How do I cook a chicken to make it really really really soft?
I ate a dinner one time, and this guy cooked the chicken so soft it almost melted in my mouth. Now I want to know how to make that kind of chicken. Because when you cook the chicken regularly it comes out rubbery. You know what I mean?
Rubbery chicken is a sign that the chicken is overcooked -- by any method. You can get tender chicken with any cooking method if you're careful about how long it cooks. Can you tell us any more about the dish -- what it looked like, whether the skin was crispy or not, etc. That might help in narrowing down what you're describing.
It was an Iranian dish I remember. I think it was baked, but it was the softest chicken I ever tried...and really tasty too.
General tips to make chicken good: (a) brine it; (b) cook only to 160–165°F: keep the USDA guidelines at least 100ft from the kitchen at all times.
@derobert: But the USDA guidelines say 165° F? Sous-vide usually puts the temperature all the way down at 62° C (144° F), although that's less safe to attempt in an oven or fry pan.
@Aaronut: You are correct, they have changed their recommendation apparently (back in '06 it seems). Used to be 180°F, which is well into the rubber range. The sous-vide temperatures require holding at that temperature for a while. So, considering they are now allowed within 100ft of the kitchen: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/oppde/rdad/fsisnotices/rte_poultry_tables.pdf
This is related only as "soft" is concerned, because it deals with chicken chunks, as in for stir-fry, NOT a whole chicken. http://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/40922/how-to-cook-extremely-soft-chicken
How you prep the chicken is also as important as how you cook it. Cooking method is only half of the answer. Brining the meat in a salty/sugary/acidic solution will go a long way in adding flavor and making the meat moist and tender.
Braise it. Low and slow braising will help make almost any meat fall apart tender (though dark meat is best, thighs/legs). Molly Stevens All About Braising cookbook is a great intro into this technique. For whole chicken braising google search for Jamies milk braised chicken. Makes extremely tender braised chicken and is a great into recipe.
The best tip I can give is to use chicken thighs rather than breast. They have more fat, which keeps the meat moist. They need slower cooking but are well worth it.
Try a coq au vin style dish - brown the chicken thighs in a little oil, then take them out, fry off some onions, mushrooms and garlic, then add a couple of glasses of red wine, some chicken stock, herbs, and the thighs. Simmer for two and a half hours and the chicken will be falling apart.
If you insist on using chicken breast, try this: stuff the breasts with something reasonably fatty - try feta cheese, sundried tomatoes, garlic and lemon zest. Fry in a hot pan for a couple of minutes either side to brown. Then, take a circle of baking parchment big enough to fit in the pan, scrunch it up, and run it under the cold tap. Shake it out, pop it on top of the chicken, then put a heavy saucepan lid on top and turn the heat down to low-ish. Let it sit under there for 15-20 minutes, and you should find the chicken is nice and tender.
I used to have trouble getting chicken to come out tender, but I've had a lot of luck with a couple of simple rules of thumb.
- Liberally salt the chicken beforehand and let sit 20-30 minutes.
- Do your very best not to overcook it. It's a fine line between undercooked (which is dangerous) and overcooked (which is unpleasant to eat), and it's easy to err on the side of unpleasant in order to avoid dangerous. Just tread carefully and you can hit that perfect middle ground pretty reliably.
- Finish the meat with a convection cooking method, even if it doesn't start that way. I like to pan-sear chicken breast, then finish in the oven. This lets you get the outside you're looking for, while drastically reducing the risk of overcooking (see point 2.)
I've found dry salting to be as effective or more effective as compared to brining, and less trouble. It's more common with steaks, but I do it all the time with chicken. Basically, you liberally salt the chicken, and season it as you see fit, then let it sit for at least 20 - 30 minutes, but no more than an hour.
Forgive my vague science here, but as I understand it, the salt first draws moisture out of the meat, then, once it has drawn out enough moisture to saturate the salt, the meat soaks up the now salted water (along with whatever other seasonings you've included). Once the salt has permeated the meat, it begins to break down the proteins, so they don't have a chance to seize up when heated and become rubbery.
