Is Turkey Done At 165 Or 180 Degrees? The Great Debate

It’s a debate that has entertained home cooks and barbecue enthusiasts for years: is your turkey finished cooking when it reaches 165°F or 180°F?

Like most questions of this nature, there’s no single right or wrong answer, it’s pretty much a matter of opinion and personal preference.

According to most food standards organizations, poultry should be cooked to at least 165°F, at which point it can be considered ‘done’. However, cooking it past this point can affect the texture and flavor of the meat.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the factors that should influence your decision on when to stop cooking your turkey.

We’ll also be finding out what the differences are between birds cooked to each temperature and figure out why it’s so important to cook everything properly.

Why Does Temperature Matter?

It’s pretty common knowledge that meat and poultry should always be cooked to an appropriate temperature before eating. However, this temperature differs between different types of these high risk foods.

Turkey, in particular, contains germs and bacteria that can be harmful to humans when consumed. These include things like salmonella, campylobacter and clostridium perfringens. Without getting too detailed about each of these harmful bacteria, the main point is that they are very bad things to have inside your body.

The best way to eliminate these pathogens is to put them in an environment in which they can no longer exist. Like all living things, these bacteria can live or die and killing them with heat is the most effective method.

The World Health Organization states that the ideal temperature for killing bacteria is anything above 149°F (65°C). Therefore, restaurants and other food service establishments comply with laws about safe temperatures for serving food.

This differs slightly between countries and regions but most agree that the minimum internal temperature to serve hot food is around 165°F (74°C).

Of course, this figure is a general rule of thumb and there are different optimal internal temperatures for different types of meat and the various cuts.

When Should You Stop Cooking A Turkey?

Some of the more avid home cooks will know that larger pieces of meat (whole turkeys, for example) will retain heat well and their temperature will continue to rise even after you take it out of the oven or off the barbecue.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to remove your turkey from the cooking source when its internal temperature is around 5°F-10°F  below what you want to achieve.

Therefore, if you’re aiming for a 165°F bird, you should take it out when it reads 155°F-160°F. Similarly, a 180°F target should have you remove the turkey when it’s at around 170°F-175°F.

Once you remove the turkey from cooking, you can always cover it with some foil to retain the heat even better and allow the flavors to enhance further. However, this is also a matter of personal preference and will vary depending on the recipe used.

What’s The Difference Between 165°F And 180°F For Turkey?

This is the most important thing to consider when deciding how long to cook your turkey for. The answer is mainly to do with the different parts of the bird.

For example, experts say that the white meat of the turkey breasts should be cooked to 165°F to come out perfectly moist and delicious. Cooking the bird past this point will ultimately dry it out and leave you with a less pleasant texture.

However, the same is not true of the dark meat in the turkey. These parts come out best when they get up to and even over 180°F.

Basically, this means that an entire turkey cooked to either of these temperatures will never really be perfect. You can either have perfectly cooked white meat or dark meat but you can never have both when you cook them all together.

It’s a sad fact to accept but there are a few ways around it…

What’s The Best Way To Cook Turkey To The Right Temperatures?

As we’ve established, cooking a whole turkey all at the same time will produce a bird that isn’t perfect in every section. That’s why you should separate them at some point while cooking.

Some cooks opt to remove the white breast meat from the turkey once it reaches the optimal 165°F (actually removing the white meat from the oven around 155°F-160°F). As long as you know exactly where to cut you can easily use a carving knife to remove the breasts from the rest of the bird.

Then, while you return the dark meat to the oven to get up to a higher temperature, cover the white meat with some foil to help it retain its heat and keep it around 165°F.

Finally, once the dark meat has reached its optimal temperature, you can remove the rest of the turkey from the oven or barbecue and serve all the meat together. Genius!

How To Read The Internal Temperature Of A Turkey

At this point you might be wondering how to tell what temperature your turkey is at. After all, there’s no way to know for sure just by looking at it. Even the most modern, high-tech ovens and barbecues can give an estimate of the meat’s internal temperature but this will never be completely accurate.

The best piece of equipment for reading internal temperature is a meat thermometer. This handy bit of kit can tell you exactly what temperature your meat is, even at the very center.

Most meat thermometers will have a needle attached to a small panel with a screen. You simply stick the needle through the thickest part of the bird, right to the center and the screen will show you what the temperature is.

It’s always best to take this reading from the thickest part of any meat because this will be the section that is most difficult to bring up to a high temperature.

One of the best meat thermometers you can get online is the Kizen Digital Meat Thermometer. This is such a useful tool because it’s so simple to use. The screen will give you a near instant reading, only taking 2-3 seconds to tell you what temperature your meat is.

Alternatively, for a slightly more advanced thermometer with which you won’t even have to remove the turkey from the oven/barbecue, check out the BFOUR Wireless Meat Thermometer. With this one, you can leave the probe in your turkey while it’s cooking and monitor the temperature from an app on your smartphone.

Is Pink Turkey Safe To Eat?

A good indicator of when meat is done cooking is looking at its color, inside. If you see any wet, pink spots in a meat like chicken, you know it’s not finished cooking and will be dangerous to eat.

However, when it comes to turkey, pink isn’t always a sign of doom and gloom. This pink tinge is often due to a protein in turkey called myoglobin. This protein mixes with the fluids in the turkey and can make parts of the meat appear slightly pink, even when it’s been cooked thoroughly.

As always, the best way to tell if your meat has been cooked enough is to check its internal temperature with a thermometer. As long as your reading is above 165°F, you can be safe in the knowledge that any harmful bacteria has been killed.

Final Thoughts

This has been our answer to the famous turkey cooking debate over what the best temperature is to cook it to.

Like we said at the start, there’s no single right or wrong answer, different parts of the bird simply come out better at different temperatures.

Most good recipes will offer ways to get around this conundrum of how to cook the turkey perfectly so make sure you follow any instructions you’re using carefully.

Also, remember that using a food thermometer is the best way to accurately gauge the temperature of your meat to ensure none of your friends and family will get sick from eating your food.

Mick Rogers