Is Turkey Done at 165 or 180 Degrees? The Great Debate

At what temperature is turkey considered “done”? There are differing views on the subject, and the answer has changed over time. Let’s take a closer look at this debate to determine when it’s safe to pull that golden-brown turkey from the heat.

Is Turkey Done at 165 or 180 Degrees Fahrenheit?

While some recipes state that turkey should be cooked to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the meat is safe to consume once it reaches the 165-degree mark. Cooking the breasts past 165 can result in dry meat, but the dark meat can be cooked to 180. Since these parts can cook at different rates, it’s important to test the temperature of both.

Why It’s Important

All meat should be cooked past a certain temperature in order to be safe to consume. In its raw form, meat contains bacteria that could cause food poisoning.

People need to be especially careful never to consume undercooked poultry. While steak tartare and other raw meat dishes are common, chicken and turkey are more prone to harmful bacteria. This is likely because the meat’s fibers are more porous, allowing the pathogens to reach farther beneath the surface.

In order to be safe to eat, poultry needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This will kill off any dangerous pathogens, thereby eliminating the risk of food poisoning from undercooked meat. But why do some recipes recommend leaving a turkey in the oven until it reaches 180 degrees? Read on to find out.

Breasts vs. Thighs

The difference between white meat and dark meat is one of the main reasons why experts suggest cooking turkey to 180 degrees.

At 165 degrees, the white meat of the breasts is cooked to perfection. If it’s allowed to cook past this point, the breast meat will begin to dry out, leaving you with a dish that resembles sawdust.

The leg and thigh meat, on the other hand, can cook past 180 degrees without suffering any ill effects. In fact, we’ve found that the dark meat can be even more succulent if it’s overcooked by 10 to 15 degrees, as long as you consume it right away.

Since the dark meat fares better when it’s allowed to reach the 180-degree threshold, this used to be the standard recommendation for removing turkey from the oven. However, it’s not necessary to go that far, and it could result in white meat that’s unpleasantly dry.

If you would prefer to let the dark meat cook even after the breasts have achieved the correct temperature, you can use a carving knife to remove the breasts and set them aside while you return the rest of the bird to the oven. You can tent the cooked breast meat with foil to keep it warm in the meantime.

Another option would be to shield the breasts from the heat by tenting them with aluminum foil. However, it’s preferable to do this before you put the turkey in the oven. Use just enough foil to cover the bird loosely without actually touching it, and crimp the edges around the pan to hold it in place.

If you opt to use the tenting method, be careful not to wrap the bird too tightly. If you do, the meat will steam in the foil instead of roasting, which will have negative effects on both flavor and appearance. We would also suggest removing the foil during the last 30 to 60 minutes to ensure that the skin browns up nicely.

What To Think When You See Pink

If you pull the bird from the oven before the dark meat has had a chance to reach 180 degrees, you might notice some pink juices in the roasting pan. Even the meat itself might have a reddish tinge. This is enough to frighten some chefs into returning the bird to the oven or smoker.

In fact, those pink or red colors don’t necessarily mean that the bird is undercooked. Turkey contains myoglobin, a protein found inside the muscles. That’s what gives the meat its pinkish hue. When myoglobin mixes with water, it results in those pink juices that you see.

The myoglobin might not change color until the meat is overcooked, depending on the pH level (or acidity) of the turkey. These acidity levels vary from bird to bird, so the colors are no indication of doneness. Instead of relying on the color of the juices, make sure the temperature has reached 165 in both the breasts and the thighs.

When To Pull The Meat From The Heat

So, at what temperature should you remove the turkey from the smoker or oven? Should you wait until the thermometer registers 165 degrees—or even longer?

In fact, it should be safe to pull turkey from the heat when the temperature reads 160 degrees. The bird will continue to cook as it rests, raising the temp to the safe zone of 165. Again, be sure that the thermometer registers a safe temperature when inserted into the thickest portion of the thigh, instead of relying on the breast meat alone.

How To Tell When Turkey is Done

There’s only one reliable way to ensure that turkey meat is cooked through, and that’s by taking its temperature. An accurate instant-read thermometer is a chef’s best friend for many reasons, but when it comes to poultry, it’s an essential tool.

To test the turkey for doneness, insert the thermometer probe into the meaty portion where the thigh meets the breast. Be very careful not to touch any bone, as this will disturb the accuracy of the result. When the readout registers at least 160 degrees, you’re ready to start the resting period.

Remember that if the bird is stuffed, you’ll need to make sure the stuffing has reached a safe temperature as well. Eating undercooked stuffing leaves you prone to the same food-borne illnesses that are caused by raw meat products (at least if it’s been in contact with the raw turkey, as it would have been in this case).

If the stuffing isn’t ready to eat once the turkey is done, remove it to a buttered casserole dish. Let it bake in a 375-degree oven while the bird rests, or until the thermometer registers 165 degrees when inserted into the center.

The Bottom Line

Is turkey done at 165 or 180 degrees? The short answer is that 165 is perfectly safe, but the legs and thighs may benefit from a longer cooking time. Just be careful not to overcook the breasts, as they’re less forgiving than the dark meat.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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