HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


I'm confused about temperatures and 'doneness' with chicken breasts

I've been getting back into cooking, this time more seriously since I now live on my own. Tonight, I cooked some bonesless, skinless chicken breasts (unflattened/unpounded) in some olive oil in a skillet on the stove top.

I bought a probe thermometer like what I used for grilling to check how done the meat was (shooting for 165 F). In the thickest part of the meat, I only got to about 140 F, but upon cutting the breasts open at the thick part, the meat is all white, cooked and sort of 'threads' apart as one would expect cooked chicken to do. The exterior was getting a bit beyond golden brown which is why I pulled it off the heat.

But I'm confused: The thermometer says it has a long ways to go but my senses tell me if I had cooked it any longer it would have been like gnawing on a tennis shoe.

Should I have used a mallet to pound down the thicker portions to make the cut more even? Was my heat too high (on an electric range)? Is the chicken indeed cooked thouroughly at this point?

Thanks for your thoughts and advice!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. If the interior isn't pink, it's done. Your thermometer may be faulty. You should not have aimed for 165F as meat will continue to cook on residual heat, even if removed from the pan. No higher than 155F, and leave it for 10 minutes so the juice redistributes evenly throughout the meat before it is sliced.

    You can pound or butterfly for more even cooking, which will shorten cooking time, if you so desire.

    1. Maybe your thermometer is not correctly calibrated. Probe thermometers, in my experience, are also pretty slow to accurately measure the temperature... so maybe you didn't leave it in there long enough?

      3 Replies
      1. re: darrentran87

        It's possible. This is a new thermometer for me and this was the maiden voyage. It's the kind with the probe at the end of a long cord. My last thermometer was just a probe with a dial and measured quickly. I'm not sure if this thing can even be calibrated. It's a Taylor model.

        1. re: J_Tay81

          I agree with the faulty thermometer theory. I had one of those probe/long cord things, and it was slow and inaccurate. I have the dial kind, too. They are a little faster and a little more accurate. But I LOVE my thermopen. It is the best so far.

          1. re: sandylc

            Breasts off the bone don't normally appear raw or undercooked at 140 (and it's likely the breasts in question were a little hotter than that after resting anyway). Dark meat does. Breasts on the bone tend to also, though that's mainly because it's really hard to get an accurate temp right near the bone and the meat near the bone is usually the rarest. I think the thermometer was probably fine.

      2. The only way I really like breasts is poached very gently. I *KNOW* the Feds keep telling us that it's got to be 160º or more before it's really cooked, but that's not cooked, it's cremated - if I'm using a thermometer I pull them out at about 135º and let them sit a while (the temperature will rise a bit to around 140º). Perfection to me is when the meat has an almost imperceptible blush to it, more an off-white than pink. I also do this off the bone.

        1. First, consider brining your chix breasts. Better flavor, juiciness and more foregiving if overcooked.

          And, yes, pull at 155 or so and let rest for 10 min. The carryover will elevate the interior temp to 165.

          And buy a new thermometer

          7 Replies
          1. re: C. Hamster

            I'm down for purchasing a new thermometer. It doesn't even need to be fancy. Do you all have any suggestions for a good all purpose thermometer?

              1. re: J_Tay81

                Whoa! Before throwing away a good pen (I've used that brand before), just stick the pen in boiling water and it should read 212F at and around sea level.

                1. re: monavano

                  Agreed with this. Though I have a thermapen and I love it, it's pretty expensive. Do what monavano recommended and just check to see if it reads 212 with boiling water. Also, take note of HOW LONG it takes to read that (if it ever does)

                  1. re: monavano

                    I tried this yesterday. In boiling water the highest it read was 203 F. I live in Nebraska, so elevation should be a problem.

                    1. re: J_Tay81

                      I tried this test again today, and in boiling water it got to 212 F, but it took a loooong time to get there.

              2. Though prefer bone-in and skin-on for chicken breasts, will pretty much always buy some when at a good price. Have found that boneless/skinless will go fm perfect to HOCKEY PUCKS in a heart beat!?! On the bone, pretty forgiving... generally not tough or dry if cooked a little longer than absolutely needed.

                1. Chicken breasts cooked to 140 in the center and allowed to rest will continue to get a little hotter (in the center) and finish at 145-155 or so. At this temperature, most will be white and appear fully cooked - though they'll be juicier than the same breast cooked to 165. You don't start seeing pink or translucence until you get down to the 130s (with most chickens). Chicken thighs will still appear undercooked at 140 though. I know this from regularly cooking chicken sous vide at a variety of temperatures. Your thermometer is not likely to be broken.

