A few months back Alton Brown stopped by the office to chat with us about such diverse topics as how to write a recipe for an omelette, his top five pieces of kitchen equipment, and even the future of recipe writing. Now chatting is all well and good, but I'm not going to pass up on the opportunity to actually cook with the man who made me want to do what I do today.
To make it exciting, we grabbed the first raw ingredient we could find—a whole, head-on chicken from the Chinese supermarket around the corner—and placed a bet on it.
The game: we took both breasts off the chicken and cooked them to 155°F. One was cooked by starting it in a hot skillet, the other was cooked starting cold. Which one would lose more moisture?
Check out the video to find out.
I'm not exactly sure what makes this particular experiment "great" or even really an experiment, per se. More like moderately poorly controlled, trivially important kitchen futzing if you want to know the truth. But either way, I had a heck of a fun time doing it; it's a rare thing to get to meet one of your personal heroes, much less to cook a chicken with him. Hopefully you'll get a kick out of watching it.
Watch the Video!
Alton Brown: "No they don't, Kenji. They don't think about that all. And it kills me..." (high-pitched laugh) So let's say that we're going to cook two chicken breast pieces to the exact same internal temperature, but start them at completely different times, so that we have one that goes in hot and cooks for a shorter amount of time versus the one that... you know what, we should weigh them before they go in as well.
So we got 99 grams and 111 grams, one's going to go into a cool pan, and let's pick a final temperature.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Let me cool this pan quickly because it's already smoking.
AB: So we notice that he likes to live dangerously by pouring water directly into the hot pan of oil so that it aerosolizes, causing third-degree burns. Duly noted! Okay, what kind of surface temperature do you want to see?
AB: At least.
AB: So it's okay to put your hands on the chicken and then stick em back in the salt. Okay, also noted. Good sanitation procedures.
JKLA: What's going to live in the salt?
AB: Nothing's going to live in the salt at all. I'm just giving you crap. I think the interesting thing's going to be if we cook them both to the same doneness, if we pick a spot center mass, and we decide on a final temperature, 155, is going to be the comparison of weight of moisture loss. I'm going to hypothesize that there's going to be more moisture loss out of chicken breast B.
JKLA: Right, because we're cooking it at a higher temperature the whole time.
AB: Surface to mass ratio. Reading 161 center mass. #2 is of course way down from that. Da da da da. 78 grams.
JKLA: I'd say it's About 78%, given that we started with basically 100. 99.
AB: But it's not exactly. I mean, if you wanna play all loosey goosey with the facts, that's your business. 78.78% okay. This is primary research, man. We're in Harold McGee territory. Are we close to the same temperature?
JKLA: Yep. It's too bad they don't make chicken breasts in completely uniform sizes.
AB: We're working on it...we're working on it. 84.68%. I was guessing that the piece that went into the colder pan would, because of its reduced surface area, maybe retain more moisture, but indeed there is a relationship between time and moisture loss. So the piece that went into the hot pan stayed moister.
In order to quantify anything that's going on with your food, you've got to have measurements.
AB: Now ideally, we would have been measuring time. We didn't. But, not only did we weigh things, we weighed things digitally, in metric.
JKLA: In metric, yes.
AB: And we took careful temperatures, not only of the pan, but of the food, so we've got three data points. But this is still a pretty big trend. 84.68% vs 78.78%.
JKLA: Yeah, that's not insignificant.
AB: Lunch! Lunch is up. This is enough to feed like six girls from New York.
JKLA: Well, it's impossible to say without bias, because I know that this one lost more moisture, but...
AB: I note it no difference whatsoever.
AB: So what we've learned is that it freaking doesn't matter.
JKLA: Start with a good bird and don't mess it up?
AB: Here's the other thing. Food tastes better when you're hungry. And meat is more tender when you're hungry because you produce more saliva. As Cervantes said, hunger is the best sauce.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.