Published September 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
Americans roast plenty of whole chickens, but they cook even more chicken breasts. For that reason, we decided to evaluate this most popular cut.
Americans roast plenty of whole chickens, but they cook even more chicken breasts. The lean white meat portions account for 60 percent of the chicken sold in stores, and the vast majority of those are the boneless, skinless variety. For that reason, we decided to follow up our whole chicken tasting with an evaluation of the most popular cut.
As it happened, we recommended only one of the eight breasts we sampled without reservations, and it was the only brand to track closely with its whole chicken counterpart. What’s more, tasters’ comments made clear that while flavor is paramount in whole birds, chicken breasts (which we tasted lightly salted and baked to 165 degrees) are all about texture. In fact, tasters deemed the flavor of this blandest part of the bird more or less the same across the board.
Our investigation homed in on processing. And it was only when we asked the manufacturer of our winner to walk us through its methods that we uncovered a good, albeit peculiar, lead for our findings: Once a whole chicken is broken down into parts, the breasts are “aged” on the bone in chilled containers for as long as 12 hours before the bones (and skin) are removed. This aging period, it turns out, actually improves tenderness.
“When you bone [too soon], the meat will be tough because there is still energy in the muscle,” said Casey Owens, associate professor of poultry processing at the University of Arkansas. “Cutting it can cause the muscle to contract, and a shorter, contracted muscle is related to tougher meat.” Owens also explained that while four to six hours of chilling before boning is effective—and 12 hours is ideal—many companies skip the aging process altogether. Why? Building time into the process costs money. Instead, some opt for shortcut tenderizing methods like electrical stimulation of the carcass, which forces the breast muscle to contract and relax, releasing its energy.
Tasters noticed the difference, lauding our winner for being “mega-juicy and tender” (not to mention praising their “clean, chicken-y” flavor) and deeming the texture of breasts that came from an electrically stimulated carcass “unremarkable.” Its $6.99 per pound price tag makes it the second priciest brand in our lineup, but we think the premium results more than justify the premium expense.