Hen Breasts vs Hen Thighs: A Thermal Clarification

If there’s one meat People love, it’s hen. We eat almost as a lot hen annually as beef and pork mixed.1 However regardless of our affinity for this fowl, People are sometimes consuming dry, chewy, chalky hen.

A part of the explanation why this occurs a lot is that almost all dwelling cooks don’t perceive when to make use of hen breast and when to make use of hen thigh. On this put up, we purpose as an example the variations between these two meats, in addition to the thermal rules it’s essential to perceive to benefit from them. Temperature is the important thing to juicy hen, so let’s check out the small print. Spoiler: we desire thighs for each thermal and gustatory causes.


Temping chicken

Completely different elements for various functions

Hen historical past: the place chickens come from

To know what’s happening with hen meat, we have to perceive the hen. Chickens are non-migratory birds. In truth, they’re descended from wild Pink Junglefowl of Southeast Asia and India. There, they reside within the boundaries between forests and fields, regrowth, or settlements. They search cowl within the lush forests whereas seeking out forage within the open. They don’t must fly besides in brief bursts to shortly escape predators or to succeed in their treed roosts.

Individuals have been selectively breeding chickens for hundreds of years, producing breeds which can be chilly tolerant, warmth tolerant, good egg layers, good moms, and good meat birds. However none of that selective breeding has created chickens which can be meant for long-distance flight, with flying muscle mass constructed for lengthy, exhausting exertion. In any case, why would we would like our dinner to study to fly?!?

A backyard chicken

Anatomical variations between breast and thigh meat

So what does this historical past need to do with folks cooking dry hen? The whole lot!

First, let’s have a look at somewhat normal muscular anatomy.

As a result of the ur-chickies weren’t migratory and solely wanted quick bursts of energy, their breast muscle mass developed largely fast-twitch (white) muscle fibers, whereas their legs, which assist and transfer them slowly by way of lengthy days of grazing and foraging, developed extra slow-twitch (crimson) muscle fibers.

As a result of most animal muscle mass are used for each fast and gradual actions, they include each white and crimson muscle fibers, in addition to hybrid fibers that mix proportions of the opposite two . . . Chickens and turkeys fly solely when startled, run often, and largely stand and stroll; so their breast muscle mass consist predominately of white fibers, whereas their leg muscle mass are on common half white fibers, half crimson.

Harold McGee, On Meals and Cooking, Pg 132

That is under no circumstances a revelation; everyone knows breast meat is chicken and leg meat is darkish meat. What many individuals don’t perceive is that darkish—i.e. extra exercised—meat additionally comprises extra connective tissue:

The extra drive {that a} muscle exerts, the extra connective tissue it wants for reinforcement, and the stronger the tissue must be.

Harold McGee, On Meals and Cooking, Pg 129

Understanding collagen breakdown and meat dry-out: the keys to juicy hen

To recap: legs do extra work in chickens than breasts, so that they have a a lot larger proportion of crimson, slow-twitch muscle fibers, and in addition the next proportion of connective tissue to assist the work they do. Figuring out that, we will have a look at how meat cooks, and the way connective tissue breaks down, to higher perceive hen cookery.

How and why meat dries out.

All land-animal meat begins to squeeze its water out because it passes 120°F (49°C) because the myosin within the fibers contracts. That’s nice—we don’t typically like the feel of uncooked meat—and this primary expulsion of juices into the areas surrounding the cells makes our meat juicier and firmer than when uncooked.

As meat passes 140°F (60°C), it instantly sheds plenty of juice, will get chewier, and shrinks. It is because the collagen discovered within the meat is beginning to denature, tightening its grip on the muscle fibers it surrounds and squeezing the watery cells. If we cook dinner our meat a lot previous this level, it has little water left to present, so it begins the trail from juiciness to dryness. It will get more durable, stiffer, and drier with each diploma above this temp. That is dry meat; that is what we wish to keep away from.

Collagen and meat tenderness

However then, because the meat passes 160°F (71°C), that constrictive collagen begins to show into gelatin. Given time at these larger temps, a lot of the collagen in a lower of meat can dissolve into gelatin, and tenderness returns. “The fibers are nonetheless stiff and dry, however they not kind a monolithic mass, so the meat appears extra tender,” Harold McGee explains. With out the connective tissue wrapping the muscle fibers tightly, our enamel go by way of them simply. And the gelatin that’s created by the melting connective tissue absorbs among the remaining water, turning into luscious and sticky-tasty in its personal proper.