                  What's more, if you are cooking them at a high temperature on the stove top, the outer layers of chicken meat are likely cooked significantly higher than 140, and would indeed make the breast seem dryer overall. Leaving the center at a lower temp can be one way to make the overall piece of meat seem less dry overall when cooking on the stovetop.

                  The question is whether it's safe to eat them at this temperature (when not cooked sous vide, anyway). They're... less safe than if they were cooked to 165. In practice, the recommendation to cook chicken to 165 internally might be a little overly 'safe.' True, American chicken is contaminated with bacteria quite often. But 165 is possibly overkill in terms of pasteurizing even contaminated meat. Also, there is some evidence that bacteria does not penetrate the surface of the meat (unless the meat is pierced... which isn't entirely unlikely) and that fully cooking only the surface of meat (even chicken) can lead to a fully safe meal. You'll have to decide what you're okay with.

                  If you want chicken cooked fully to 165 but still juicy, you might get better results in an oven. Or by brining. Or pounding thin before cooking quickly. Or even poaching or just lowering the temp on your stove.

                  1. I cook my chicken to 165 and they're not dry.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: monavano

                      Do you brine them? Are they possibly already brined?

                      1. re: sandylc

                        I don't believe they are brined, and I've never tried his technique. I'd like to, but have yet to look at how to go about doing it yet.

                        1. re: J_Tay81

                          Look to see if there are ingredients listed on the package. If so, your chicken breasts are brined. Sometimes these things are labeled as, "extra juicy", or something similar. A surprising number of "fresh" meat/poultry "products" are brined.

                    2. 1) 165 is way too high

                      2) your thermometer could be off.

                      1. The Food Safety and Inspection Service recommendation to cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 °F is to ensure that pathogens are killed. The appearance and texture of the meat is no concern of theirs. Cooked chicken can still contain dangerous levels of bacteria if the temperature does not reach a sufficient level.

                        I prefer to bake chicken breasts when they are thick because they heat through more evenly.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: GH1618

                          The bacteria are killed by three minutes at 140 or by hitting 160. They added five degrees in the last few years; I'm guessing this was to make things dummy-proof.

                        2. I've got a meat thermometer that lists the temperature each meat should be. Says poultry should be cooked to 180...uh, no.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Hobbert

                            I've read that the breast is "done" at 170 and the dark meat is "done" at 180. Done being different than germs killed.

                            1. re: Hobbert

                              I have an old dial thermometer that says 185 for poultry. I also have a new instant-read one. Guess it's time to toss the old dial one? No wonder Mom's Thanksgiving turkey was inedible.

                              1. re: pine time

                                I have 2 old Taylor dial thermometers. One indicates 185 for poultry, but the other 190!! Oh my!

                            2. Breasts are safe at 160. Personally I like them cooked to 165.

                              Pull at 155 and let them rest. Do not underestimate carry over cooking time. Proteins continue to "cook" after being taken off heat.

                              1. Your thermometer is fine. They all recommend that you way over cook all meats. You are correct, any meat cooked to 165 is way overdone, but that is the government recommendation so that's how they list it on the thermometer. I like steaks medium rare, and that means take them off the heat at about 130 but my thermometer says 150, which makes it well done.


                                1. A few thoughts, J_Tay81:

                                  First, the government has no interest in food that tastes good. All it wants is food that is safe. So the government's motto is, "When in doubt, raise the temperature!"

                                  Apparently, 165 degrees F. is the temperature at which bacteria die instantly. But the fact is, you don't don't need them to die instantly. The feds have buried in their literature (where it is difficult to find) that a lower temperature for a longer period of time will also kill off the bacteria you want to get rid of. Please see Sandylc's comment that 140 degrees F. for three minutes is fine. (I'm not necessarily endorsing that temperature, since I'm a lawyer, not a food scientist, but Sandylc stated the general principle.) If you research the matter in government publications, you will find lower temperatures for longer periods of time endorsed.

                                  Alton Brown, who has repeatedly shocked me by the low temperatures that he has found acceptable for meat safety, strangely, is pretty much on board with the government regarding chicken. He recommends 165 degrees F. on page 265 of "I'm Just Here for the Food." Of course, he recommends this "to be extra safe." Also, Mr. Brown is a fan of the concept of carry-over.

                                  My problem with carry-over is that I have not found that there is much carry-over with small pieces of protein. Sure, an 8 or 10 pound roast will carry-over 10 degrees F. But a chicken breast? You will be lucky to get more like 3 degrees.

