Below, we're sharing an excerpt from the Food52 cookbook, Dynamite Chicken, to answer one of life's most important questions: At what temperature should my cooked chicken end up, and how do I get it there?
Anybody who tells you that one part of the chicken is better than another part of the chicken is not somebody whose culinary advice you need to take too seriously. But even though it all comes from the same bird, chicken parts have different flavors and functions in recipes, and different cook times and temperatures to reach to get the best out of them. Here's a guide to chicken cooking temps in general, a breakdown on how I like to cook separate chicken parts, and a bunch of different ways you can cook your chicken to get to the result we all want: flavorful, succulent meat.
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But first, chicken safety
I've cooked hundreds of chickens in my life, and I have never gotten salmonella poisoning. I suspect that the biggest culprit of salmonella is cross-contamination, which happens when, for example, you cut chicken on a cutting board that you then use for something else without cleaning it first. Only cooking kills salmonella, and the government says to cook food to 165°F (75°C) to instantly pasteurize it. However, while cooking chicken breasts especially, I shoot for closer to 150°F (65°C) and try to hold it there for a couple minutes. This extra time at temp also leads to pasteurization, so your chicken breasts are safe to eat and won't dry out or get a little tough, like at 165°F (75°C) — but more on this below.
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Different cooks for different cuts
Chicken breasts are lean, texturally very consistent when cooked properly, and great for quick-cooking recipes. But they have less collagen and gelatin in them than the legs do, so if you cook them past 150°F (65°C) or so, they will release moisture and get dry and rubbery. Leave them on the bone if you want to give yourself a buffer on cook time, as this will help preserve moisture. Or cut them small and don't worry about perfection, as they can add great texture where a tender chicken leg can get lost. I like to sauté or gently poach chicken breasts.
Chicken legs, on the other hand, excel when cooked for a long time. The fat renders out and they get that juicy, shreddable, pulled-pork appeal. Use chicken legs when a recipe tells you to put the chicken in at the beginning and the dish has a total cooking time of 40 minutes. I find drumsticks and thighs to be pretty interchangeable, as they're both dark meat wrapped around a bone. The thigh is meatier, and the drumstick has a little more tendon action that you'll want to remove, but that is easy to do once the drumstick is cooked.
Chicken wings are delicious! They have a high skin-to-meat ratio, which lends itself to crispy roasted or fried preparations or nice charring on the grill. And they tend to be cheap and plentiful. That said, if you buy a whole chicken to cook for a few meals, it's probably not worth the effort of making just two Buffalo wings. Instead, you can put them in a pot with other chicken parts to make stock, and then they can become any number of things in spirit.
Now, if we're talking about boneless, skinless chicken, breast and thigh meat are relatively interchangeable. Pounded-out, quick-cooking recipes like chicken schnitzel are great for breasts, whereas the long marinade and lengthier cook of chicken spiedies, while delicious with breasts, go even better with juicier thighs. I wouldn't necessarily say that the thighs have more flavor, but they have a slightly gamier profile worth keeping in mind.
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To roast a 3- to 4-pound (1.4 to 1.8kg) chicken, heat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Check the chicken's cavity for any bag of neck bones and giblets that might be hanging out in there, removing it if there is one. Then, season the chicken all over with plenty of kosher salt (so the salt can really make its way into the skin and meat), rub extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil on the skin (add more salt if it rubs off with the oil), put the chicken in a large roasting pan or on a sheet pan, and cook it in the oven for an hour. If the skin doesn't get dark enough while roasting, put the chicken under the broiler for a couple of minutes longer. If the chicken needs a little more than an hour to be done, give it an hour and 10 minutes and take note for next time.
All this said: I find it troublesome to gauge a whole-roasted chicken's doneness using temperature because I have never figured out the correct place to stick a thermometer — when I put it in the breast, the thickest part of the chicken, either it will say 125°F (52°C) and the chicken is super overcooked, or it will say 175°F (80°C) and the chicken is still a little raw. And the juice thing? The juice coming out of a chicken is never clear, at 165°F (75°C) or otherwise. There is just too much biology going on in there. So I say wiggle the leg. Does it feel loose? Is the skin pulling back from the joint where the foot would have been attached? After an hour of cooking, is the skin super dark or is it still a little pale?