This phenomenon of drying after which tenderizing explains why an undercooked brisket is so horrible. It has toughened, however not but loosened. Take meat previous its main juiciness levels and, if there may be sufficient collagen in it, it’ll develop into tender and scrumptious in its personal approach.

Variations in doneness temps for light-meat and dark-meat hen

Hen breast doneness temps

As a result of hen breasts should not effectively exercised and have way more white fibers than crimson, additionally they have little or no collagen. So if you cook dinner a breast, all you might be cooking is the tenderest fibers. In response to McGee, “The tender breast meat will get dry and hard if heated a lot above 155°F (68°C).” Sure, you learn that proper. The “commonplace” reply for hen security is 165°F (74°C), but it surely dries out above 155°F (68°C). Now, for those who’ve learn our piece on hen inside temperatures, that bacterial kill-off is a perform of each temperature AND time, not simply temperature, and you’ll definitely cook dinner a hen to 155°F (68°C) and be secure. However pushing it decrease turns into troublesome for breasts that aren’t hooked up to a complete fowl, as a result of they cool too shortly when faraway from warmth.

Temping grilled chicken

So actually, hen breast has a “doneness window” of about 5°F (3°C). That may be exhausting to hit, particularly if you attempt to think about carryover cooking. What number of levels under do you have to take it off the warmth? Who is aware of?

Don’t get us improper; correctly cooked hen breast is nice, but it surely’s simply so exhausting to hit, even with correct temperature instruments.

Hen thigh doneness temps

Leg meat, particularly thigh, is one other story altogether.

As a result of hen thigh (and leg) meat is extra exercised than breast meat and has extra crimson muscle fibers, it additionally comprises extra collagen. Which means it’s finest when cooked to a temperature at or above 170°F (77°C). In truth, we frequently cook dinner ours to 185°F (85°C), although they’re good as much as about 200°F (93°C). This large latitude of doneness makes the thighs straightforward to cook dinner, and take away the concerns one might need about carryover cooking. You needn’t fear about eradicating the meat earlier than a doneness temp and hoping to hit your goal; you simply cook dinner it to your pull temp, and if it will get hotter, that’s nice. You need to use your Thermapen® ONE to examine it earlier than you take away it from warmth, and also you’ll understand it’s going to be good.

temping the thighs

Makes use of for thigh, makes use of for breast

So you possibly can see why we desire hen thighs to hen breasts—normally. However that doesn’t imply there’s no place for breasts. Hen breasts are nice for light purposes like sous vide, the place temperature will be simply managed. Gently poaching hen breasts can also be an exquisite method to cook dinner them, particularly if the poaching liquid is flavorful and wealthy.

If utilizing hen breasts in different purposes, it’s best to butterfly or flatten them to lower the quantity of thermal gradation that may happen throughout cooking. And pull them earlier than they attain 165°F (74°C).

Shallow thermal gradients

Don’t—please, please don’t—use hen breast (frozen or thawed) in Instantaneous Pot or gradual cooker recipes. Countertop strain cookers purposefully convey the components up above boiling temperature to cook dinner them shortly. This pushes all of the water out of the breasts. And when you might imagine the hen is juicy, it’s actually simply moist with sauce, which is a distinct factor.

For top-heat purposes like grilling, strain cooking, or frying, you simply can’t beat thigh! When you cook dinner it accurately, to a excessive sufficient temperature, the meat will probably be juicier, your sauces will probably be richer, and also you’ll barely be capable of inform the distinction between your dish and a correctly cooked breast dish. However will probably be carried out with half the margin for error, and it’ll additionally price much less, which is a win for your loved ones funds.

With the quantity of hen we eat as a rustic, it’s about time we discovered to cook dinner it proper! With these thermal rules and a few nice temperature instruments like Thermapen ONE, you’ll be capable of make sense of your hen recipes, and even enhance upon them. Use a high-accuracy, quick thermometer and also you’ll make sure you get pleasure from each hen dish you make, safe within the data that your loved ones is consuming meals that’s each secure and scrumptious.

Store now for merchandise used on this put up:

Thermapen ONE
On Food and Cooking
ThermoPop 2
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