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This is a really important question for me, it can actually make the difference between me recovering from a chronic illness or not.

Basically I have been cooking a basic soup : 1kg chicken: 1.5 litre water and 4grams sea salt. Note there is no vegetables for testing purposes. I add the ingredients at the beginning, bring to a boil, simmer and then eat.

The problem is that on some days it seems the chicken absorbs a lot of the salt making the chicken it taste nice and leaving the water seemingly less salty while on other days the chicken doesn't absorb a lot of the salt and this ends up leaving the soup water too salty. I need it the first way as my stomach tolerates it however if the water is too salty my stomach starts giving me problems.

Since ingredients/ solids weight are the same I am convinced the problem is in the way I am cooking. I am doing something which is affecting the absorption of salt by the chicken. I wondered about possible causes and thought about the following:

1.May be slow/quick heating affects absorption 2.Maybe as the chicken gets softer any salt it absorbed starts to come back out, so it’s a question of timing 3.Maybe washing the chicken at the beginning has an effect, 4.Maybe cooking time affects absorption

I tried and tested various scenarios in the above but I cannot figure out what the specific cause is, perhaps you can kindly help me out with an educated/tested opinion.
The one thing I believe I noticed was that on those days it comes out right during the simmer the water seems to go low, perhaps evaporates or gets absorbed. In either case I imagine it may be temperature issue but I am not sure and could even be mistaken about the water being low.

Do you guys have any ideas, please this is a major issue for me and only if I cook the right way will my stomach start to recover. My nutritionist didnt seem to know the answer and she said 'you'll just have to keep cooking and note what you do differently'. Any help will be highly appreciated.

Many thanks

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Have you tried brining the chicken and then not adding salt during cooking? –  Brian Nov 10 '11 at 20:42
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If you have access to Kosher chicken note that since it contains some salt to start with you may be able to use less salt for cooking. –  Itamar Nov 15 '11 at 9:55
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Note to others who may find this: @Brian's above suggestion, though upvoted, will not help: if you're boiling chicken, it doesn't matter if it was brined. –  Jefromi Feb 25 '12 at 0:06

1 Answer 1

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Speaking as pure theorist here, because I've never compared the saltiness of cooked chicken.

I think that there are two things you will have to think about. The first one is osmosis (water that gets soaked into the meat through cellular membranes), the second one is transport through porous media - like a sponge, the open ends of muscle fibres of your chicken soak up the liquid you put them in. What you want to do is to prevent osmosis into the chicken (because only pure water will go in through osmosis, concentrating the salt outside) and maximize absorption. I will assume that 0.9% saline is isotonic for a chicken, and I think this is a safe assumption, because veterinary saline isn't marked as species-specific. Seeing that your soup liquid is 0.27% saline, you can expect some osmosis to happen. *

Let's tackle the more interesting part first. You want more absorption to happen. The absorption is described by the Washburn formula, washburn and you want to maximize your L.

  • L improves with time. Luckily, a soup is meant to be cooked for a long time anyway. But when you wonder whether to give it some more time on the stove or not, more time is probably better. Keep the temperature lowish for less evaporation, and a lid on which will drip back evaporated water.

  • L improves with lesser viscosity. No way to influence it in your basic recipe, but in a real soup, avoid thickening. So don't use starchy ingredients, or at least, wash them before adding.

  • Surface tension should be kept high. Again, this is ingredient-specific. No way to influence it in the basic recipe, but it could turn out that some vegetables are reducing your surface tension a lot - I can't think of a soup vegetable or a herb or spice which is famous for a high saponine content, but it could happen. Also, you should give your pots a finishing wash with clean water if possible - detergent and dishwasher finishing liquid reduce surface tension a lot.

  • Pore size. My intuition says that this should have the biggest effect in the soup case, as you probably can't influence viscosity and surface tension too much. Obviously, the bigger your holes, the more water comes through. A good way to do that is to thoroughly denature your proteins. The first and most common way for that is prolonged cooking time. Second, brining in concentrated saline (6%) and/or acid before you cook will attack the meat surface, again denaturing proteins. However, I don't know how wise it is to use this option, because some of the brine will get absorbed into the chicken, which will leave less space for broth and will increase salt content as a whole. (This assumes that you salt the broth; Brian's idea of not adding salt to the cooking water after brining has merit). Third, you can use meat from the freezer (this is a very likely reason for the mixed results you saw until now). Freezing produces ice crystals, which rupture cell walls. When you use the thawed meat in a soup, there are more holes for water to flow in.

  • The Washburn formula is for a single capillary. But the more capillaries you have, the more absorption you get. So, what you want to do is to cut the chicken meat perpendicularly to the muscle fibres. And cut it into many small pieces instead of a few big ones.

Now we took care of the absorption, let's look into the osmosis. You can't change the salt content of the chicken's cytoplasm. But for osmosis, you have to separate the two solutions by a semipermeable membrane (the cell wall). Poke a hole in the wall, and the osmotic gradient vanishes when the liquids mix. So everything from the third point on absorption helps you reduce osmosis too.

As for your suggestions: 1. I see no reason why slow or quick heating will change absorption. I guess the products of a Maillard reaction could clog some pores, if you sear before cooking, but it won't happen during boiling. As I said, cook slow because of evaporation. 2. The chicken shouldn't absorb salt, but salty water, see the footnote. Although, if there is a hole in my theory, this is a likely place for it. 3. I doubt it, but if you wash it, you could free eventual clogged openings. 4. Certainly, cook longer.

To summarize: Cook meat which has been frozen, cut in small pieces perpendicularly to the grain, and stew it for a long time.

* I don't see a mechanism for the chicken absorbing a higher percentage of salt than what you have in the broth. I assume that in your "normal" cases, you are left with salt content near the initial 0.27%, and in bad cases, this gets concentrated.

Update As requested in the comments, I am providing an explanation about "cutting across the fibers". Short story, meat is made up of muscles, and a muscle is made up of fibers, or bundles of bundles of cells. You can easily see them in raw meat. You want to slice across them, so their ends are open, as opposed to along.

The good, long explanation with pictures can be found on Serious Eats

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+10! Look at all that science. Also, the one way I can think that you could get more salt than the broth is by cooking it in less liquid, letting a lot of water boil off and therefore increasing the salinity, then adding in more water at the end to bring it back to where you want it. –  Jefromi Nov 10 '11 at 23:59
    
Rumtscho, your sir, are a very smart person and that was an excellent answer. Having thought about it I may have very well taken it from the freezer those days I got it right. –  James Wilson Nov 12 '11 at 18:29
    
Can you clarify what exactly you mean by 'cut the chicken meat perpendicularly to the muscle fibres' and 'perpendicularly to the grain'. Thanks. –  James Wilson Mar 7 '12 at 20:31
    
@rumtscho: "Third, you can use meat from the freezer (this is a very likely reason for the mixed results you saw until now). Freezing produces ice crystals, which rupture cell walls. When you use the thawed meat in a soup, there are more holes for water to flow in" Do you recommend intentionally freezing meat you intend to use for soup, or at least cook for an extended time? To take advantage to what is a downside for other forms of cooking it? –  MargeGunderson Sep 26 '12 at 4:51
    
@MargeGunderson no, I don't recommend freezing the chicken, because the texture gets unpleasant to eat. But for the very specific problem the OP is trying to solve (which most people don't perceive as a problem), it can help, this is why I described it here. –  rumtscho Sep 26 '12 at 10:51

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