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Is Pink Turkey Safe to Eat?

Or is it time for takeout?
By Published Nov. 10, 2022

After hours of careful preparation, seasoning, monitoring, adjusting, and resting, you’ve got the turkey beautifully golden-browned and you’re already basking in well-earned ooohs from the family.

But when you start to carve the breast, you notice that some of the meat has a pinkish hue. What’s the story? Is it undercooked? Is dinner doomed?

The short answer: As long as the interior was cooked to a safe temperature, pink color in meat is perfectly fine, and you can let the feast proceed.

Read on to discover what makes it pink and why you shouldn’t worry.

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What Makes Raw Poultry Pink?

Animal muscle naturally contains a few different red-pink pigments. 

Myoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen within muscle tissue, is the pigment that’s predominantly responsible for the pink color of raw meat. Myoglobin is heat-sensitive, and it is mostly denatured during cooking, losing much of its color. That’s why we commonly associate pink meat with raw meat. 

A more stable pink pigment in muscle is called cytochrome c. Turkeys have more of this pigment than chickens do, and older birds have more of it than younger ones.

Why Can Cooked Turkey Still Look Pink?

Cytochrome c is somewhat less sensitive to heat than myoglobin. When you carve your turkey and find that pink tinge, odds are it’s mostly cytochrome c you see. 

But certain factors can stabilize both myoglobin and cytochrome c, so more of the pigment survives the heat of cooking. 

As we learned when cooking pork, pigments in meat are sensitive to pH. Meat pH varies according to numerous factors, including how the animal was raised and how it was chilled after slaughter. When the pH of the meat is slightly higher, the pigments are more stable.

Certain nitrogen compounds also have a stabilizing effect on the pigments. One example is the sodium nitrite that’s used to cure bacon and that’s naturally present in vegetables including celery. If your turkey is stuffed with bacon-celery stuffing, that could be a factor in keeping the turkey meat pink.

And according to some sources, nitrogen oxides from gas ovens can permeate the meat and fix the pink color, especially near the surface of thin-skinned birds.

So How Can I Tell If My Pink Turkey Is Safe to Eat?

If your turkey happens to be high in cytochrome c, you’d have to cook it to an internal temperature of at least 220°F to tone down that pinkness, so don’t even try. 

As always, the best guideline is to check your turkey in several places with a probe thermometer or an instant-read thermometer, to make sure it has reached the correct target temperature—at least 165°F—throughout.

If it has, you can be certain that it’s fully cooked, and ready to savor.