Fast or Slow? Why different cuts of meat are cooked at different speeds.
And why some of us may want to: Give the Breast a Rest
The fast and the slow of it…
During culinary school, one of the first things we were taught is how to distinguish between cuts of meat that are traditionally grilled, sautéed, or broiled (quick cooking methods aimed at getting the protein to a certain temp then stopping before resting and immediately serving) and cuts that are typically braised, stewed, or roasted/smoked (long, slow cooking methods, usually at low temperatures, to yield a tender and full-flavored product).
Without getting too technical (because who really wants that?) the easiest way of making this important distinction is by thinking about the workload of that particular cut of meat during the animal’s lifetime. For example, beef chuck or pot roast comes from the animal’s shoulder, versus a New York strip steak which comes from the short loin located near the rib area. Obviously, considering the bovine lifestyle, the shoulder does a lot more work during the animal’s life: standing, walking etc. While the short loin does a great deal less. When was the last time you drove past a steer pasture on a country road and looked out the window to find the beasts crowded in front of a TV doing Tae Bo ab work with Billy Blanks? My guess is never. If you have, I envy you greatly.
So, because of all this extra work, a muscle like the shoulder will develop a good deal more connective tissue than will a less active one like the short loin. Therefore, the chuck roast (shoulder) is slow cooked until tender, the extended cooking time allowing all that tough connective tissue to break down; and the strip is grilled and served pink because it’s already tender out of the gate.
An easy way to remember this dynamic is that, in a cannibalistic cartoon society, Popeye’s forearms would go in the crockpot while Jabba the Hutt’s abdominals would be ready for a quick sear in the pan.
Note: Due to the extra tissue in these tougher pieces of protein they are almost always more flavorful. Just one more reason they rock!
Give the Breast a Rest
So, all that to say this…
Throughout the entire spectrum of proteins that Americans consume on a regular basis, none is so unnecessarily overused than the famous boneless skinless chicken breast. Chickens, at least the ones I know—don’t do a lot of pushups. This tells us that the chicken breast is a cut with a very small workload. As we’ve learned, that makes it very suitable to the grill or the broiler.
However, there are many who will use this cut for literally everything. If a recipe calls for chicken, these people will be making it with boneless skinless breast. Chicken Marsala? Boneless skinless breast. Chicken soup? Boneless skinless breast. Fried chicken legs? Boneless skinless breast.
I’m not saying that BSB is the wrong choice for all the recipes above, but for someone who is trying to make a chili or a stew, or braise, or anything involving an extended stay in the crockpot—for the love of God, set the breast down at the meat counter, and look a few feet to your right or your left. You’re sure to see a considerably smaller section of chicken thighs or leg quarters. They even sell boneless skinless chicken thighs for those who prefer to convince themselves that the animals they eat don’t have bones or skin (I know you’re out there and I will never understand you).
The legs of a chicken do the majority of the heavy lifting throughout its life, and what have we learned that means? Right! There is more connective tissue and that part is therefore more suited to longer, slower cooking methods. The other great thing about chicken thighs/leg quarters is that, despite their extra tissue, they’re not bad grilled or broiled either. Whereas most tough cuts in the beef world, like the chuck roast mentioned above, are pretty difficult to simply grill up tender.
Any number of chicken recipes are more suited to these smaller, more humble leg parts: Chicken Tikka Masala, Southwest Chicken Chili, Pulled Chicken Tacos; you name it and if it’s not grilled or sautéed it’s likely a job for the lower half of the bird!
What about cost and nutrition?
Some people may argue that the thigh is higher in fat, and they’d be right. However, the difference is about a gram per ounce, and it’s certainly no higher in fat than those 90/10 ground beef patties that a lot of fitness buffs swear by during beach season. If your fat intake is so limited that you can’t afford a few grams of animal fat in place of an oil-based salad dressing, then I feel for you. Unless you’re a very serious athlete attempting to attain a sub-human level of body fat for some reason (in which case, I hope you’re getting paid) there is no excuse. Buy the thighs. Oh, and did I mention that they’re cheaper? Because they are.
To conclude, this piece is not meant to imply that people who swear by BSB are closed minded or not culinarily inclined or anything like that. The whole chicken, breast included, certainly has its place in the kitchen—be it in a French classic or a millennial mother’s go-to recipe to feed a family of four. It’s undeniably a great low-fat protein source. Like many people, I often grill up a big pack of BSB on Sunday and use it throughout the entire week, but the breast is not the end all be all. There is an entire spectrum of cheaper, sometimes tougher, and more affordable cuts of protein out there that have more flavor, are more versatile, and deserve more attention. So, next time you’re at the meat counter, please, give the breast a rest.