When it comes to cooking chicken, there are a lot of temperatures to keep in mind.
There's the temperature you set your oven to, which is usually 350 to 375 F.
Then there's the actual temperature of the chicken itself, known as the internal temperature, which is what determines its level of doneness. You'd measure this with an instant-read thermometer.
And then there's the minimum safe internal temperature with respect to food safety—in other words, the temperature your chicken needs to reach to ensure that any harmful bacteria it might harbor, like salmonella or e. Coli, are killed.
Last, but by no means least, there is the temperature that your chicken should be cooked to for quality purposes—so that the breast meat is firm and white but not stringy and dry, and the dark meat is tender rather than rubbery.
Sound confusing? It is. Especially when you consider that white meat and dark meat are each "done" at different temperatures, and a whole chicken obviously consists of both. This is why it's so difficult to cook a whole chicken without some part of it being over- or under-cooked.
White and Dark Meat Doneness
What's important to remember is that chicken breast is properly cooked at 145 to 150 F. This temperature ensures that all pinkness is gone but the meat is firm but still tender.
But chicken thighs (and all chicken dark meat) needs to be cooked to a higher temperature, 175 to 180 F, due to its higher amounts of connective tissue, aka collagen. Cooking thigh meat to 165 F will yield chewy, rubbery meat. But at 175 to 180 F it will be tender and juicy as that collagen melts and turns to gelatin.
USDA Recommended Safe Temperature
The USDA recommends that chicken and poultry be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F for at least 30 seconds. What that means is that the deepest part of the meat should heated to 165 F for that amount of time. The problem with that is that when heated to 165 F, chicken breast meat turns dry and stringy, with a texture resembling chalk—which is to say severely overcooked.
But fortunately there are two dimensions to the USDA's recommendation: temperature (165 F) and time (30 seconds). And by extending the time dimension, you can lower the target temperature, avoiding overcooking while maintaining food safety.
For instance, an internal temperature of 150 F for 2.7 minutes is the same, food safety-wise, as 165 F for 30 seconds. Likewise 145 F for 8.4 minutes.
Roasting a Perfect Chicken
This is good news, because it so happens that 145 to 150 F is the ideal doneness temperature for chicken breast. And because the temperature of a roasted chicken continues to rise for several minutes after taking it out of the oven, if you pull it out when the breast is 145 F and let it rest for 30 minutes, that breast meat will in fact remain above 145 F for more than the required 8.4 minutes, meaning it will be tender, juicy and perfectly safe.
Meanwhile the temperature of the thigh meat will continue to rise after you pull the chicken, eventually peaking at around 200 F, which is more than sufficient for the collagen in the dark meat to break down and turn to gelatin, again ensuring tender, juicy, flavorful dark meat.
So the steps to follow to roast a whole chicken using this technique are:
- Preheat your oven to 500 F.
- Place the chicken in a roasting pan with a rack. Season it with Kosher salt.
- Insert a digital probe thermometer into the deepest part of the breast and set it to alert you when the temperature reaches 145 F.
- Transfer the chicken to the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 350 F.
- Wait approximately 90 minutes for the alarm on the thermometer to beep.
- Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes, leaving the probe in the breast.
- After 30 minutes, carve and serve.
During the resting period you'll see the temperature on the digital probe display continue to rise and then fall. When it completes its rise and eventually dips down to 120 F, it's ready to carve.
Sous Vide Chicken Breasts
Bear in mind that the times and temperatures above refer only to roasting a whole chicken. It's the overall mass of the whole chicken that allows it to hold those temperatures during the resting time. If you tried roasting an individual chicken breast, it wouldn't work the same way.
However, there is one technique that is perfect for cooking individual cuts of chicken to a certain temperature and holding them at that temperature. It's called sous vide cooking. You can read more about sous vide here, but briefly, it involves sealing your food in plastic and then immersing that pouch in a water bath that is heated to a precise temperature.
With this cooking method it's a simple matter to heat your chicken breast to 145 F for as long as you want. The added advantage of sous vide is that no matter how long you leave it in the water bath, your chicken breast will never get any hotter than 145 F (or whatever temperature you set it to).