Where to Place a Temperature Probe in a Whole Chicken?

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
November 7, 2022

When cooking chicken, safe eating temperatures are a big concern. Cooked chicken - whether ground or whole - should be cooked to 165F internal.

When probing whole chicken/poultry you want to measure the internal temperature at the thickest part of the breast meat.

A whole chicken is comprised of several parts; These various parts will also finish at different speeds. By the time the breast has reached 162F internal, the thighs/legs/wings should be at around 190F+ - which they actually benefit from, where-as the breast doesn't.

By pulling the chicken early at 162F and resting for 5 minutes, the bird will carry-over cook by about 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit and finish at 165F.

Where to Probe Whole Chicken

You should probe your whole chicken in the thickest part of the breast meat.

where to probe whole chicken

When probing meat, ensure you're not hitting gristle, fat, bone, or non-meat.

When cooking whole chicken on your grill, it's recommended to orient the thighs/legs towards the heat source and the breast away from the radiant heat - this way these parts finish at the same speed.

In an oven, this is less of an issue as the entire bird is experiencing convective heat as apposed to direct/radiant heat on one half of the grill.

A Quick Side Note About Thermometers

The probe thermometer above is the Thermoworks Smoke X4.

Thermoworks probes are engineered so that you only have to take the tip temperature to get an accurate reading at the thermal center (the thickest part of the breast).

thermoworks probe example

Other meat probes may have be marked with a minimum insertion length; Which is up to 4 inches in some cases.

Keep this in mind in terms of getting an accurate reading of your chicken's internal temperature and ensure you check your probe's requirements.

Where Do Companies Put Pop-up Timers?

Just to further confirm the above positioning, Poultry Companies - like Purdue - will put their pop-up timers in the thickest part of the breast meat of their whole chickens.

pop up timer

Again, the reason being - the breast meat of a whole chicken will finish last. Pop-up timers are engineered to quite literally "Pop Up" when the meat is considered "done."

The pop-up stick in a pop-up timer sits inside an outer case and the internal mechanism is comprised of a spring and a soft metal.

The soft metal is solid at room temperature and anchors the stick and the spring. Once heated, the metal turns into a liquid which releases the pop-up stick.

The temperature this metal phase changes is roughly 165F.

In my experience, these pop up timers aren't accurate, at all. I've seen several instances where a pop-up timer goes off too late and the breast meat is rendered dry. I've also seen the pop-up timer go off too early and the meat is undercooked.

Typically I'll remove pop-up timers that come with whole chickens.

While I don't tend to probe meats much, one of the only things I pre-probe to cook is chicken. I'll probe the thickest part of the breast and pull the bird off the heat source at 162F.

I'll then rest the meat for 3-5 minutes and allow the internal temperature to carry-over cook. This process will "carry-over" the outer surface temperature to the internal meat and cause the temperature to increase by around 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Importance of Internal Temperature for Poultry

The first thing to understand is that the musculature of chicken is not like beef.

The reason consuming "undercooked" beef (bleu, rare, and medium-rare) is possible is because the grain/muscle structure of beef is close grained. This dense structure prevents pathogen penetration into muscles (like Escherichia coli  or E. coli) .

However, these pathogens can still exist on the surface, meaning, the surface of beef needs to be cooked or seared in order to kill these pathogens. This is also the reason ground beef needs to be cooked to 160F - the surface and interior are effectively mixed together.

For this same reason you can't eat undercooked chicken. Poultry has a relatively porous musculature meaning pathogens (like Salmonella) can entirely penetrate the muscle. In order to kill the bacteria, you need to completely cook the meat.

The USDA cites a safe finishing temperature for chicken/poultry as 165F internal.

Understanding How Internal Temperature Affects the Various Parts of the Chicken

When cooking a whole chicken, the hardest thing to get right is having the breast meat finish at around the same time the thighs, legs, and wings are done.

Chicken breast will finish slower than all other parts of the bird.

With that said, these muscles are all different from one another and benefit from varying internal temperatures. For instance, chicken breast should be cooked until 165F. Going over this temperature will cause the meat to dry out.

However, the lower joints like the thighs and legs (even the wings) can benefit from going to 175-190F+.

internal temp of chicken wings
Chicken wings at 199F internal

The reason for this has to do with the fact that these parts contain more collagen, fat, and skin.

Temperatures from 175-200F+ will cause the collagen (connective tissues) to render into a gelatin. Gelatin is hydroscopic and will absorb up to ten times its weight in liquid. Meaning, the moisture that's expelled by the protein fibers will gelatinize.

The result is a tender, juicy piece of thigh/leg meat.

Chicken wings - while also white meat - contain skin and collagen and benefit greatly from being cooked to higher internal temperatures for the same reasons above.

Conversely, chicken breast will only become drier when pushed above 165F.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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