Do you know how to tell if chicken is undercooked? In truth, there’s only one way to be certain, which is why we’ve put together this guide. But there are signs that can help you tell whether the meat is approaching doneness. Let’s take a closer look.
How To Tell if Chicken is Undercooked
Cooked chicken will firm up and turn opaque as it loses moisture. The breast meat will turn white, while the dark meat turns from pink to light brown. But the only way to be certain that the meat is safe to consume is to test the internal temperature using a meat thermometer.
Why It Matters
Unlike red meat such as pork and beef, chicken needs to cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before it’s ready to be consumed.
The difference has to do with the makeup of the flesh. Red meat is denser than white meat, so any bacteria that might be contaminating the flesh will stay on the surface. With chicken, there’s a possibility that the bacteria has penetrated more deeply.
That’s another reason why you should cook all ground meat products to 165 degrees as well. Although the hazardous bacteria may only linger on the surface, once the meat is all ground together, that distinction is erased.
Raw chicken may be contaminated with bacteria such as campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli. These can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
Of course, there might not be any contamination at all. The problem is that there’s no way to be sure just by inspecting the meat. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the proper guidelines regarding the internal temp.
What Does Undercooked Chicken Look Like?
Any chef who’s ever encountered raw chicken can tell you what it looks like in this state. The color ranges from pale peach to darker pink, depending on whether it’s white or dark meat.
The darker color is due to higher levels of myoglobin in the meat. Myoglobin is a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. The more exercise the muscles get, the more oxygen they require. Since the legs move around more than the breasts and wings, they contain more myoglobin.
Aside from the color, raw chicken can be distinguished by its glossy appearance. The meat has a gelatinous sheen to it before it’s cooked. As it approaches the optimum internal temperature, the color and the texture undergo a transformation, as we’ll discuss later.
Undercooked Chicken Texture
Most of us are fortunate enough to have never bitten into an undercooked piece of chicken. But if you do, you’ll likely be able to tell right away.
While you want your cooked chicken to remain juicy, the heating process forces out a lot of water. That’s why the finished product always weighs significantly less than it did when it was raw.
Undercooked chicken has a dense, rubbery texture. This is due to the fact that it’s still retaining a great deal of moisture.
If the chicken gives a “snap” when you bite into it, there’s a good chance that it’s still not cooked correctly. Don’t eat the chicken if you encounter any of these signs.
Slightly Undercooked Chicken Breast
Chicken breast is a tricky cut to master. While it’s very popular due to its versatility and lean texture, it’s also very easy to overcook.
When chicken breast is overcooked, it takes on an unpleasantly dry, chalky texture. This can happen at temperatures as low as 170 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t too far above the recommended serving temp of 165 degrees.
It’s best to remove chicken breast from the heat when the internal temp registers 160 degrees. The temperature will continue to rise as the meat is resting, thanks to residual heat.
What if you want to take it off the heat sooner than that, when it’s still technically undercooked? In fact, it may be permissible to do so—on the condition that you watch the thermometer like a hawk.
When you cook meat products, your goal is to ensure that the dangerous bacteria we mentioned earlier are eradicated. Since it only takes a few seconds for those bacteria to die off at 165 degrees, this is the recommended safe temperature for poultry products.
But here’s the thing: The bacteria can be destroyed at lower temperatures, as long as the temp holds steady for long enough to do the job. For example, at 145 degrees, the bacteria are killed off within 9 minutes.
Although you want to allow the meat to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving, you’ll need to make sure that the internal temperature of the meat doesn’t dip below 145 degrees that entire time. This can be a pain when you’re trying to get a meal together.
In short, you can eat chicken breast that’s considered slightly undercooked by USDA standards. It’s just more practical to wait until the temperature hits 160 degrees before you stop cooking it.
Cooked Chicken Breast Color
When chicken breast is thoroughly cooked, it usually turns from a translucent peach-pink to an opaque white. You should also be able to distinguish the muscle fibers from one another when you cut into the meat.
That said, it’s not necessarily dangerous to eat chicken that still has a pink tinge here and there. We’ll talk more about this in What If The Chicken Is Still Pink?, below.
How To Tell if Chicken is Undercooked
As we mentioned, you can check the appearance of the chicken to see if it’s approaching doneness. But that’s not a foolproof technique.
Chicken can be thoroughly cooked and still appear pink, especially near the bone. The dark meat is even more likely to maintain some hints of pink.
Conversely, the meat might still be underdone even when it turns a uniform white color. That’s why the only way to be sure is to test the chicken using a well-calibrated meat thermometer.
Insert the thermometer probe into the thickest portion of the cut. If the chicken is bone-in, make sure the probe isn’t touching any bone, as this will lead to an inaccurate readout.
