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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to Make Tender and Juicy Shredded Chicken

Shredded chicken tossed with herbs de provence and mayo,
topped with homemade cranberry relish
Continuing in a theme of healthy eating, one of the tricks to diet success is keeping an ample supply of high protein food that's healthy and delicious on hand. I'm a Bizzy Gal and it has to be ready at a moment's notice or I'm reaching for the potato chips. The most powerful weapon in my arsenal is poached chicken. It's flavorful enough to grab a bit as a snack and since it's already cooked it's easy to whip into a quick meal. The opportunities are endless.

But have you ever noticed how when you make it at home it can be kind of tough and stringy? How do you make it tender and flavorful like in a restaurant?


Google it and you'll see a million ways from Sunday to poach chicken, but it usually tastes like its last bit of juice so wrung out of it that it tastes like an old dish rag. So... you choke down the chicken as indicated while wishing for something more. That is a terrible shame.... because good poached chicken is tender, sweet, juicy and OOH so worthy of being a snack in its own right. It's fantastic in any dish you add it to.

What color is your chicken? White? Then it was overcooked. Properly cooked chicken should be opaque with a very faint hint of pinkness to it:

Diced vs shredded chicken
Cooking meat is science, not art. True story! :) To make this digestible (ha!), let's break it down into two primary components:
  • Food safety - Chicken has special challenges because unlike red meat, it doesn't have enough acid to slow bacterial growth. Furthermore, bacteria rapidly multiply between 40F and 140F - let's call this temperature range the "danger zone". This means that regardless of which direction your chicken is headed (heating up during cooking or cooling down afterwards), you want to minimize the amount of time your chicken is in the danger zone. If you leave the chicken in this range long enough (right around the two hour mark), the bacteria will multiply rapidly. Even if you re-heat the leftover meat to 165 to kill off the bacteria before eating it, it will still be full of bacteria and your body will react to the bacteria. Usually, this presents itself in the form of flu-like symptoms without any stomach issues. Ever heard someone say they had the "24-hour flu"? There is no such thing. But food poisoning that feels exactly like the flu and lasts 24 hours? You betcha. It happens all the time. And if you're paying attention, you'll see it in the same people over and over again because they eat at a lot of the same restaurants, shop at the same grocery store or are cooking meat the same way. How long do you think a chicken spends in the danger zone when you cook it in a crock pot? If on cooked on low, it's about 4 hours. Four hours... rapidly growing bacteria. This is why I would never cook a chicken in a crock pot.

    and
  • When is it done? - Chicken is cooked at exactly 165. Not 161, not 167. One-sixty-five. If it's under-cooked, you risk food poisoning. That's the obvious one. So most people cook the bejesus out of their chicken "just to be safe". Is it safer? No. But it sure the heck will cause the proteins to contract and squeeze any life (or taste) out of your chicken. And you're guaranteed some really tough, chewy unpleasant chicken. Chicken should not be cooked past 165, the only thing that accomplishes is to make it inedible.
So, how do we do we do it? This is where poaching comes in. In essence, the fastest way to change something's temperature without drying it out or burning it is to put it into liquid that is at the desired temperature. Smaller pieces of meat, like chicken, will be the same temperature in about 12 minutes. In this case, chicken is done at 165 so we would put the chicken in water that's 165 and 12 minutes later it would be perfect. It's really that simple. (Most bacteria is on the surface of meat, so just to be super super safe I start it out with boiling water but let the temperature drop very quickly to 165F.)

The easiest way is to achieve this is by using a counter top cooker that has a temperature setting on it.  Bring the liquid to a boil, drop in your chicken and immediately reduce it to 165F. Leave it in for about 12 minutes. But since the liquid is going to stay at 165F, you could leave the chicken in it all darned day and it would still be perfect 6 hours later. (If you go out to purchase one of these, make sure the temperature setting goes all the way down to 140F in case you ever decide to poach fish.)

Mine was lost in the move and I haven't gotten around to replacing it. So, what I do is put a pot on the stove and bring water to a boil (212F) with a thermometer in the liquid, then drop in the cold chicken. After 1 minute, the surface bacteria will be dead and the temperature will have dropped. If it isn't down to 165F yet, drop in ice cubes, a few at a time, until it is. If you see it dropping below 165F, turn the heat back on to maintain 165. It sounds like a dance, but it's really easy and you only need to keep it there for about 12 minutes.

Since the water is the same temp as the final desired meat temp, you could leave the chicken in that water all day and it will remain perfect. Not over-cooked, not under-cooked, and no nasty bacteria.

As far as the liquid, really you could use whatever fancies you. I use to use chicken stock, but to be honest I didn't find it made any difference in flavor. You really need a much saltier liquid to flavor the chicken and get it to absorb whatever herbs and seasonings you put in the water. To make it salty enough to flavor the chicken, it would be too salty to use as a broth. And since we're only talking about boneless skinless chicken breast, there wouldn't be enough flavor in the liquid to use in the leftover liquid as a broth anyway. (A good measurement for poaching chicken is 1 tsp kosher salt per cup of liquid - adjust if the liquid already has salt in it).

I cook a whole lot of chicken at once and then have it available for uses throughout the week. You can flavor your chicken with whatever you like, but if you're going to use it for many different recipes you may want to keep the flavor a little generic. Below is a pretty tasty yet mild recipe.

Ingredients (You will also need a thermometer to watch the poaching liquid):
  • Boneless skinless chicken breasts (as many as you like)
  • Enough Fluid to cover them up (water with 1 tsp kosher salt per cup)
  • Random vegetables to enhance the taste (break a carrot in half, a rib of celery in half etc and just drop it in.)
  • A few bay leaves if available
  • a tsp of peppercorns (black or white)
  • a few sprigs of thyme (if available)
Directions:
  1. Put all ingredients except chicken into pot and bring to a boil (212F). Turn off the heat.
  2. Start adding the chicken pieces and within a minute or two, the liquid should reduce to 165F. If it does not, add ice cubes a few at a time until it does. If it drops below 165, turn on the heat and carefully maintain it at exactly 165.
    Drop in chicken one piece at a time using a fork
  3. Maintain the 165 temperature for at least 12 minutes (as long as the liquid remains 165F, you can leave the chicken in it all day.)
    Keep liquid at 165F
  4. Remove chicken from liquid and cool before shredding or dicing. (Notice the chicken should have a slightly pink tint to it. Then you've done a great job, it's perfect! Anything lighter (like white) and you're borderline chicken jerky. :)
    
    Slightly pink - that's the tender stuff!
You can quickly whip up an unlimited number of dishes. Tonight when I got home, I wasn't sure what to make for a snack and within five minutes, I was happily chowing down on this utterly amazing sandwich:

Shredded chicken tossed with herbs de provence and mayo,
topped with homemade cranberry relish

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. I have always been scared when cooking meats, and always overcook thinking I'll be safe. Thanks for telling me how to stay safe without sacrificing taste.

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