Poultry 101: Sauté Basics

poultry from Lucca, Italy- too cute to cook!

Properly sautéed pieces of chicken should be moist and juicy on the inside and have a mahogany colored crispy skin on the outside. Arm yourself with an instant-read thermometer and a little nerdy food science background, and you can have the best chicken on the block- every time.

How do I get the outside properly browned?

The science: Though poultry is composed primarily of protein, it also contains small quantities of carbohydrate. When the proteins are heated- generally to around 310F- they react with the carbohydrate molecules on the dry surface and form a dark mahogany color and richer flavor. This is scientifically called the Maillard reaction. We call it tasty.

What to do: Once your chicken is placed in a hot pan with a little oil, LEAVE IT ALONE. Give the reaction a few minutes to happen. Frequent moving and turning will keep the surface from reaching critical temperature and loosing the moisture you need for a crispy brown skin. Turn only once to brown both sides.

How do I keep the chicken from sticking to the hot pan?

The science: If a pan and the oil in it are heated at the same time as the chicken, the chicken will bond with the pan and stick every time. If, however, the pan and oil are already hot when the chicken is added, the chicken will initially bond with the pan (as the Maillard reaction begins) but then release as it becomes browned. Proteins coagulate when heated and then shrink, thus releasing them from the pan.

What to do: Place a small amount of oil in your pan and heat on moderate to high heat until it shimmers. On it’s hot, carefully add your chicken- you should hear sizzling immediately.

How do I keep the inside moist?

The science: Minimum internal cooking temperature for poultry is 165F for 15 seconds. All poultry and meats have carry over cooking that occurs after they are removed from the heat source. Depending on the size of the particular piece of poultry, this can be 5 degrees up to 20-25 degrees. Larger pieces will have higher carry over cooking temperatures.

What to do: After sautéing to brown the chicken, place in a 350F oven until an instant-read thermometer (inserted in the thickest portion, away from bone) reads 150-160 depending on size. Let the poultry rest for a few minutes before serving. Trust the numbers and enjoy a perfect piece of chicken 🙂


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