Chicken breasts should be pulled from the heat as soon as the internal temperature hits the 160-degree mark. The thighs and drumsticks, on the other hand, have a superior texture when they’re permitted to cook to 180 degrees before the resting period.
While the temperature test is the only fail-safe method, you can use other methods to determine when it might be time to insert the probe.
As we pointed out earlier, meat loses a great deal of moisture when it cooks. The larger the cut, the higher the shrinkage factor.
Raw meat contains up to 75 percent water. When it’s exposed to heat, that moisture is forced toward the surface, where it evaporates.
A single chicken breast half will lose an ounce or two of moisture by the time it’s finished cooking. A whole chicken that weighs 6 pounds, meanwhile, could shrink down to just 4 pounds.
If the chicken looks more or less the same as it did when you started cooking it, there’s a good chance that it’s got a way to go before it’s done. But if you notice that it’s considerably smaller, test the temperature. It might be close to the finish line.
Pay attention to the timing recommendations when you’re following a recipe. While every cut is different, you can estimate when the chicken might be finished cooking just by keeping an eye on the clock.
Boneless skinless chicken breasts should cook over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes per side for a total cooking time of 10 minutes. If you’re roasting or smoking a whole chicken at 350 degrees, expect the process to take 15 minutes per pound—about 1-1/2 hours for a 6-pound chicken.
Don’t forget to let the meat rest before you serve it. The meat’s natural juices need time to redistribute. If you were to cut into the chicken immediately after taking it off the heat, you would be rewarded with tough, dry meat.
The next time you buy raw chicken, press against it with your finger. You’ll likely notice that it has a soft, squishy texture.
Cooked chicken will feel more firm to the touch. You can check to see whether it might be time to test the temperature by prodding the meat with the tip of your finger.
It’s a good idea to take a piece of the chicken off the heat if you’re going to test it this way. That way, it will have a chance to cool down slightly.
What If The Chicken Is Still Pink?
As we mentioned, the color changes aren’t a reliable indicator of doneness.
Cooked chicken meat will generally lose its glossy texture and firm up as it approaches the target temperature. The breast meat usually turns white, while the dark meat turns from pinkish-purple to brown.
However, the meat might still retain some pink color, especially near the bone. That doesn’t necessarily mean the chicken is still raw—it could be that some bone marrow pigment has managed to seep into the surrounding meat.
Further, smoked chicken will usually have a pinkish hue to it, even when it’s fully cooked. Due to the low and slow cooking process, the myoglobin doesn’t break down the same way it does when it’s exposed to high temperatures.
In fact, this evidence of myoglobin is considered a badge of honor for many pitmasters. It’s known as the “smoke ring,” and it won’t go away even if you cook the chicken well past the recommended temperature.
The smoke ring doesn’t necessarily indicate quality. It’s fine if your smoked chicken doesn’t have it—the meat should still taste fine. But if you do see a pink ring beneath the surface, it’s nothing to worry about as long as the meat is fully cooked.
Can You Fix Undercooked Chicken?
Let’s assume that you’ve taken the chicken off the heat and let it rest, but you forgot to test the temperature. When you cut into the meat, it’s obviously undercooked, and a quick temperature test confirms it. Is it too late to salvage your work?
Fortunately, the answer is no—at least most of the time. If you notice the problem right away, it’s perfectly safe to continue cooking the chicken until it achieves the proper temperature.
The best way to do this is to continue cooking the chicken in the manner in which you began. Undercooked grilled chicken can go right back on the grill. Make sure the fire is still hot enough—you might need to add more charcoal if that’s the type of grill you’re using.
A whole roasted chicken that’s still a few degrees away from the target temperature can be returned to the oven. Remember that the breasts and thighs should cook to different temps, so you may have to remove the breast portion while the rest of the bird cooks.
The main thing to remember when it comes to fixing undercooked chicken is that it isn’t safe to do it if the meat has been off the heat for longer than a few hours. Here’s why.
The temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees allows the bacteria we mentioned earlier to spread rapidly. This is why you should never leave meat at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
If you’ve cooked the chicken to 120 or 130 degrees and then refrigerated it without realizing that it was undercooked, it’s no longer safe to eat. Even though it was stored in the fridge, there’s a strong chance that it’s now contaminated.
So in short, it’s fine to continue cooking the chicken as long as you don’t wait too long to do it. This is yet another reason why a well-calibrated meat thermometer is a chef’s best friend.
The Bottom Line
Raw chicken and cooked chicken might be relatively easy to tell apart, but the meat may look done even if it hasn’t been cooked to a safe temperature. Timing and appearance are both useful guidelines, but temperature is the only reliable rule when it comes to doneness.
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!