If you want juicy, flavorful chicken, pay close attention to its internal temperature. The commonly accepted safe smoked chicken temperature is 165°F. At that temperature, the level of salmonella bacteria is immediately reduced to a safe level.
But did you know that chicken can be safely eaten when cooked to less than 165 degrees? It can, but with one important caveat - the lower smoked chicken temp has to be maintained for a specific amount of time.
My recommendation to users of this website is to follow the temperature guidelines provided by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
The FSIS guide states that the safe minimum temperature of all poultry products is 165°F (73.9°C).
Heat has a cumulative affect on bacteria, meaning more time at a lower temperature will still give you chicken that's safe to eat. In fact, if chicken reaches 136°F and is held there for 63.3 minutes, it will be safe, although I doubt that it would be appetizing.
Moving on to something more reasonable, smoked chicken that is held at an internal temperature of 155°F for only 44.2 seconds is safe. I don't think I could take it out of the smoker and get it in my mouth that quick!
Here are a few target temperatures of chicken with a fat level of 1%, along with the required length of time at each temperature for the chicken to be safe. Chicken with higher levels of fat require longer resting times.
The times specified for each of the temperatures must be allowed for. And if you have any doubts or don't want to take any chances, cook your chicken until its internal temperature reaches 165°F, and it will definitely be safe.
Compared to other parts of the chicken, the quality of the breast meat is most affected by higher temperatures. At 145° (and held there for about eight and a half minutes), the meat is completely opaque, slightly tinged with pink and very tender and juicy. For my tastes, it's not quite done enough.
At 150° the meat is totally white and a bit firmer. And it's still nice and juicy. As the temperature of the chicken breast rises to 155 degrees, the meat fibers continue to contract, squeezing out more moisture. At 160 the smoked chicken breast is at the precipice of becoming dry and stringy.
My personal preference is to shoot for a smoked chicken breast temp of 155° to 157°F. It's juicy and tender, and looks the way "properly" cooked chicken should look.
But no matter what the target temperature, if it's below 165°F, it has to be held at that lower temperature for the required amount of time.
As far as the USDA and FSIS are concerned, chicken is chicken. Whole smoked chickens, thighs, drumsticks and leg quarters all should be cooked to the same recommended temperature of 165°F.
But I prefer my smoked chicken thighs and drumsticks when cooked to a higher temperature. I leave 'em in the smoker until they reach at least 175°F, and I've been know to let them get up to 190 degrees or so. It has a more fall-off-the-bone type of tenderness.
Don't rely completely on your smoker's meat-temperature probe or your remote meat thermometer to determine when the time is right to quit cookin' the chicken.
Use an accurate handheld thermometer to verify that all areas of the chicken have reached the target temperature.
Check the temperature in a few different locations, especially at the joint where the thigh bone connects to the back. Once you're sure that the entire chicken or chicken part has reached the target temperature, pull it out, cover it with foil, and let it rest for the required amount of time.
There have been a few times that the smoking chicken's internal temperature didn't want to go above 145°. I assumed it was a problem with the temperature probe but a quick check with my handheld also showed 145 degrees.
It's possible that the cause is due to evaporation of the juices from the surface of the chicken. But whatever the cause, if the chicken remains at 145° for 8.4 minutes, it's safe.
A few readers commented about this. Here's what they said:
I recently smoked some chicken breast halves following a recipe I found on Smoker-Cooking.com. Everything was going great until my meat thermometer (Weber Wireless Digital) stopped at 148 degrees.
I thought this to be strange so I used another digital thermometer and found it read the same temperature.
The chicken had been cooking for approximately 2 hours at this time. So I took a piece out of the smoker and cut it open only to find that the chicken was cooked all the way through.
I know that you are supposed to shoot for 165-170 range but if my thermometers are right, 148 was just fine. I mean, they were definitely cooked all the way through.
I'm not sure if I have purchased two bad thermometers or if the target temperature of 170 is too high for my taste. I feel like if I would have waited to take the chicken out at 160, it would have been very dry. Any help on this would be much appreciated....thanks.
Just remember the temperature minimum for meats is a safety issue to keep you from poisoning yourself, not for best taste.
I have always taken out chicken at 160° and let sit for 20-25 minutes. I've never had a dried out bird, but I usually cook no bigger than an 8 to 8 and 1/2 pound bird on my smoker. I always try to cook in the 225 to 250 degree range. Cooking slow wins the race in this back yard.