Sunday, August 8, 2010

How to get crispy skin on chicken/turkey

Step away from the bird, put the turkey baster down, and no one has to get hurt.

Ever since I started applying my critical thinking skills to my kitchen forays, I have been perplexed beyond words why anyone would think that, to achieve crisp chicken/turkey skin, you should baste the bird by pouring over all those juices from the bottom of the pan. I'm pretty certain that every single one of my relatives is guilty of doing this (excepting my vegetarian uncle, of course). When asked why they think that this achieves crispier skin, I've received answers ranging from the elusive ("It just does.") to the stupid ("That's fat at the bottom of the pan and coating the turkey in grease will crisp it up." FYI, anyone who bothers to separate that liquid afterward for gravy knows that it's approximately 80% water, 20% fat.).

Bottom line: You're pouring water all over your delicious turkey, thereby preventing the very thing you're trying to achieve.

In order to reach the browning stage, the temperature of the skin must climb well above that of boiling water. To do that, you need to remove as much of the water as possible from the skin, otherwise all of the heat (read: energy) will go toward converting water from its liquid to its gaseous state, and none of it will do into raising the temperature of the proteins, etc. in the skin.

So what's the solution? Well, people have known for a while that air-drying any meat in the refrigerator for atleast 12 hours will help remove surface liquid. They also have known that rubbing the skin liberally with salt will encourage the release of liquid in the skin, allowing for it to evaporate earlier in the cooking process. What's been recently brought to light is the addition of a "magical" baking ingredient that, when used with the salt on the skin, leads to an even crispier end-product. What's that ingredient?

Baking powder!

How does it work, you ask? Here's the science,

Baking powder consists of both an acid (monocalcium phosphate) and an alkali (aka base) (sodium bicarbonate). As the salt encourages the release of moisture, it is absorbed by the solid baking powder, allowing the acid and alkali to react. The released calcium ions are now free to enter the skin cells, activating enzymes responsible for the break-down of proteins. Combined with the remaining alkali, these broken-down proteins now have a lower "activation energy" required to undergo the Maillard reaction and start browning (i.e. it now takes less heat to brown the skin).

So, in conclusion, when baking powder is combined with salt and rubbed onto the skin of the turkey/chicken, it will produce a crispier, browner skin. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Recipes that use this technique:

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