How to Know When Baked Chicken Is Ready Without a Thermometer

A properly baked or roasted chicken is a highly satisfying dish for the cook. It will have a beautifully crisp, golden skin, savory aroma and tender, moist flesh. The trick is to cook the chicken so that it's done all the way through without allowing any portion of the bird to become overcooked. The only way to know for certain the bird is done is to use a meat thermometer, but when those are unavailable, watch for specific visual clues.

A perfectly cooked chicken is moist and juicy. (Image: Liv Friis-Larsen/iStock/Getty Images)

Food Safety

Overcooking a chicken can leave it dry and tasteless, but it won't harm anything beyond your reputation as a cook. Undercooking a chicken is far more serious because of the potential for illness from bacteria including salmonella and campylobacter. Ongoing testing by "Consumer Reports" magazine has established that the majority of commercially raised supermarket chickens are infected with one or both of those bacteria and cause millions of illnesses every year. To serve chicken safely, the USDA's Food Safety and Information Service advises that you cook it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The most reliable testing method is a meat thermometer.

Visual Cues

Without a meat thermometer, you must use other ways to check the chicken's status. One way is to tip the bird so the juices run out of its cavity. If they're clear, the chicken is likely done; pink means it's not ready yet. The same test can be applied by piercing the chicken in a thick part of the breast and then again on the thigh. If the juices run clear, the bird is likely done.

Other Tests

Two other tests provide a reasonably reliable check on the bird's doneness. When you pierce the breast or thigh, hold the tip of your knife in the chicken for at least 15 seconds, then touch it to your lip or the inside of your wrist. If it's hot enough to hurt, your chicken is likely done. A second, very traditional test is to grasp a drumstick by the end and wiggle it. If it moves freely, that's because the tissues around the hip joint have cooked and contracted. The chicken will likely be done.

Pink at the Bone

It's not uncommon to find a piece of chicken that's vividly pink in the middle, near the bone. This is not an indication that the chicken is underdone. In young, tender birds, the flesh along the bone contains hemoglobin, which cooks to a stable pink color. This is perfectly normal and has no bearing on whether the flesh is safe to eat. If you're unsure, check the texture. Cooked chicken is firm, while uncooked chicken is flabby and rubbery. If cooked, most of the flesh will be pale and only the section along the bone will be pink-tinged.

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