When your alarm thermometer’s high alarm sounds, the breast meat is done and the turkey is ready to be pulled from the oven, right? Wrong. There’s still one more step. It’s important to verify that the lowest temperature in the turkey really has reached its target. Keep reading to find out why.
➤ For a quick refresher, see the first two posts in our Turkey: 5 Things You Need to Know series.
Track and Verify the Turkey’s Temperature
Before the thawed turkey goes into the oven, it’s mostly at one equal temperature from edge to edge. When placing your thermometer’s probe properly for temperature tracking during the cook, the probe’s sensor is likely very close to the thermal center of the breast meat. After cooking, temperature gradients exist (read more about temperature gradients in our post, Proper Probe Placement in Turkeys).
With the presence of temperature gradients, the only way to know if the reading on your Leave-in Probe Alarm Thermometer is the lowest temperature in the meat is to spot-check the internal temperature of your turkey with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen®.
A clock cannot tell you when food is cooked. Only a thermometer can do this. …Actual cooking time will vary depending on how well it is defrosted, whether or not you brined or injected, what temp your fridge is, if it sat at room temp for a while, how close your bird is to the gravy pan, how well your cooker holds a steady [temperature], the quality of your thermometers, airflow within the cooker, humidity in the cooker and the breast size of your bird. —Meathead Goldwyn, AmazingRibs.com
🚫 How NOT to Verify Your Turkey’s Doneness
There are many who rely on these inaccurate methods of knowing when a turkey is done:
- Slicing the turkey and making sure that the juices run clear
- The juices may never be colorless or clear even when a safe doneness temperature is reached.
- Wiggling the legs
- The legs become loose in their joints when connective tissue has broken down, and that begins to happen most effectively in the range of 160-170°F (71-77°C). The breasts could be overcooked and completely dry by the time the legs wiggle freely.
- Waiting for the Pop-up Timer to pop up
- Turkey pop-up timers embedded by the manufacturer are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. Check out our post, Turkey Temperature: Don’t Rely on the Pop-Up Timer. If your turkey comes with a pop-up timer, leave it where it is and just ignore it (pulling it out will leave a hole for hot air to get in and help dry out the breast).
- Strictly following turkey cook time chart recommendations
- Because so many variables affect the length of a cook, charts and recipes with cook time recommendations are a very rough estimate, not a gauge of doneness at all.
Use a Thermometer
None of these methods can be used to accurately verify the doneness of your turkey. There are multiple factors contributing to how your turkey cooks such as oven temperature and oven accuracy, depth and size of the roasting pan, tenting with foil, convection vs. conventional ovens, whether the turkey is trussed, and where the turkey is positioned in the oven, just to name a few. Verifying the internal temperature is the only way to know your turkey is thoroughly cooked.
Forget about timing charts, checking for juices, or poking your meat with your finger. The only 100% reliable way to tell when your turkey is cooked is to use a thermometer like the instant-read Thermapen®. —The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt
We suggest the Thermapen Mk4 because its super-fast 2-3-second readings make it easy to spot-check multiple areas quickly. Verifying the bird’s internal temp within a matter of seconds means less time for the oven to lose heat.
As we’re passing the probe through the meat, it’s easy to see the temperature gradients from edge to edge with the constantly changing readings. The reading constantly changes because that’s what’s going on in the meat—so cool!
How to Verify Your Turkey’s Temperature
Here’s what to do:
➤ Remember, your turkey is only as done as the lowest internal temperatures you can find.
- Use an instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen.
- Plunge the probe deep into the breast meat from the top and then pull the probe tip slowly back through the turkey meat.
- Do this in at least two places in the breast and at least two places in the thigh.
- You’re looking for a lowest temperature reading of at least 157°F (69°C) in the breast meat (to allow for carryover cooking, more on this next week)…
- …and 175°F (79°C) or above in the thigh.
- If you encounter temperatures below 157°F (69°C) in the breast, return the turkey to the oven. If a lower temperature is found, replace the ChefAlarm’s probe to track the lowest temperature area and return the turkey to the oven to continue cooking until 157°F (69°C) is the lowest temperature found.
- The thigh meat will taste better at temperatures above 175°F (79°C) but is perfectly safe to eat above 165°F (74°C).
Why Spot-Check in Multiple Areas?
When tracking your turkey’s internal temperature with an alarm thermometer only one area is being monitored (or two if you’re using a dual-channel thermometer like Smoke™). So why is it so important to check multiple areas in the bird with an instant-read thermometer?
Many different temperatures exist in an oven at any given time (see the illustration below). These different temperature areas will transfer heat at different rates—especially since a whole turkey isn’t a uniform piece of meat.
Only spot-checking one breast and one thigh isn’t sufficient because the temperatures in the other breast will not be exactly the same. Probe each thigh and breast in at least two areas to be sure you have found the lowest temperature in your turkey.
Careful and accurate temperature measurement in your turkey from the beginning of the cook to the end truly is the secret to safe and delicious turkey this Thanksgiving.
➤ The final installment in our Turkey: 5 Things You Need to Know series is coming soon. We’ll cover everything you need to know about resting your turkey and carryover cooking. This year’s bird will be your best one yet!