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Why is My Fully Cooked Chicken Pink? All About Marrow Discoloration in Poultry

September 22, 2020

Have you ever noticed dark pink, red, or brown discoloration in your chicken or other poultry, particularly around bones and joints even when fully cooked? The thermometer reads 165ºF and according to the recipe it should be cooked by now, but your eyes are screaming otherwise. We’ve had it drilled into our heads that pink chicken = salmonella, but there are exceptions to this rule. So worry not, because looks can be deceiving!

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Temperature is the only true indicator of a fully cooked chicken.

And you shouldn’t go purely on color for any meats, especially when it comes to bone-in cuts - however, if you cut open a chicken tender and it’s pink, you probably shouldn’t eat it!

So where is the pink coming from?

The bones are to blame. Particularly in poultry cuts or whole birds that are frozen quickly after processing, the bone marrow pigment can seep out into the meat next to the bone during thawing and cooking. Bone marrow is a deep red color, which can change during cooking to a brown. If there isn’t much to seep, it can look like a lighter pink color. Marrow seepage happens more frequently and vibrantly with younger birds, whose bones are more porous. As birds age, the bones become more dense and less likely to leach marrow. 

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Bone marrow from well-raised animals is perfectly fine to eat, and has been consumed by humans for millennia (often as a delicacy)! You wouldn’t want bone marrow from an industrially raised animal, but when you can get your meat from a great place, you’ll find that marrow is both delicious and packed full of nutrients and minerals. Along with offal meats, bone marrow is a great way to measure the overall quality of an animal.

The bone marrow may be dark enough around the bones to look like blood, but unless something went wrong during processing, it’s not. All poultry are drained completely of blood before processing.

I don’t usually have this problem with grocery store poultry - why am I having it now?

High amounts of marrow are more commonly found in pasture raised poultry and heritage poultry breeds, which are very different from the high-growth factory farmed poultry in almost every way.

Pasture raised birds live a completely different lifestyle than commercial poultry. They’re living outside and foraging for their food as nature intended, which means they eat natural nutrient-packed bugs, grass, seeds, and other bounties of nature. In the case of the poultry on the Marketplace, they’re also offered a nutrient-complete feed grown on the farm. Pasture-raised birds also get much more exercise, so they tend to be leaner, with larger leg muscles and smaller breasts. Just like with humans, diet and exercise has a huge impact on the makeup of the body!

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Imperial Red heritage breed chickens on pasture at Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana.

Breed plays a big factor, too! Heritage breeds are bred to be not just tasty, but hardy and weather-resistant. They don’t have the large, cumbersome, disproportionate breasts of industrially bred chickens - if they did, they wouldn’t last long outside. They’re bred to continue to thrive in their natural habitats, like their ancestors before them.

A pasture raised bird with a healthy diet and exercise routine will result in a very different end product than one raised in a cramped barn on commercial feed, which is why if you’re used to chicken from the grocery store, buying pastured poultry can be noticeably different.

Want to see how our birds are raised? Check out this video from White Oak Pastures, one of our two pastured poultry producers, on the essential part of poultry in their 10-species regenerative agriculture operation.

Okay, but I just can’t get over the pink poultry thing.

We get it - pink poultry can be unappetizing, even if you know it’s fine to eat. It’s hard to de-program decades of pink poultry conditioning! There are a few ways for how to “cook” the pink or red bone marrow color out of your poultry, or avoid it entirely!

Use High-Acid Ingredients:

The marrow seeps by traveling with the water content in the meat, and gets its red color from the myoglobin in the marrow. If this water has a high pH level (low acidity), the myoglobin will need to be cooked to a higher temperature to turn clear. To solve this, we need to increase the acidity of the liquids in the chicken - as a bonus, acidity also tenderizes and creates flavor in the meat. So really, this is a win-win scenario. Using recipes with a higher acid content will help the pinkness or redness cook out. Look for recipes featuring vinegars, wines, tomatoes, citrus juices, etc. whether as a marinade or as a sauce to cook in.

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Slow Cooking:

Unfortunately, simply overcooking the chicken won’t help. We’ve had a lot of success with slow cooking cuts we know to have more frequent marrow issues, like thighs or drumsticks. The marrow has more time to leach out and dissipate during the slower cooking. This is a delicious way to temper any queasy feelings you may have about chicken that’s pink or red around the bones. Low and slow cooking in combination with featuring high-acid ingredients is our tried-and-true, simplest method to avoid marrow discoloration.

De-Boning:

Another option is to de-bone the meat before cooking, limiting the amount of leaching out that can happen during cooking. This is a bit more time-consuming but the more you do it, the quicker it gets!

No-Boning:

You can also stick to cuts that are boneless, such as breasts! We always encourage head-to-tail use of the animal, but boneless breasts are a good way to avoid any issues with marrow leaching entirely.

Jacy Rittmer

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