How Long To Cook Chicken Before It Is Safe To Eat?

Despite a repututation for food poisoning, chicken is easy to prepare and delicious in many dishes after proper selection, careful handling, and thorough cooking.

Because of its affordability, availability, nutritional value, and versatile mild taste, chicken is one of the world's most popular meats. Unfortunately, through poor sanitation and improper handling, it is also one of the most popular carriers of food poisoning bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. By taking proper precautions before, during, and after cooking, however, chicken can be safely enjoyed in many delicious dishes.

Before Cooking

No matter how chicken is cooked, if it is handled unsafely the risk of contamination is much greater. First, choose healthy chicken: plump, fresh birds without dry, torn, or discolored skin. Always check the sell-by date, and purchase chicken last at the grocery store so that it does not warm up while you shop. Pack it in a separate bag to prevent accidentally contaminating other foods from leaks or drips, and refrigerate the meat immediately. Chicken should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator - typically the bottom shelf, toward the back. If the meat will not be used within a day or two, it should be frozen.

Bacteria grow best between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is best to defrost chicken in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. For faster defrosting, submerge the package in cold water or use the microwave.

When preparing chicken, wash your hands and other utensils in hot, soapy water before and after handling the meat to prevent spreading bacteria to other foods, implements, or counter tops. Acrylic cutting boards are safer than wooden surfaces because they are less likely to scratch - a scratch provides a perfect breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Always use different utensils and serving dishes for raw and cooked meat to eliminate any contamination. Just before cooking chicken, rinse it under cold, running water and pat dry.

Cooking Chicken

Chicken can only be well done - there are no rare or medium gradations for cooked chicken. Cooking times vary depending on several factors: the size of the chicken or assorted pieces, whether or not it is stuffed, bone-in or boneless, and the temperature of the oven or cooking surface. In general, larger pieces, whole chickens, stuffed birds, and bone-in portions take longer to cook. White meat (breasts) cooks faster than dark meat (thighs), because dark meat contains more fat and moisture. In a 350 degree oven, small boneless pieces may take as little as thirty minutes to cook, while a large, stuffed bird needs over an hour and a half for proper roasting.

Different cooking methods create different tastes. Roasting, grilling, frying, and boiling are all safe ways to cook chicken if done for an appropriate length of time. Unfortunately, sometimes the outer portion of the chicken may be finished before the interior is fully cooked. Simply gauging the bird's doneness by its exterior appearance is not sufficient to ensure safe food.



There are several ways to test chicken to see if it is fully cooked. Piercing the meat and examining the juices is a common method: fully cooked juices run clear, while undercooked juices will be pink or discolored. While chicken is naturally juicy, too much moisture indicates that it isn't fully cooked, even if the juices are clear. If you are testing a roasted chicken, the drumsticks should rotate easily in their sockets, and when cut, any fully cooked chicken will be white without any pink in the middle.

Meat thermometers are safe ways to test chicken for doneness. To use a thermometer, pierce the thickest part of the meat without touching the bone, and leave the thermometer in place at least thirty seconds for an accurate reading. Breast meat should reach at least 170 degrees, and thigh meat should reach between 180 and 190 degrees. If the bird is stuffed, the stuffing should reach 165 degrees. Because ovens may heat unevenly, be sure to check different parts of the bird to ensure it is fully cooked. Always clean the thermometer before retesting the meat.

It may be necessary to combine several types of cooking for safety and taste. For example, boiling chicken for fifteen to twenty minutes before grilling guarantees the meat is thoroughly cooked without excessively burning it on the grill. The same technique can be used for stir fry dishes that only require short cooking periods.

Many cooks use marinades to flavor chicken and add zest to their dishes. After the raw meat is removed, the marinade should be discarded. If, however, it is needed for basting or dipping, boil the liquid for a minimum of one full minute at 212 degrees to eliminate the risk of bacteria contaminating the fully cooked meat.

After Cooking

When the meal is ready, chicken should be served immediately. Refrigerate leftovers within an hour, and store unused portions tightly covered in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If they will not be eaten within three or four days, freeze any remaining leftovers. Cooked chicken should be handled as carefully as raw meat to prevent accidental contamination: clean utensils, freshly washed hands, and separate serving dishes are necessities.

Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria are associated with nausea, diarrhea, cramps, and other food poisoning symptoms. Even mild cases may last up to a week, and severe infections can lead to liver or lung infections and even death. Despite a reputation associated with such poisonings, chicken can easily be enjoyed with careful selection, adequate cleanliness, and thorough cooking. Delicious as an hors d'oeuvre, salad, or entrée, chicken is popular throughout the world in a variety of tasty dishes.

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