Cooking Turkey Breast: The Facts

When cooking poultry, it is important to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature. Turkey is no exception, and requires attention to make sure it is safe to consume after cooking. But what exactly is the right temperature, and what are the potential risks?

Cooking Turkey Breast: The Facts

Cooking Turkey Breast

When cooking turkey, there are several key pieces of information worth remembering. 

The Ideal Temperature

The ideal internal temperature for turkey breast is 165 degrees. This is a great temperature to ensure all of the potentially harmful bacteria within the meat have been killed, thus making it safe to eat. 

What About 150 Degrees? 

Technically speaking, 150 degrees is a safe temperature to cook turkey breast to, but only if it has been cooking at this temperature for around 5 minutes or more. 

This is because salmonella is killed at temperatures of 150 degrees, but only after a period of 4 minutes. As such, within these guidelines, this temperature is safe, although it is still recommended that the higher temperature (as mentioned above) is reached before consumption. 

If you are dead set on sticking to a 150 degree cooking temperature, then the best ways to ensure this are to have a timer handy, which you can set to 4-5 minutes, just so you don’t take the meat out of the oven too soon. 

Rest assured though, the meat will still be delicious if it is left to cook longer, and you could safely go to 160 degrees for the same taste and that extra peace of mind. 

Does The Cut Matter? 

Whilst this is true for turkey breasts, the same doesn’t necessarily apply for other parts of the bird. This is because white meat and dark meat are made of different consistencies, and as such cook in different ways and at different speeds. 

Turkey breast is white meat, and has a lower cooking temperature. Cooking white meat to 165 degrees will ensure the meat is juicy and tender, whilst maintaining flavor. Any more than this, and the meat will begin to taste dry and flavorless. 

The turkey’s thighs and legs are darker meat, and as such take longer to cook, maintaining their tenderness well into the 180s. This is because dark meat is made up of more active muscles, and as such takes longer to cook. 

This is why it is important to check the temperature of both the breast and the thighs when cooking turkey. In the past, the temperature of the entire bird was recommended to be at 180 degrees, but this will result in dryer breast meat when it comes time to eat. 

Obviously, it is always better to overcook than undercook, especially where poultry is concerned, and some people may prefer to overcook their turkey as a way of confidently ensuring safe consumption, however this is personal preference and not to everyone’s taste. 

Signs Of Undercooked Turkey

Of course, the predominant sign of undercooked meat is pinkness. With poultry especially, this is a warning sign that the meat is not cooked to a safe temperature.

However, with turkey meat, it is still possible to see pink spots, even when the meat is safely and thoroughly cooked. 

Within turkey meat, a pigment called cytochrome can be found which is responsible for effective fat burning. When this pigment is heated, it can no longer hold oxygen, meaning it discolors, shifting from whiter shades to pink. 

This coloration will fade after a while, but if it doesn’t, be rest assured that the meat is safe to cook (if it has reached the safe temperature, of course). 

Undercooking: The Risks

As with undercooking any meat, there are some associated risks when it comes to turkey. 

Salmonella

Salmonella is the most common form of food poisoning, and can be present in turkey if it has not been sufficiently cooked. 

It is a common bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract, and can be found in animals and humans. Humans usually contract it through contaminated food or water, and whilst not every turkey has the bacteria, efforts should be made to avoid the risk where possible. 

These bacteria live in the guts of many types of farm animals, and during rearing, slaughtering and processing, the bacteria can be transferred to the meat. 

The best ways to avoid salmonella poisoning are to ensure your meat is thoroughly cooked in line with government recommendations, to properly chill meat and fish, to properly clean work surfaces and food storage areas, and to avoid cross contamination between food types. 

Further steps include frequent hand washing during the food preparation process. This should be done before preparing or eating food, after handling raw meat, or after handling garbage or going to the bathroom. 

As far as the infection goes, the time between exposure and sickness can be anywhere between 6 hours to 6 days, and illness will be presented in the following symptoms: diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, headache, and in extreme cases, blood in the stool. 

Symptoms can last between a few days to a few weeks, and medical attention should be sought if they persist more than a few days. 

Campylobacter

Campylobacter is a genus of bacteria responsible for food poisoning in humans. Infected humans can develop campylobacteriosis, a diarrhea based sickness. 

This gastrointestinal infection can take anywhere from 24-72 hours from exposure to incubation, and as such it is not immediately obvious when an infection has occurred. Symptoms include: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, belly cramps, bloating, and fever. 

A doctor should be contacted if you are are still experiencing these symptoms after more than a couple of days, or if you have still have diarrhea, have blood in the stool, have persistent signs of dehydration, have severe pain in the gut or rectum, have a fever of 102F or more, or can’t consume fluids due to excess vomiting. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about the appropriate temperature for cooking turkey breast, the potential side effects of undercooking, and the best ways to determine whether the meat is cooked. 

While you cannot simply rely on color alone, at least where turkey is concerned, the best way to tell if turkey breast is cooked is when the internal temperature is 160 degrees or above. 

Above all, practice cleanliness and preparation in the kitchen, and make temperature probing a regular part of your food preparation routine. You won’t regret it!

Tommy Hall