Is it safe to take chicken off the heat when it’s cooked to just 160 degrees? And if not, how long should you wait? Read our ultimate guide to find out.
Chicken at 160 Degrees
You can take chicken off the grill (or out of the oven) when it’s cooked to 160 degrees. The temperature will continue to rise while the meat is resting, so it should attain the safe internal temp of 165 by the time you’re ready to serve it. Be aware that the dark meat should cook to 180-185 in order to achieve the ideal texture.
Why It Matters
Cooking meat to the correct internal temperature is one of the most important aspects of food handling.
Animals that are raised for slaughter may be harboring hazardous bacteria. In order to destroy those bacteria, the meat needs to be heated to a safe temperature. This temp varies depending on the type of meat, but the principle remains the same.
What’s more, the meat needs to climb out of the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit within 4 hours. When it remains within that temperature span for too long, the bacteria that cause food poisoning tend to multiply at a great rate.
Fortunately, you don’t usually need to worry about chicken spending too long in the danger zone as it cooks. Whole chickens aren’t as large as turkeys, so they can reach the optimum internal temperature in much less time.
What’s The Recommended Safe Temperature for Chicken?
According to the USDA, all poultry products—including chicken—should cook to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving.
You may be wondering why this is the case with chicken, when it’s okay to eat beef and pork at 145 degrees. Even duck, which is another type of fowl, can be consumed medium rare. So why not chicken?
These safety concerns are related to the physical makeup of the flesh. Chicken and turkey are white meat, while beef and pork are red meat. If you inspect a duck breast, you’ll notice that it’s much darker than chicken, although it’s also technically classified as white meat.
Meat that’s darker in color contains higher levels of myoglobin. That’s a protein that transports oxygen to the muscles. Therefore, the more exercise the muscles get, the darker the meat will be.
When there’s a great deal of myoglobin in the flesh, the meat will be denser. That makes it harder for bacteria to penetrate beneath the surface.
The reason you need to cook meat in the first place is to destroy any potential bacteria that might be lurking on the flesh. With red meat like beef, the bacteria should remain on the surface, because the flesh is too dense to allow it to penetrate much deeper.
On the other hand, the flesh of a chicken or turkey will have a lower density level, so the bacteria may have burrowed its way far below the surface. That’s why you need to cook these meats thoroughly, instead of just searing them on the outside.
White Meat vs. Dark Meat
165 degrees might be the safe internal temperature for chicken, but it’s not the best guideline to use for every cut.
The white meat on the breast and wing portions will dry out if you cook it past 165 degrees. That’s why we recommend pulling these cuts from the heat when they reach the 160-degree threshold, as outlined below.
The dark meat on the thighs and drumsticks, meanwhile, won’t have the right texture if you stop cooking them at 160 degrees. While it will technically be safe to eat, the meat may have a stringy or rubbery texture at this temp.
Our suggestion would be to cook breasts and wings to 160 degrees, and allow any dark meat cuts to cook to 180 degrees. That way, the white meat will stay nice and juicy while the dark meat will get tender and succulent.
When you’re cooking a whole chicken, it can be difficult to ensure that the white and dark meat reach their optimum temperatures at roughly the same time. Here are a couple of tips on how to do that.
One option might be to wait until the skin on the breast portion has had a chance to crisp up, then tent the bird with foil. This should shield the white meat from the heat and prevent it from overcooking. Just don’t do it too soon, or the skin may turn rubbery.
It’s also possible to carve the breasts and wings off the carcass once they’ve reached the 160-degree mark, then return the rest of the chicken to the heat to finish cooking. Your presentation might suffer as a result, but the meat should taste divine.
Pro Tip: Be sure to tent the breasts and wings with foil as they rest. This will keep the meat from cooling off too much while you’re waiting for the rest of the meat to be ready.
Chicken at 160 Degrees
Since the USDA advises cooking chicken to 165 degrees, why do we advocate taking it off the heat at just 160 degrees? The answer is simple: carryover cooking.
When you remove meat from the oven, grill, or smoker, it doesn’t stop cooking right away. Instead, the residual heat allows the internal temperature to rise another 5-10 degrees—sometimes even more, depending on the size of the cut.
This means that if you take the chicken off the heat at 160 degrees and let it rest for at least 5 minutes, it should come up to the ideal serving temperature by the time you’re ready to eat it. As a bonus, this resting period will allow the juices to redistribute.
In fact, if you were to let the white meat cook to 165 before you let it rest, it would probably turn out too dry. Chicken breast is very lean, meaning it overcooks quickly. When that happens, it takes on the consistency of sawdust.
Is It Safe To Take Chicken Off The Heat Sooner?
As we’ve just pointed out, lean cuts like chicken breast can be downright unappetizing when they’re overcooked. If you want to avoid this fate, is there any way you can cook chicken to a lower temperature without contracting food poisoning?
The answer is yes—but you need to be careful. While bacteria such as salmonella will eventually die off at 150 degrees, it takes much longer than it would at 165 degrees. Therefore, you need to find the perfect combination of time and temperature in order to pull it off.
When the internal temperature of the chicken breast reaches 150 degrees, take it off the heat while leaving the thermometer inserted. Be sure the thermometer probe is inserted into the thickest portion of the breast without touching any bone.
Set the chicken aside to rest while keeping an eye on the temperature. It needs to stay at or above 150 degrees for at least 4 minutes in order to eradicate any potential bacteria.
If the temperature dips below 150 degrees at any point during those 4 minutes, you’ll need to put the chicken back on the grill or in the oven to bring it back up. Once it’s back above 150, repeat the process until it can hold that temp for the prescribed period.
In our opinion, it can be a pain to keep an eye on the thermometer for a full 4 minutes, especially since we’re usually trying to get a meal together during this time. That’s why we’re more comfortable waiting until the meat cooks to 160.
The Bottom Line
When chicken breast has cooked to 160 degrees, that’s the ideal time to take it off the heat. The legs and thighs may need to cook longer, but 160 degrees is both safe and preferable when it comes to white meat.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!