It’s completely natural to feel some trepidation when you’re preparing a holiday dinner for the first time.
However, there’s a really simple way to tell if a turkey is done without a thermometer, as long as you know where the mid thigh muscle is.
The first time I roasted a turkey, I didn’t have a thermometer at hand so I had to find another way to check its doneness.
After doing some research, I found out I could tell my turkey’s ready by piercing its mid thigh with a fork. In this post, I’ll explain where the mid thigh muscle is located so you can know when your turkey is ready without a thermometer.
How to know if a turkey is done without a thermometer?
Serving an undercooked Thanksgiving turkey can be a nightmare in both the literal and figurative sense.
And when you rely on dodgy cooking times, the chance of this nightmare turning into reality increases.
Estimated cooking times should only be used as a guideline since they don’t take into account individual differences such as oven type or turkey meat quality. Therefore, the most reliable way to tell whether your turkey is ready is to perform a visual inspection.
Doing this is quite simple:
The best way to check whether a turkey is done without a thermometer is to pierce its mid-thigh muscle with a fork. The mid-thigh is located just beneath the drumstick and should release a clear juice when it’s done.
Additionally, you can use a knife instead of a fork and slice the thigh to check the color of the meat.
A turkey is done cooking when its meat has a milky white color.
In case you notice any pink spots, you should cook it for a while longer.
This is how fully cooked turkey looks like:
Another method you can use if you want to know if your turkey has finished cooking is to take the end of a drumstick and gently twist it.
If you feel any resistance, the turkey should be returned back to the oven.
You’ll know it’s time to pull your bird out of the oven when you can freely wiggle the thighs without breaking them off.
Aside from these two methods, you can also tell your turkey’s done cooking by the red pop-up pin.
If your turkey comes with one of these, the button should come up once it has finished cooking.
Unfortunately, these aren’t always that reliable, and sometimes the stick doesn’t pop up at the correct temperature.
Why it’s better to check turkey doneness with a thermometer
Even though you can use both of the aforementioned methods instead of a thermometer, you can easily overcook your turkey if you get distracted.
And with all of the commotion during family gatherings, this is almost guaranteed to happen.
Apart from sparing you an overcooked turkey, using a meat thermometer lets you cook the thighs and breasts to different degrees.
This is important since the thighs need to be cooked to a higher internal temperature than the breasts. Unlike the white meat found in the breasts, the thighs are made of dark meat which contains more connective tissues that take longer to break down.
It’s the same reason why tough cuts of beef like the rump roast need to be cooked low and slow to become tender. So if you don’t take this difference into account, you’ll overcook the turkey breast since it’ll be done before the thighs.
To evenly cook a whole turkey you’ll need to:
- Fill two quart-sized Ziploc bags with ice and join them together with a binder clip.
- Balance the bags of ice on top of the turkey.
- Leave the bags for two hours then put the turkey straight in the oven.
Another way to ensure your turkey cooks evenly is to spatchcock it.
Spatchcocking is a cooking technique in which the backbone of the turkey gets removed so it can be laid flat.
This allows the thighs to get cooked before the breasts.
What’s the internal temperature of a turkey when it’s done cooking?
To measure the internal temperature of a turkey, you’ll need to insert a meat thermometer at the deepest part of the thigh and breasts.
The thermometer shouldn’t make contact with any bones since this will give an inaccurate reading.
Once you place the thermometer, you’ll need to wait until the temperature indicator stops fluctuating.
A fully cooked turkey has an internal temperature of 157°F (70°C) for the breasts and between 175°F (80°C) and 180°F (82°C) for the thighs.
The reason why we aim for these temperatures is carryover cooking while the turkey is resting.
When we use an instant thermometer we measure the temperature at the innermost part of the meat.
And while we can use this measurement to tell when our turkey is past the “danger zone” it doesn’t mean it stops cooking once it’s out of the oven. This is because the outer layers are hotter, and will transfer their thermal energy to the inner ones until the temperature eventually evens out.
Depending on the size of the turkey and the amount of applied heat, this could mean an increase in the internal temperature of more than 15°F.
The temperature increase is largely determined by the size of the turkey and the temperature at which it is cooked.
Large turkeys have a greater surface area so they retain and transfer more thermal energy, which leads to a greater increase in internal temperature.
So by taking your turkey out at 157°F you ensure that it’s going to hit that 165°F sweet spot and stay moist instead of drying out.
You may lack a meat thermometer, but you shouldn’t lack the courage to roast a turkey without one.
After all, the pilgrims managed to cook theirs without one, so why shouldn’t you?
Just keep in mind it might be a good idea to get one if you want to bring your turkey game up a notch.
Also, if you want to be sure your turkey is perfectly cooked for the holiday feast you can try cooking it the day before and reheating it for the holiday dinner.
This way you will have more time for potential corrections.