Overcooking is an obvious problem, and one usually caused by paranoia about salmonella, which is an entirely reasonable concern. Don't get me wrong -- you SHOULD worry about salmonella. But don't over-do it. 165F is enough to kill off harmful bacteria; with an interior temp of 165, the chicken is safe to eat. If you cut into it, the meat should be white, not pink, and the juice should run clear. This should be a last-minute double-check though; don't cut into the meat unless you're fairly certain it's done, or you'll let all the juice out and it will come out dry.
And finishing it off using a convection cooking method just makes this a little bit easier. When searing the outside of a cut of meat, whether it's in a pan, on the grill, or whatever, the outside gets very hot before the inside reaches a food-safe temperature. If you continue cooking this way until the inside is cooked through, the outside will be overcooked, and the rest will be somewhere in between done and overdone. The goal, of course, is for just the outermost parts to be seared/charred/etc., and all the rest of the meat, all the way through, to be just done. Convection cooking will get you there much more gently and safely, and make it much easier to get the meat juicy and tender. So, sear in the pan and finish in the oven; or char on the grill on high, then drop the heat to low and close the lid to let it finish cooking through.
Another trick, once you've got a feel for how long it takes a cut of a certain size and thickness to cook through, is to pull it off just a touch early, cover it with aluminum foil, and let the residual heat finish cooking it. Since it's just equalizing its internal temperature, instead of continuing to heat up, this will also help avoid overcooking.
Iranian poultry is braised. A reaction converts the collagen to chicken-flavored gelatin, and the meat yields like butter. I've braised chicken into oblivion, so don't overdo the braise time.
The dish is probably zereshk polo, which is served with barberry and pistachio rice.
A ten step summary:
- Thighs not breast, bone in, skin off.
- Salt, pepper and garlic powder.
- Sear chicken and skin in canola.
- Remove chicken and skin.
- Brown onion, then brown garlic.
- Put chicken and skin back.
- Cover halfway with lime juice, a spoon of tomato paste, and saffron infused water.
- Add a pod of cardamom or a pinch of turmeric, and a bit of butter.
- Cook slow & low.
The braising acid is the tomato and lime.
If the mystery dish was like a sweet/tart mole-like dish, then it was probably fesenjan. It is made differently, with pulverized walnuts and pomegranate juice, but the cooking process is very similar. The walnuts are fried with the spices, the pomegranate (acid) is added to the braise.
Use quality chicken.
I've found that buying quality whole chickens and butchering them myself greatly increases the tenderness and flavor of the chicken. In fact the first time I did this I was convinced I had undercooked the chicken despite what my thermometer told me. You are going to have a hard time creating melt-in-your-mouth tender chicken using flash-frozen 12 for $10 chicken breasts using any technique.
Where can I find these 12 for $10 chicken breasts? That's a bargain I can't afford to pass up...
@Aaronut : near Washington, DC. the DelMarVa peninsula (delaware / maryland / virginia), just a little to the west, is rather dense in chicken farms. I can still regularly get bone in dark meat for $1-2/lb, deboned thighs for $2-3/lb ... boneless skinless breasts often go on sale for $2/lb or less. (about $3-4/lb the rest of the time, depending on where you shop). I assume it'd be even cheaper on the eastern shore, closer to where it's produced.
If you want to get it moist, tender and juicy every time, invest in a sous-vide setup. These used to be expensive to get, but a lot of cheaper models have recently come out.
As others have pointed out, a rubbery texture is caused by overcooking the meat. Brining helps somewhat in helping retain moisture and gives you a wider margin for error, it's still possible to overcook brined meat.
Since the degree of cooking (under-cooked, over-cooked, or perfect) is entirely determined by temperature, you need a way to precisely control it. Sous-vide is the best way I know of to accomplish this.
I cook all of my chicken breast sous-vide at 58.5°C (137°F). Thigh meat requires a higher temperature of around 65°C. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the meat; there are formulas by Doug Baldwin and apps such as Sous Vide Dash to work out how long it will take for the centre of the meat to reach this temperature and pasteurize to kill salmonella and other bugs.
Others pointed out the importance of meat quality, and this is something which definitely becomes apparent under the controlled conditions of sous-vide cooking. I have done a fair few tests, and as a result now strongly prefer organic chicken breast for texture and tenderness. Picking the right supplier means I've been able to eliminate stringy textures or pappy mouthfeel, and end up with chicken that cuts cleanly like a good steak every time. I have not had adverse results using meat I have vacuum packed and frozen myself prior to cooking.