                                  I like Will Owen's comment that 160 degrees "is cremated." (But note that Mr. Owen talks about gently poaching. My guess is that he is not taking the breasts just up to 135 degrees. He is leaving them there for an extended period of time.--Remember Sandylc's comment about cooking at a lower temperature for an extended period of time.)

                                  Let me end with a comment from page 23 of Michael Symon's "Live to Cook" on cooking boneless (mentioned earlier) skinless chicken breasts: "Eating chicken without skin is like riding a bike without wheels: it's no fun, and it leaves your dish at a flavor standstill."

                                  So, to recap: First, you don't have to cook to 165. Lower temperatures for longer periods of time will do just as well. (Note, however, that I haven't said what those temperatures ought to be, although Sandylc says 140 degrees for three minutes is fine.) Second, a lot of carry-over heat in chicken breasts is a myth. They are not big enough to carry over the heat. Third, cooking boneless, skinless chicken breasts is an exercise in futility. They have no flavor.

                                  Also, please forgive the pedantic tone of this comment.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: gfr1111

                                    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Thank you!

                                    1. re: gfr1111

                                      Carry over heating is a function of both the thickness of the meat and the temperature difference between the outer layers and the center... which depends on how hot and how quickly you cook the breast. So a thin breast cooked in an oven... not much carry over heating. A thick breast cooked in a very hot pan on the stove top... significant carry over heating. For the same reasons, slower cooking and thinner pieces of meat are more likely to get the center to 165 without the rest of the meat being especially dry (though thin pieces are of course easy to overcook).

                                      1. re: gfr1111

                                        The FSIS standard seeks to achieve a 7.0 log10 lethality of salmonella. At 165 °F this is achieved for both chicken and turkey in less than 10 sec. At 140 °F, the FSIS time-temperature tables give 26 to 28 minutes for the same reduction.

                                        1. re: GH1618

                                          This is true but the likelihood of the interior of a piece of meat containing a dangerous amount of salmonella is substantially less than the likelihood of the surface of meat being contaminated. When cooking a whole chicken it is likely that you'll end up eating meat from the cavity. Which is often contaminated and insulated from higher temperatures. Hence the quite high guideline temps for chicken. Eating a boneless breast below the traditional temps carries less risk.

                                          1. re: cowboyardee

                                            This may not be relevant to your thermometer usage, but I find chicken breasts to be real stinkers when it comes to trying to get a good thermometer reading...I DID find that my thermometer seems to 'read' the temperature a good inch and a half up from the tip, so I try to insert the thermometer into the side of the piece of chicken. If I get just the tip in, it doesn't always read true. (And yeah, this post keeps trying to turn into a dirty joke...or maybe it's just me who thinks that...)

                                        2. re: gfr1111

                                          " My guess is that he is not taking the breasts just up to 135 degrees. He is leaving them there for an extended period of time."

                                          When the simmering resumes I turn the flame to as low as it goes and give them ten minutes. For a normal-sized piece of boneless fryer breast at room temperature that has been sufficient. And I can't believe this conversation is actually making me hungry for white meat!

                                        3. I own a sous-vide machine (love it) and am vaguely familiar with the science behind lower-temperature cooking.

                                          Intuitively, it makes sense. If you walk outside and the temperature is 100C/212F, you'll die instantly. Walk outside and the temperature is 43C/110F, you'll die in a day or two of exposure.

                                          Internal temps of 165F are recommended because at that temp, bacteria die in less than a second. This makes cooking safe and idiot-proof for all the happy idiot cooks out there, myself included. However, if you're so inclined to have chicken done medium, medium-rare, provided the internal temp is maintained at 135F for an hour and a half, it's perfectly safe to eat.

                                          Sounds odd eating medium-rare, pink chicken. It's delicious.

                                          For anyone interested in the topic or in trying it out at home, the USDA tables may be found here: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/F....

                                          1. I eat a lot of chicken and turkey breast and after years of experience, they are 95% of the time juicy and moist, often shockingly so to me. It's important for them to not be too thick, but I don't bother to pound most chicken breasts unless over 8 oz. I cook them both on the stove and in the oven. With small breasts or tenderloins I sear on the stove a few minutes, then usually add a few tbsps of broth and cover for a few more minutes. When I bake chicken, it gets a quick sear on the stove. The pan should be hot so they brown but not super hot as in the hot when you cook a steak, I then cook in the oven usually at 375F or higher for shorter time than rather than lower temperature and longer time. It varies but from 15-20 minutes. I always check with a thermometer and I usually pull them from 140-145F. Only once in many years have I ever met a mildly uncooked chicken breast. Usually, after a 5-10 minute rest, they are moist, juicy and ready to eat.