The Breast Test

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I hope this post won’t get too long or too technical for my readers, but if you are interested to know why Egypt’s number-one, go-to diet meal is the most unpalatable thing you can ever eat, then please bear with me as I take you through the process.

It’s a sad thought that whoever is in charge of the kitchens in over 90% of the country’s restaurants doesn’t actually know that much about food! In fact, they wouldn’t even know how to cook a chicken breast without it ending up as a dry, stringy and elastic piece of sponge. With the recent uprise in the Egyptian culinary scene, it’s time to stop patting average performers on the back.

To avoid dissecting the various types of amino acids that make up the delicious juices of the meat we eat, I will just tell you very broadly that a bare piece of protein – whether it be cattle, poultry or fish – starts to get tough when cooked beyond the temperature of 71° Celsius. I know that some chefs and food scientists might be rolling their eyes at this point already because there’s so much more to it than that, but like I said, this is not an a chemistry lecture, rather an article to help me get a few points across to the cooks and consumers of Egypt. With elementary knowledge that boiling water holds a temperature of 100° Celsius, you may think that 71° is quite low… Well, it is! And it should be. One of the greatest chefs in Egypt taught me something that I will never forget: “Only two foods are boiled; potatoes and pasta!”. So next time a chef tells you that this chicken breast you are eating is boiled, please tell him to read this post or go read a book. You may argue that cooking methods like roasting and braising subject the meat to much higher temperatures than 71° Celsius, but that is because some of these cuts have a much higher fat content to protect them from drying out. That is also besides the fact that when you set your oven to 170° Celsius, the internal temperature of the product you are cooking is far lower than that.

The trickiest cooking method of all has to be grilling. To me, a chef that can master the art of grilling and control the doneness to the point of knowing the exact internal temperature of the grilled product, is truly worthy of his/her title! A skinless & boneless chicken breast has a very low fat content and can most easily go from perfect to overcooked in seconds. Which is why I came up with what I like to call the ‘Breast Test’. I go to any food establishment and ask for a grilled, skinless and boneless chicken breast, depending on what I get, I will judge that restaurant accordingly. If you want a perfectly cooked chicken breast every time, that is tender and cooked through evenly, then I suggest you go sous-vide. For those who don’t know (shame on you chefs), sous-vide is a modern cooking method that uses a water-bath with a consistently controlled temperature to cook food. So if you don’t want to go above 71° Celsius, you won’t! Which is why grilling is so finicky.. the heat of the metal surface will surpass anything acceptable for tenderness, which is fine in this case because you want that charred, caramelized exterior on your protein. The internal temperature needs to stay within the ideal range for as long as it takes to color the exterior while ensuring that it doesn’t drop below 63° Celsius – in which case you would be risking food poisoning. Unlike sous-vide, the temperature of the product will keep rising uncontrollably until you take it off the heat. If you don’t have a thermometer and don’t think that is hard, then I don’t know what is!

Of course there are plenty more factors that contribute to the perfect texture on that chicken breast. You can pound it, marinade it, brine it or even use mythical tenderizers, but the most important contributor to the perfection of that breast is storage. It is quite impossible for the average consumer today to tell the true origin of their food. You don’t know what the chicken ate, how it lived, what happened to the breast after it was deboned, nor can you tell the temperature it was stored at. Let me simplify it for you again, if you put your chicken breast in the freezer, then you can throw it in the trash as soon as it is thawed again. Without going into too much detail of the chemical process that causes the damage, I just want you to know that your breast – well, not your breast, the chickens’ I mean – loses most of it’s tender-responsible juices once it has been thawed from the frozen state. This means that I don’t care to hear if it’s your grandmother’s secret recipe, spice blend, marinade, sous-vide or ‘sur-vide’ or even how many years you have been working as a chef, if it has lost its juices, then there’s no way to put them back in! Also not to forget is the fact that with all those juices lost from the meat, it will actually contain less nutrients and be a lot heavier on your digestive system.

Unfortunately, you would need to try a perfectly cooked chicken breast to be able to tell what is wrong with the ones you got so used to eating. There’s less than a handful of restaurants here in Egypt that have served me a properly cooked chicken breast and I don’t want to mention their names, because this is really not the point of this article at all. But if you happen to have a juicy, succulent and tender grilled chicken breast anywhere in the country, please let me know. Or make a post on social media and use the #MidosBreastTest hashtag.

I hope that the chefs and business owners are inspired enough after they read this (if they do) and that they step up their game and make an effort to offer quality meals that are worthy of the prices they charge for them.

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