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Don’t mind the colour

THE WASHINGTON POST – Anyone who has cooked chicken or turkey has probably had the experience of cutting into the bird only to be chagrined or disappointed – or both – to find the meat looks bloody or pink (and not the good kind of perky Barbie pink).

I don’t blame anyone for the shame spiral. After all, it’s easy to worry that seemingly undercooked chicken reflects poorly on your skills in the kitchen. Plus there’s the real concern about food safety.

So let me put you at ease. Pink or bloody-looking poultry is often not your fault, and, in fact, may be safe to eat, as long as it has reached the correct internal temperature.

Many people are comfortable with pink or rare beef, under some circumstances. But chicken is another matter, understandably so: The dangers of undercooked poultry, namely salmonella, have been emphasised by food safety experts for years.

“People have been trained, and they will not eat pink chicken,” said cookbook author Meathead Goldwyn, whose website, Amazing Ribs, is a great resource for those interested in the science of grilling. “It’s tough sometimes to get rid of that pink without turning it into cardboard.”

Oh and the oft-cited recipe instruction to cook chicken until the juices run clear? That’s not your friend either. Here’s what you need to know about why your chicken or turkey might be pink and how to make sure it’s safe to eat.

Regardless of colour, if your chicken reaches 165 degrees, it’s safe to eat. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
Even fully cooked chicken may appear pink, especially around the dark meat. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

White and dark meat are different. The protein myoglobin is “one of the transportation vehicles that moves oxygen” around the body, Goldwyn said.

It mixes with water to form “myowater”, which is the pink-hued liquid – not blood! – you often find in packages of raw meat. Because it helps muscles that do a lot of work, myoglobin is found in higher amounts in legs and thighs, hence their categorisation as dark meat, explained Dan Souza and Alyssa Vaughn at Cook’s Illustrated.

This higher concentration of myoglobin in dark meat means it’s more likely you’ll end up with pink spots there because of some of the factors that I’ll go into shortly.

Chickens are slaughtered young. Those that are processed for meat are often just six to eight weeks old. At that age, according to the USDA, the bones have not completely hardened, so “pigment from the bone marrow seeps through the bones and into the surrounding area”.

This can lead to a dark or bloody-looking appearance. Freezing exacerbates the problem, as ice crystals can puncture the bone and release more marrow. Moreover, the lack of fat under the skin of young chickens allows more oven gases to get through to the meat, which can also create a pink tint, the USDA said.

Certain cooking methods can actually preserve a pink colour. Myoglobin starts to turn brown at 140 degrees, Morgan Bolling wrote at Cook’s Country. But that isn’t always the case.

Goldwyn said that the nitric oxide present in smoke can prevent that change of colour, which is what explains the coveted smoke ring (a layer of pink meat just under the surface) you can find in smoked or grilled foods. Similarly, “nitrates and nitrites, which are often used as preservatives or may occur naturally in the feed or water supply used, can cause a pink colour”, the USDA said.

How the animal was raised or slaughtered matters. The acidity of meat can impact the colour as well. As Goldwyn discovered in his deep dive on the topic, meat with a higher pH, or low acidity, can retain a pink hue from the myoglobin to much higher temps, up to 170 or 180 degrees. That higher pH can be a result of how the animal was raised, pre-slaughter stress or climate-related factors.

All that matters is the temperature, not colour. The best thing you can do to gauge the doneness of your chicken, among other things, is to use a good digital thermometer, Goldwyn said.

The USDA recommended that all poultry be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to reduce the likelihood of foodborne illness, though dark meat can be juicier at temperatures up to 195 degrees. Do not rely on the colour of the meat or juices to determine whether chicken is ready to eat. If you’re trying to get rid of the pink, you may end up with dry, stringy chicken, since myoglobin can in certain circumstances require a higher temperature to turn brown.

Goldwyn said he has encountered resistance to thermometer use because of a misconception that poking the meat will cause it to dry out. However, meat is 75 per cent water to begin with, and any loss from the holes created by the thermometer probe is minimal. “You lose far more during evaporation and drip loss into the fire,” he said.

Another word on temps: Eliminating bacterial risk relies on a number of factors beyond a single temperature point, including moisture and fat content, J Kenji López-Alt noted in The Food Lab.

The combination of temperature and time can help determine when chicken is safe to eat. He said that chicken cooked to 155 degrees and held there for about 44 seconds allows for a sufficient reduction in bacteria; at 160 degrees, it’s about 14 seconds. If you feel comfortable with this matrix, go for it. If you want to stick to the USDA advice because it feels safer and easier, please do. – Becky Krystal

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