Chickening out of eating duck
We know that chicken must be completely cooked through to avoid the risk of salmonella and other nasties. I have been served duck at several different restaurants and it has been pink in the middle, both duck breast and legs. I would have thought that all poultry would contain similar bacteria, so why does duck that is raw in the middle not pose the same risk to health that uncooked chicken does?
This is the sort of question I get nervous answering, as in the back of mind there is always an Environmental Health official waiting to pounce on chefs who don't cook their food until well-done and dry. And the last thing any chef needs is to be told to cook all protein until all the flesh has turned brown - which, as any of us who like food know, is a draconian and overly compensatory comment made to ensure there's neither any bacteria nor flavour left in the meat. If all raw or rare protein was full of damaging bacteria, then sashimi, pink duck livers, beef carpaccio and steak tartare (and the often raw egg yolk that sits on top) would have become unpopular many decades ago as the diners were slowly wiped out.
You're correct in saying that chicken must be fully cooked before being eaten by humans because of the obvious concerns regarding the ingestion of salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is a sneaky wee thing, as it is not killed by freezing and can also live in very dry environments for quite a while.
So because it's so strong and stubborn, the only way to properly kill it is to cook your protein until the core temperature is no less than 55C and is held for 90 minutes at this temperature (as when you rest meat in an oven set to this temperature after grilling/roasting it, or when a chef cooks sous vide) or cook to 60C and hold for 12 minutes. If you're lucky enough to have a cooking temperature probe (and, in reality, how likely is that for the home cook?) then you need to make sure the centre of the chicken is cooked to 72C and duck to 68C.
Things like chicken pies you may have bought from a food stall should always be reheated to 75C and held at this temperature for a few minutes to ensure salmonella poisoning is no longer a risk. It's the proper resting of meat after cooking that means you can safely eat roast duck breast that has been cooked rare and held. From a non-biological security point of view, a duck leg cooked rare is dreadful, so send it back, not because you'll become ill (although that is a possibility), but because you won't be able to chew or digest it.
Chickens, on the other hand, just aren't that tasty when eaten medium-rare and trust me, I know. In parts of Japan raw chicken (torisashi) is somewhat of a delicacy and friends I know who have eaten this are all alive and well to tell the story. None of them found the taste of raw breast particularly exciting and all would prefer roast chook over the sushi.
In Southern China about six years ago I ate a regional specialty of (tasty chewy) chicken that is steamed whole just until the flesh has turned opaque, but before the blood in the bones is cooked and sets. I'd hazard a guess and say there is no way it would have got to 50C, so in theory I should have become ill - but I didn't.
It's good to know that not all chickens carry salmonella but on the other hand it's not a pleasant experience, so it's best to keep making sure your chook is cooked. How many times have you been to a barbecue and eaten chicken burnt on the outside, raw in the middle? Probably more than once. The issue I always have with this is that if people cooked over a gentler, more even heat, with less flame and longer cooking, then the chicken wouldn't be taken off when it burns, instead it'd be kept on to fully cook all the way through.
The number of upset tummies after a barbecue would fade away and people would enjoy the experience a little more. So, at the risk of upsetting officials, a well-run kitchen with excellent hygiene procedures in place can absolutely safely serve you rare duck breast so long as the meat is fresh, the outside has been cooked to more than 55C and it is well rested in a warm place before serving.
But, as with all things in the culinary field, if you don't want rare duck, then order it more cooked. Most chefs would prefer you eat your meal rather than just pick at the outside.
Michael Brooks, executive director, Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand, says: While colour can be a guide to undercooking, a better measure is a tip-sensitive thermometer, a very accurate meat thermometer that measures the temperature at the tip only, rather than measuring it over the last centimetre of the probe.
If the tip is inserted into the centre of the meat, then you know that all of the meat has reached the indicated temperature, which should be at 75C. Colour of meat is a very complex subject and is not a reliable guide as to whether the meat is done.
There is much scientific research to support this and certainly no food safety body in the developed world advocates meat colour as the major method of deciding whether meat is cooked.
The cooking of meats in a restaurant has to be a decision made by the restaurant. The industry would not advise anyone to provide, or to consume undercooked poultry.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.