Once I'm ready to pull the chicken from the oven, I let it rest for 10 minutes and then slice into the thickest part — just to the side of the breastbone. If the meat is white and not pink, then we win! If it's not, it's rested only 10 minutes and the oven won't take long to heat back up, so back in it goes. I realize that cookbook authors and chefs, of which I am a strange combo, are supposed to give much more precise answers than that, but I am here to tell you guys the truth. And once you get to know how long it takes to cook a 4-pound (1.8kg) chicken at 400°F (200°C) in your oven, then you won't even need to think about thermometers or juices anymore!
Roast Chicken Parts
Roasting bone-in, skin-on chicken parts is just like roasting a whole chicken! Heat the oven to 400°F (200°C), season the parts generously with kosher salt, rub with oil, and roast. The breasts should be done in 30 minutes and the legs in 45, so pull them out accordingly — the meat should be fully white in the middle, and not even a little pink. If the parts don't get brown on the outside, broil them for a few minutes to get extra-crispy and delightful skin.
Poaching chicken is quick and easy and leaves you with super tender meat and a little bit of flavorful stock to use for other things. Put four boneless chicken pieces (about 2 pounds, or 900g) in a pot and just barely cover them with water (about 11 ⁄ 2 quarts, or 1.4L). Add 11 ⁄ 2 teaspoons of kosher salt. Over medium-high heat, bring the water up to a light boil, turn the heat to low, and gently simmer the chicken in the broth until it is just cooked, 7 to 10 minutes. You can add onions, garlic, herbs — whatever you like — but those flavors will shine through more in the resulting broth than in the chicken itself.
Sautéing chicken is the fastest and arguably most delicious way to cook it, because you can get the most intense caramelization in a very short time. Simply heat a sauté pan on high heat with a little vegetable or extra-virgin olive oil until smoking, season chicken well with kosher salt, and place it in the pan, skin-side down (if working with skin-on chicken). Cook the chicken on that side without disturbing it until it is cooked almost all of the way through — 5 to 7 minutes for a boneless breast, 18 to 20 minutes for a bone-in breast, and 28 to 30 minutes for thighs or drumsticks — lowering the heat to medium after 5 to 7 minutes for the bone-in pieces. It can be tricky to tell when a bone-in chicken breast is almost cooked, so peek in between the breast and tenderloin and cook it until there's only a little pink left. Then flip and cook it for another minute or two until there is no more pink.
Broiling chicken is fun and exciting — you get crispy skin and tender meat in an impossibly short time. That said, it's a pretty aggressive way to cook chicken, so I recommend you keep an eye on it because things happen pretty quickly. Season bone-in, skin-on chicken parts with kosher salt, rub the skin with vegetable or olive oil, put the pieces under the broiler, and flip them pretty regularly so that they don't burn — every 3 or 4 minutes. Depending on the size and thickness of your chicken, and the seriousness of your broiler, the parts should take between 8 and 12 minutes (or 25 to 30 for bigger pieces) to cook. To see if they're cooked, check the thickest part of the meat — if it's pink, it needs some more time, and if it's white throughout, it's fully cooked.
Basically, any of the preceding cooking preparations make good chicken for shredding, but poaching and broiling are the fastest and easiest ways to get there. First, cook the chicken in any of the ways mentioned. Then, to shred, transfer the cooked chicken to a plate or cutting board and let it cool until it can be handled easily, or ideally to room temperature, 10 to 20 minutes. Use your hands to pull the meat off of the bones and then shred it into small pieces; or using two forks, hold the chicken steady with one fork and scrape the chicken off the bone with the tines of the other to shred. Save or freeze any skin, bones, fat, or cartilage for stock (unless you like those things to be in your chicken salad), and you're ready to use the delicious shredded meat.