You’ve all been waiting for hours. The house is filled with the enticing aroma of browned turkey, and you can even hear the fat sputtering in the pan. You’re thinking it, everyone in the house is thinking it: when do we get to eat this thing?
If you have a meat thermometer (which is quite a lifesaver on such occasions), the answer is: it depends!
How Do I Use a Meat Thermometer?
Used properly, a meat thermometer can take a lot of the guesswork out of determining when the turkey is done. You'll need a probe-style thermometer, either instant-read (which you can only use when you take the turkey out of the oven) or a true meat thermometer. You can place a meat thermometer in the turkey before roasting and leave it in as it cooks. Digital models have a cord that leads out of the oven and to an electronic display that alerts you when you've reached the desired temperature.
To get an accurate reading, it's important to insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast or thigh, avoiding contact with the bones. When roasting a whole bird, test the temperature in a few different places to ensure it has cooked properly.
What’s A Safe Temperature for Roast Turkey?
Okay, okay. We’ll start with the short answer. The USDA says to cook your turkey to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. (If you stuffed the turkey, the stuffing, not just the meat, should be 165°F). That’s their recommendation for all turkey that starts out raw. This temperature ensures those nasty salmonella bacteria are all blasted, and your turkey is safe to serve.
I’ve roasted numerous whole turkeys and turkey breasts to 165°F and had splendid results with happy guests. It works. If there’s one number to remember, it’s this one.
Are Lower Internal Temperatures Safe?
Good question. Here’s where we get into the physics of roasting. A few of our turkey recipes call for pulling the turkey from the oven before it hits 165°F (in the case of How to Dry Brine and Roast a Turkey, it’s 160°F). How is this even safe?
When you roast any whole bird or big chunk of meat, there’s still residual heat when you remove it from the oven (or grill, or deep fryer, or what have you). The bigger the roast, the more residual heat. As it sits and rests out of the oven, that residual heat will cause the temperature to climb. In essence, your turkey is still cooking after you take it out of the oven. This is called carryover cooking.
When you pull the turkey at 160°F, the recipe is counting on the carryover cooking to ding the internal temperature up a few degrees to the magic 165°F deemed safe by the USDA. This is why resting your roasted bird is especially important! During the resting time, it’s still cooking.
What About Higher Internal Temperatures?
The Butterball site says to cook their turkey to an internal temperature of 170°F. The chef in me prickles at this, but it’s probably just a safety measure to ensure no one using their methods comes down with salmonella poisoning. And here’s a little trivia for other turkeys: those plastic pop-up thermometers that come already inserted into some are set to go off at 180°F. Yowza!
The trickiest thing about turkey is how the breast dries out after 165°F. But the dark meat—those lovely thighs and drumsticks!—becomes far more succulent when cooked to a higher temperature closer to 170°F, which allow the tough collages to break down into silky gelatin. I’ll even take my thighs up to 180°F, which is why I break down my turkey into parts and cook them to different internal temperatures.
The whole thing is a little excessive and quite frankly takes a lot of time. After all, most people just think of roasted turkey as a vehicle for delivering gravy.
So, if you just want to roast a simple turkey you can feel secure serving your loved ones, just pop the whole bird in the oven and cook it to 165°F. It works.