Raw & undercooked chicken vs. Smoked chicken
An important poultry question was recently brought to our attention regarding the difference between undercooked chicken (often appearing raw or ‘pink’ in the middle) and smoked chicken (which can appear a deep pink almost entirely)
Americans eat more chicken every year than any other meat, and the CDC (Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention) estimates that about a million people get sick each year from eating contaminated poultry.
What is the risk of consuming raw (and frozen raw) chicken?
Chicken can be a nutritious choice, but raw chicken is often contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria and sometimes with Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens bacteria. You can get food poisoning from eating undercooked chicken, as well as other foods or beverages contaminated by raw chicken or its juices.
- Here are some important steps from the CDC for preventing food poisoning from raw/undercooked chicken:
- Place chicken in a disposable bag before putting in your shopping cart or refrigerator to prevent raw juices from getting onto other foods.
- Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling chicken.
- Do not wash raw chicken. During washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops.
- Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken.
- Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board, or other surface that previously held raw chicken.
- Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing chicken and before you prepare the next item.
- Use a food thermometer to make sure chicken is cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165°F.
- If cooking frozen raw chicken, which is found in some microwavable meals, handle it as you would fresh raw chicken and follow cooking directions carefully.
- If you think the chicken you are served at a restaurant or anywhere else is not fully cooked, send it back for more cooking.
- Refrigerate or freeze leftover chicken within 2 hours (or within 1 hour if the temperature outside is higher than 90°F).
Why does smoked chicken turn pink, and how can it be safe to eat when prepared properly?
When we say properly prepared, we mean chicken that has been smoked high enough and long enough to kill off any harmful bacteria.
For example, FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA) offers guidance on the ‘Low ‘N Slow’ approach of safely slow cooking meat at a lower heat temperature, but for a longer period of time. This approach involves ‘water, flavored wood chips, several hours of smoke and, of course, food safety, for a great tasting meal.’
Smoking chicken at home? Follow these tips for a safe meal:
- Thaw meat entirely before smoking. There are three ways to thaw:
- In the refrigerator: This is the safest way to thaw meat and poultry. Take the food out of the freezer and thaw in the fridge on a plate or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak.
- In cold water: For faster thawing, put the frozen package in a watertight plastic bag and submerge it in cold water; change the water every 30 minutes. Once thawed, cook it immediately.
- In the microwave: Follow instructions on the microwave oven or in the manual. Cook immediately after thawing in the microwave.
- Marinate in controlled temperatures. Meats can be marinated in the refrigerator at 40° F (4.4°C) or below. Don’t cross-contaminate marinades. Sauce used to marinate raw meat, poultry or seafood should never be used on cooked foods unless it is boiled just before serving with food.
- Use two types of thermometers.
- Smoker thermometer: These are often built in. Be sure that the temperature in the smoker stays between 225°F and 300°F (107°C and 149°C).
- Food thermometer: Use a food thermometer to make sure food reaches a safe internal temperature of 165°F for chicken.
- Chill promptly. If you aren’t taking your smoked food straight to the dinner table, refrigerate within two hours of cooking (one hour when the outside temperature is above 90° F (32.2°C)). If the meat is a larger cut of meat, remember to cut the product into smaller portions, place it in shallow containers, cover and refrigerate. For best storage, use within four days, or freeze for later use.
Myoglobin, a protein stored in muscle, takes a pink appearance when mixed with water. When exposed to high temperatures, myoglobin breaks down to give a consistent white coloring across the whole piece of meat. When chicken is smoked at a lower temperature for a much longer period of time, the myoglobin doesn’t fully break. This creates a pink ‘tinge’ to the meat.
The CDC and FSIS continue to remind consumers that ‘pinkness’ (or any color, texture, or odor) is never an indication of doneness; “Cooked food is safe only after it’s been heated to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Color and texture alone won’t tell you whether your food is done. Instead, use a food thermometer to be sure.”
There are explanations for pink chicken other than undercooking. For example, smoked chicken could be pink in color but well cooked. If the consumer remains concerned, they can call the local health department and make a complaint. The health dept will like visit the restaurant and check cooking and holding temperatures. Testing for detection of pathogens is rarely done unless there is a clear link between an illness and a particular food. Even then, it is expensive and not always reliable for reasons beyond the scope of this response
View safe minimum cooking temperatures here. Learn more about why cooking to safe internal temperatures matters in a video here.