It is generally safe to eat meatballs that are still pink inside as long as they have been cooked to the proper internal temperature. Ground meats like beef and pork should reach at least 160°F internally, while turkey and chicken should reach 165°F. Some pink color can remain even when cooked to a safe temperature. As long as the meatballs have been properly handled and cooked, a little pink color does not necessarily indicate they are unsafe to eat.
What causes meatballs to be pink inside?
There are a few reasons why properly cooked meatballs may still appear pink inside:
Myoglobin is a protein responsible for storing oxygen in muscle cells. It is what gives raw red meat its red color. During cooking, myoglobin changes from red to tan or gray. However, it can revert back to pink when exposed to air again. So even when meatballs reach a safe internal temperature, air exposure during resting or slicing can cause myoglobin to turn pink again.
The moisture content of meatballs can impact the color change of myoglobin during cooking. High moisture levels mean it takes longer for the myoglobin to fully convert to tan/gray at a given temperature. So very juicy meatballs may retain some pink color even when cooked to 165°F.
Certain ingredients like tomatoes, spices, or sugar in meatballs can help stabilize the red myoglobin and prevent full color change during cooking. So meatballs containing these ingredients may appear more pink.
Meatballs made from coarsely ground meat tend to stay pink longer compared to finely ground meat. This is because larger pieces of muscle fiber hold onto myoglobin, so it takes more time and temperature to denature it fully. Finely ground meatballs will turn gray more evenly throughout.
Is it safe to eat pink meatballs?
Meatballs that are pink inside are safe to eat as long as they have reached the recommended safe minimum internal temperature:
- Ground beef: 160°F
- Ground pork: 160°F
- Ground turkey: 165°F
- Ground chicken: 165°F
At these temperatures, any harmful bacteria that may have been present are destroyed.
The USDA states that ground meats can retain some pink color even when safely cooked. So meatballs that register 160-165°F on a food thermometer should be safe for consumption from a food safety standpoint, even if they still have a pinkish hue.
Proper handling and cooking are also essential for meatball safety. Be sure to:
- Wash hands before and during preparation
- Avoid cross-contamination of raw and cooked foods
- Cook meatballs within 1-2 days of purchasing meat
- Cook meatballs thoroughly until internal temperature is achieved
As long as good food safety practices have been followed, a little remaining pink color does not mean undercooked meatballs are unsafe. Trust your thermometer over appearance.
How to prevent pink meatballs
If you prefer your meatballs to turn brown all the way through, here are some tips:
Cook to a higher temperature
Cooking meatballs 5-10°F above the USDA minimums will give more of a safety buffer and increase likelihood of full color change. Shoot for 165-170°F for beef and 170-175°F for poultry.
Rest before serving
Letting meatballs rest for 5-10 minutes after cooking allows residual heat to finish cooking and helps prevent pink myoglobin reversion when cut into. Tent with foil to keep warm.
Use fine grind
Finely grinding meat promotes more even cook and color change.
Breadcrumbs help limit moisture and fat for better binding and color change. Use 1/2 to 1 cup per pound of meat.
Avoid ingredients that cause pink
Limit or avoid ingredients like tomatoes and sugars that can stabilize red myoglobin. Stick to basics like breadcrumbs, egg, and spices.
Pat dry before cooking
Blotting meatballs with paper towels removes excess surface moisture for better browning and color change during cooking.
Cook low and slow
Gradual cooking at 300-325°F rather than hot/fast methods gives more time for complete color change. Be sure to still cook to proper internal temp.
Is it safe to reheat pink meatballs?
Properly cooked meatballs that were refrigerated with pink color remaining can be safely reheated. Reheat to 165°F for beef and 175°F for poultry. The combination of thorough first cooking plus proper reheating is sufficient to destroy any bacteria that could cause illness.
Check internal temperature with a food thermometer to verify meatballs reach food safe temperatures upon reheating. Color is not a good indicator of doneness, so rely on your thermometer.
Storing meatballs safely
To maintain quality and prevent bacterial growth, properly cooked meatballs should be stored as follows:
Keep meatballs refrigerated and consume within 3-4 days for best quality. Store in a sealed container to prevent drying out.
For longer storage, freeze cooked meatballs in airtight packaging for 2-3 months. Thaw in refrigerator before reheating.
Avoid Room Temperature Storage
Do not leave cooked meatballs at room temperature for more than 2 hours total to prevent potential bacterial growth. Refrigerate or freeze after cooking.
The bottom line is meatballs that maintain some interior pink color can be safely eaten, as long as they have reached the recommended safe minimum cooking temperatures. Proper handling and preparation is also key. While color can indicate doneness, it does not correlate perfectly with safety. Always use a food thermometer to verify meatballs have been cooked to 160°F for beef and 165°F for poultry. This ensures any potentially harmful bacteria have been destroyed, making the meatballs safe to enjoy even if they still look a little pink!