Getting an accurate temperature readout is always important, but when it comes to poultry, it’s critical. When the meat is undercooked, it can cause serious illness, but if you go the other way and cook it for too long, it will be dry or mushy.
Here are our pro tips on where to probe chicken when testing the internal temperature.
Where To Probe Chicken
Always insert the thermometer probe into the thickest portion of the meat. This is true whether you’re cooking breasts, thighs, drumsticks, or wings. For whole chickens, take the temperature of the breast first, aiming the probe toward the drumstick. Test the thigh meat next. When the breasts register 165 degrees and the thighs 180, the bird is ready.
Why It’s Important
If you don’t insert the temperature probe into the right spot, you’ll risk an inaccurate readout. That means parts of the meat may still be raw, while others could be overcooked.
For best results, chicken needs to cook to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses can’t survive for longer than 30 seconds. This means the meat should be safe to eat.
Although the same bacteria can be killed off at lower temperatures, the meat needs to maintain the temperature for longer periods of time. Since the cooking process might halt before the acceptable waiting period has passed, it’s safer to wait until you hit that 165-degree marker.
On the other hand, you don’t want to overcook the chicken either. The white meat of the chicken breast will start to dry out if it cooks past 170 degrees or so. If you wait too long, the meat will have a consistency that resembles sawdust.
The thighs and drumsticks, meanwhile, can withstand higher cooking temps. At 165 degrees, the collagen has just started to break down, so the meat will be chewy and slightly tough. At 175-180 degrees, the thigh meat should have reached the perfect level of succulence.
What’s The Best Smoker Temperature To Use For Chicken?
For most chicken parts, we like to set the smoker temperature to 250 degrees. This is a lower temperature than we would use for roasting. However, the chicken will take longer to cook at 250, which allows it to take on plenty of savory smoke flavor.
At 250, a whole chicken should cook in 3 to 4 hours, depending on size. Naturally, a 3-pound bird will be done sooner than a 5- to 6-pounder. If you’re smoking more than one chicken at a time, try to find birds that are more or less the same size.
Thighs and drumsticks will be done in about 2 hours, assuming you wait until they’ve achieved an internal temp of at least 175 degrees. Chicken wings, meanwhile, could be done in 1-1/2 hours, although the meatier ones might take up to 2 hours to achieve the right texture.
Chicken breasts require a slightly different treatment. For optimum results, set the smoker to 225 degrees. White meat cooks through faster than dark meat, so the lower temperature will prevent them from becoming too dry. After about 1 hour, the breasts should be ready.
Where To Probe a Whole Chicken
First of all, you want to avoid touching bone when taking the internal temperature. This is true of all cuts of meat, including ribs, pork butt, and pork shoulder. Since a whole chicken includes an entire skeleton, it can be easy to accidentally brush against bone.
Bone conducts heat differently than flesh. That means the reading will be inaccurate if you take the temperature from a bone-dense area, especially if you’re actually touching the bone itself.
The same principles apply if you take the temperature in a dense pocket of fat. This isn’t as much of a hazard with chicken as it is with cuts like beef brisket and pork butt, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
The best place to probe a whole chicken is the thickest portion of the breast. To find it, use your fingers to measure about three-quarters along the breast, toward the drumstick. Stick the probe in about 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep and wait for the numbers to stop moving.
Once you’ve gotten a readout of 165 degrees on the breast, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. If it reads 180 degrees, the bird is ready to come off the smoker.
The Breasts Are Finished, But The Thighs Aren’t. What Should I Do?
It’s a classic scenario: The breast meat has reached the ideal internal temp, but the thigh meat hasn’t crept up past the 170-degree mark. How can you get succulent, tender thigh meat without overcooking the breasts?
First of all, when you start to cook, position the chicken so that the dark meat is closest to the heat source. Since it doesn’t matter as much if this meat is “overcooked,” it’s better equipped to withstand the direct heat.
If you’ve taken the temperature of both the breasts and the thighs and the dark meat still needs more time, our suggestion would be to carve the breasts off and set them aside to rest while you put the rest of the bird back on the smoker.
To do this, locate the breastbone in the middle of the chicken. Using a long, sharp carving knife, cut straight down at an angle, using the breastbone as your guide. You might have to saw the knife gently back and forth in a slicing motion to remove the entire breast half.
Set the breast half aside and repeat the same procedure on the second side. Cover the meat with foil. When it’s time to carve the breast into slices, you can either remove the skin or leave it intact so that there will be a small bite on each slice.
Note that if you’re planning to serve the chicken shredded, you can pull the remainder of the white meat off the sternum using your fingers. It’s hard to remove every last bit when using a carving knife, unless the meat is so overcooked that it comes right off the bone.
Return the rest of the bird to the smoker and cook until the thighs have reached an internal temp of 180 degrees. Don’t forget to let the dark meat rest for at least 15-20 minutes before carving.
Where To Probe Chicken Breast
If you’re cooking the breasts alone, insert the thermometer probe into the area where the meat is thickest. If you stick it in the thinner end, it might trick you into thinking the meat is done before the center has had a chance to cook through.
Remember that if you’re smoking bone-in chicken breasts, the probe needs to stay well away from the bone in order to ensure accuracy. For thin boneless breasts, be careful not to stick the probe all the way through to the other side, or you’ll be taking the temperature of the fire itself.
Since the meat will continue to cook as it rests, it’s fine to pull chicken breasts from the heat once the temperature reaches 162 degrees. If you do this, we would recommend keeping the probe in place while you rest the chicken, just to make sure it holds at 165 for at least 30 seconds.
Where To Probe Chicken Thigh
Similar rules apply when it comes to testing the temperature of chicken thighs. Find the thickest spot, which is usually toward the center, and carefully insert the probe, taking care not to touch any bone. At 180 degrees, remove the thighs from the heat and set them aside to rest.
Drumsticks and wings can be tricky because there’s so much bone involved. Fortunately, these cuts don’t suffer as much from overcooking as the breasts do. Just do your best to insert the probe into the thick center, holding the thermometer at an angle.
The Bottom Line
As long as you take the temperature at the spot where the meat is thickest and avoid touching any bone or fat pockets, you should get an accurate readout. Keep the optimum internal temperatures in mind, and be sure to rest the chicken before serving it. This will ensure juicy, flavorful results every time.
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!