to take chicken off the heat when it’s achieved an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Chicken breasts are at their best when cooked to just 160 degrees and allowed to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. The resting period allows the juices to redistribute while bringing the temperature up to the recommended level.
Dark meat cuts like thighs and drumsticks, meanwhile, should cook longer. The meat is safe to consume at 165, but it hasn’t achieved the proper texture yet.
Our suggested internal temp for dark meat is 180-185 degrees. Because these cuts are fattier, they’ll achieve a silky richness as the meat cooks past the 165-degree mark.
Cooked Chicken Pink Tinge: What’s Happening?
Let’s assume that you’ve cooked your chicken to the recommended safe temperature, and it’s still showing a bit of pink in the middle. Does that mean it’s undercooked?
Not necessarily. Slightly pink chicken can still be safe to eat as long as you’re sure that the temperature readout is accurate. That’s one of the many reasons why you want to keep a well-calibrated meat thermometer on hand (see section below).
We’re used to thinking that cooked chicken has to be a uniform white or tan color, depending on the cut. But that’s not always the case.
Fully cooked chicken can still have a pinkish tinge to it. This is especially true if the chicken was a younger specimen, as the skin and bones would be more permeable than those of an older bird.
The chicken’s bone marrow contains a pigment that can leach into the surrounding muscle tissue, giving the meat a reddish tinge near the bone. What’s more, the hemoglobin in the muscles can appear pink when it’s exposed to the air.
Even such issues as the chicken’s diet can affect its color both before and after cooking. Similarly, you might notice a difference in color between chicken that was cooked fresh versus chicken that was frozen beforehand.
About Smoked Chicken
If you’re making smoked chicken, there’s a good chance that the meat will have a rosy hue even when it’s fully cooked. This isn’t anything to be alarmed about. On the contrary, it’s a phenomenon that most pitmasters actively strive to achieve.
When you smoke a cut of meat, a series of chemical reactions occurs around the surface. The smoke acts as a preservative for the myoglobin on the outer layer, thereby allowing it to retain its pink color.
Because beef and pork contain more myoglobin and fat to begin with, you’re more likely to notice the smoke ring on brisket and pork butt. But your smoked chicken still might have a pink outer layer, no matter how long it cooks.
If you’re hoping to attain an impressive smoke ring, use a binder for your spice rub that contains fat. The more fat there is on the meat, the more prominent the smoke ring will be. Cooking spray, olive or canola oil, or melted butter are all great options.
You can also coax along the smoke ring by spritzing or spraying the meat as it cooks. We don’t ordinarily recommend this for smoked chicken, but it will help to draw more smoke to the surface of the meat, which is exactly what you’re going for.
The type of smoker you use can enhance or destroy your smoke ring aspirations. Charcoal and offset smokers are the best choice if a prominent smoke ring is your goal. Pellet smokers can help produce the effect also, but they’re not quite as good.
Meat that’s cooked on an electric smoker, meanwhile, may have no visible smoke ring at all. Keep that in mind the next time you’re shopping for a new unit.
Where to Probe Chicken
The best place to probe a cut of meat is in the thickest portion, away from any bone. If you’re smoking individual cuts, it should be easy enough to locate the proper spot.
When smoking whole chickens, you should take a couple of readouts to ensure that all parts of the bird are cooking to their optimum temperature. Insert the probe into the thickest part of the breast section, then into the meaty portion of the thigh.
As we mentioned, the breast is considered done when it crosses the 160-degree threshold. Try not to cook it past that point, or you’ll be rewarded with dry meat.
The dark meat should cook to 180 degrees before you take it off the heat. If the breast is cooking too fast, you can shield it with foil to slow the process while still keeping the legs and thighs exposed to the heat.
It’s also permissible to carve the breast section off, then return the rest of the chicken to the heat. It might affect your presentation, but the dark meat should cook more quickly as a result.
How To Calibrate a Meat Thermometer
Even if you’ve never calibrated a meat thermometer before, it’s a simple process. All you need is a glass of ice water, a small set of pliers, a bit of time and patience, and, of course, the thermometer.
To begin, fill a tall glass with ice water. The glass needs to be large enough to submerge the thermometer probe without allowing the probe to touch the glass.
Insert the thermometer into the ice water and hold it still for at least 30 seconds. For dial thermometers, you’ll want to wait a minute or two.
Check the temperature readout. Does it say 32 degrees Fahrenheit? If so, the thermometer is perfectly calibrated and there’s no need to make any adjustments.
Should you get an inaccurate readout, use pliers to adjust the nut on the underside of the dial thermometer. Perform the calibration process again, repeating as necessary until you get a readout of 32 degrees.
Note that this process applies only to dial thermometers. Unfortunately, there’s no way to adjust a digital thermometer. If yours displays an incorrect readout, it may be time to replace it with a new one.
As an alternative, you can take the inaccuracies into account when you temp your meat. For example, if the thermometer shows a readout that’s 5 degrees higher than the actual temperature, remove the chicken from the heat when the readout displays 155 degrees.
Since temperamental thermometers will need to be calibrated even more regularly than reliable ones, we wouldn’t recommend the latter course. It’s better to cut your losses and invest in a new thermometer instead.
What’s the Best Temperature to Smoke Chicken?
Although you can smoke chicken at any temperature above 225 degrees, we like to crank up the heat a bit higher. If the temperature is too low, the skin will turn soft and rubbery instead of crisping up. Too high, and the meat will dry out quickly.
Aim for a smoker temperature of 300-325 degrees. This should promote golden, crispy skin that will seal in the chicken’s natural juices. At this temperature, the bird should be done in 1-1/2 to 2 hours, depending on how large it is.
The Bottom Line
Slightly pink chicken isn’t a cause for immediate alarm. In fact, as we’ve established, the meat may retain a hint of pink even if it’s overcooked.
There’s no substitute for a well-calibrated meat thermometer. When you have one of those in your arsenal, you can expect to achieve stellar results every time you fire up the smoker.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!