How to Take the Temperature of Your Turkey

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Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Video: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Want to guarantee that your turkey will be tender and juicy? Throw out the timing charts and forget about cooking "until the juices run clear." Just use a thermometer. It's the only way to guarantee perfectly cooked meat—provided that you know how to use it correctly. For the best results, you want to check the turkey's temperature in three different locations: the deepest part of the breast, the joint between the thigh and the body, and the joint between the drumstick and the thigh. This video will show you exactly how to do it.

The government recommends cooking turkey breast to 165°F (74°C). I prefer my turkey breast at 150&degF (66°F), at which point it is far, far juicier (especially if you dry brine it!). But is it safe?

Well, here's the thing: Industry standards for food safety are primarily designed to be simple to understand, usually at the expense of accuracy. T=The rules are set up such any cook can follow then, no matter their skill level, and so that they're easily enforceable by health agencies. But for single-celled organisms, bacteria are surprisingly complex, and despite what any ServSafe chart might have you believe, they refuse to be categorized into a step function. The upshot is that food safety is a function of both temperature and time.

What the USDA is really looking for is a 7.0 log10 relative reduction in bacteria. That is, a reduction that ensures that out of every 10,000,000 bacteria living on that turkey to start, only one will survive.

Take a look at this simplified chart I drew using data from the USDA's guide.

Pasteurization Time for Poultry With 5% Fat Content (7-log10 lethality)

Temperature Time
136°F (58°C) 65.3 minutes
140°F (60°C) 29 minutes
145°F (63°C) 10.8 minutes
150°F (66°C) 3.7 minutes
155°F (68°C) 1.2 minutes
160°F (71°C) 26.1 seconds
165°F (74°C) Instant

According to the USDA's own data, as long as your turkey spends at least 3.7 minutes at or above,150°F (66°C), it is safe to eat. In other words, by the time it's done resting (you do let your turkey rest before carving, right?), you should be good to go.

Check out the video for more details.

The Thermapen remains the Cadillac of kitchen thermometers, with incredible speed, a nice long probe, high accuracy and precision, waterproof design, and a number of other nifty features. But if you don't want to spend almost $100 on a thermometer, opt for its slightly-less-flashy cousin the ThermoPop, or try the Lavatools Javelin. Both are accurate, far faster than the competition in their shared price range, and reliable.