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This may seem a silly question, but it has always stricken me as odd that chicken should dry out when I boil it in water. Intuitively it just seems weird, but thinking about this a bit while cooking just now, it also makes little sense to me from a basic physics point of view. I googled this first of course, but I can't seem to find an answer as to why this could be.

Assuming I don't put any salt in the water in which I boil it, the concentration gradient caused by ions and other molecules in the meat should cause the water to diffuse/osmose into the chicken. Furthermore any minor temperature gradient should also be pushing water into the chicken. The most plausible explanation I came up with is that the chicken is over-saturated with water to begin with -either naturally or introduced during processing of the meat- and boiling it then somehow reduces the capacity of the tissue to retain the liquid.

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  • Why does this seem odd to you? Have you not noticed that your own skin dries out when you take a long shower or repeatedly wash your hands? It is, in fact, mostly water to begin with. Not "saturated with" water but actually water. – Aaronut Mar 8 '15 at 19:58
  • Also, I feel like this has to be a duplicate, but there are so many questions here about dry chicken that searching for the one on food science is like finding a needle in a haystack... anyone want to try their luck? – Aaronut Mar 8 '15 at 20:01
  • I thought it would be answered somewhere before, but none of the questions I found deal with the physics processes underlying it, that's why I posted in physics in the first place. As for why it seems odd, from basic physics it didn't really make sense to me as I explained in my question. I do believe skin drying out from washing/showering has another physical cause and is just superficially similar. – Fasermaler Mar 8 '15 at 20:20
  • I've boiled chicken legs a number of times in order to get something like Chinese white cut chicken. The result is moist, not dry at all, so dry chicken isn't a necessary outcome of boiling that this question implies. You might be over cooking it. – Ross Ridge Mar 8 '15 at 21:48
  • Thanks for your comment Ross, it's probably true I'm overcooking it to pieces. It's for baby meals, so I leave it boiling well beyond a sensible time to be on the safe side. As with Doug's comment, I will have a go to see if I can make it less dry. – Fasermaler Mar 8 '15 at 22:14
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I may be wrong but I'll give it a shot.

When you heat chicken (or any other muscle for that matter) it tenses up. As it tenses up it is essentially squeezing juices out, because all the fibres are closer together. Just think what happens when you slice a rare steak without letting it rest, there will be blood everywhere.

In general I believe boiling anything is bad practice. A slow simmer maximum is required to retain all the desired qualities. Hence the saying "low and slow" which I take quite literally band apply to just about everything culinary wise. From cooking stew to proving bread, the longer the better.

Edit:

I wrote that then went in the shower and remembered pasta & potatoes, so maybe low and slow unless it's a starchy carbohydrate. Or if you are searing, but often a blazing hot seat is accompanied by a nice rest.

  • This is a great explanation of why the meat would start to push out water, I'll accept the answer. I'm going to try the slow simmer approach sometime, thanks! – Fasermaler Mar 8 '15 at 19:52
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    I wouldn't say "never boil", although I might say "never boil meat". Aside from starches, there are reasons to boil things: Candy-making, blanching, canning, or even just working with certain ingredients e.g. agar-agar. Also, we shouldn't perpetuate the myth that cooked or even rare meat has "blood" - it's myoglobin. – Aaronut Mar 8 '15 at 20:06
  • Ill change it to "that red stuff if you'd like" 😉. Regarding the never boil statement I'm beginning to regret it now I've thought about it. There is a huge list of "almost always boils" in my head now... – Doug Mar 8 '15 at 20:08
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    @jsanc623 Wow, meat tenderizers... they still make those things? – Doug Mar 9 '15 at 18:22
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    @jsanc623 I didn't know what you meant by Parm so Googled it, we call it Escalope. Anyhoo, with the back of a pan of course. – Doug Mar 9 '15 at 18:26
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As noted already, your skin dries out from excessive washing, long showers, etc. This is because you are drawing out the oils in your skin and washing them away with the water. The boiled meat is going through a similar process. Also, as noted above, when you heat a piece of meat it tenses up. The heat of the water causes the fats to liquefy, the tensing of the fibers helps to push these oils out into the water where they are borne away from the meat. The extended time that you are leaving the meat in the hot water is keeping the muscle tense and it is not drawing any of that liquid back in. I like the low and slow suggestion, it allows the muscle to relax a little and perhaps retain some of the fat. Also, I think that you could allow it some time to sit in the water after boiling. Are you removing the meat from the liquid immediately after cooking? Like letting a burger or steak rest before serving, give the chicken time to relax the muscle and being in the liquid, perhaps it will draw some of it back in.

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It doesn't matter whether you boil, roast or grill it. This doesn't have to do with boiling per se, but overcooking white meat. If you boil dark meat it's not going to go dry. If you boil white meat briefly (just until done) it will be fine. If you leave white meat boiling it's going to be dry. Same as if you leave white meat baking or grilling for longer than the required cooking time.

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The reason chicken dries up when you are boiling it, or simmering it for that matter, is that the boiling process is all drawing away the oils. The oil holds the moisture in the chicken, therefore boiling the chicken pulls away the very thing that's allowing the chicken to stay moist.

That's one reason why we baste turkeys and whole chickens, to keep it covered in oil so the water doesn't get driven out.

You can burn the beeguz out of chicken thighs in a baking pan, making the skin nearly a burnt cinder, but the meat underneath may be just fine and nice and moist because of all the oil it was sitting in.

Cook burgers on the stove to medium.....then with some fresh burgers drop them into boiling water for the same amount of time. Break them both open and take a look. One will be nice and pink, the other will look well done on this inside....It's not, it's just been rinsed of all it's goodness.

  • Oil does not have the power to hold water in if the water wants to get out. You might be thinking of how an oily surface will have less surface evaporation than a wet surface, but that doesn't apply to moist heat. Additionally, something like a chicken breast is already essentially fat-free. – Sneftel Aug 7 at 10:49
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Boiling causes the liquid in the chicken, most meats really, to expand and seep out of the meat. The juices are then lost due to evaporation (the juices cooking away). If you want chicken to be moist, let it come to nearly room temperature before cooking and cook it quickly. This is more easily done with warmer meats as cold meat is tougher to cook than warm meat.

Just be careful to not allow bacteria to grow on the meat (see numerous food safety posts of "Danger zone" temperatures). There are guidelines on line regarding time meat can be safely set outside of the refrigerator before cooking.

  • If the dryness simply comes from the liquid "expanding" (note that water only expands by about 4% between cold and nearly boiling), then surely the cooking time would have no effect? – Sneftel Aug 7 at 10:46

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