How to make tender and succulent chicken curry?
Making Chicken Curry is a form of wet cooking. It involves five successive steps: Choosing Chicken, Marinating, Browning, Braising, and Resting.
Process described here does not apply beyond marinating for dry cooking (Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala) where the meat is either baked, or pan fried.
Step 1 Choosing Chicken
In Indian Cuisine, we discard the skin. The skin has the highest amount of connective tissue. After the skin, the bones are high in connective tissue. The dark meat (thighs, and legs) have more connective tissue than the white meat (breast).
The skinless boneless chicken breast has minimum connective tissue. It is the easiest part to cook, but lacks the flavor of gelatinized connective tissue. Therefore, to optimize flavor of curry we use skinless whole chicken.
Choose whole skinless chicken
Thighs, legs and bones are needed for the flavor of gelatinized connective tissue.
My personal favorite is to use skinless bone-in chicken thighs.
Cut it into manageable parts.
Smaller parts increase surface area for marinating as well as maximizing browning area
Step 2 Marinate Chicken
In western cooking, the restaurants 'brine the chicken', In Indian cooking, chicken is marinated.
What is brining?
The chicken is immersed in a salt solution (Water: 1 cup, Salt: 2¼ teaspoon, Sugar: 1½ teaspoon) and kept at 40º F for one to two hours before cooking. The chicken absorbs the water make it juicy and flavored with salt.
The marinate in a spiced yogurt mixture. For chicken breast, marinating for one hour is sufficient Chicken Marinate in Hurry. Whole cut up skinless chicken should be marinated for about four hours, preferably overnight.
Marinating has limited tenderizing effect
Marinating infuses flavor to chicken and makes it moist
After the marinating is complete, remove the chicken from the marinate, and discard the marinate. Don't re-use marinate. In the olden days, it was a common practice to re-use marinate to make dips, sauces, or marinate another batch. During marinating, the bacteria has multiplied many times over, it can be very hazardous to your health. If you need, then make a double batch of marinate. Use one batch for marinating, and the second batch to make sauce.
Step 3 Browning Chicken (Brown Chicken Mix)
Raw chicken is rather bland except for the aroma and taste infused during marinating. When we heat the outer surface of the chicken over 285º F, it creates so called Maillard reactions by breaking down proteins with sugar into smaller molecules full of aroma and taste.
Heat ghee (or any cooking fat) to 300ºF to 350º F, add a few pieces of marinated chicken at a time. You do not want to add a lot of pieces at the same time to prevent Ghee temperature to go below 285º F. Cook till all the surfaces are browned. Remove the browned pieces from the heat to stop further cooking. After the chicken has been removed, fry the Masala (spices, onions, tomatoes etcetera per recipe) in the same fat where chicken was browned. Add the chicken back in. Now, you have Brown Chicken Mix
Step 4 Braising
During this step we cook the Brown Chicken Mix at low heat till meat is tender.
Technically, this is a variation of braising used in western cooking where the whole bird is partially immersed in water and cooked on low heat. Our braising is a combination of braising and poaching.
Meat is made up of muscle fibers and connective tissue. Connective tissue is basically collagen. When the internal temperature is raised to 140º F, heat breaks down the connective tissue and dissolves in to gelatin. As the connective tissue breaks down, it expels the moisture shriveling up the meat that is now tender but dry. As the process continues, the fibers start to relax and absorb back the moisture. Therefore, during cooking three things happen:
1. Meat becomes tender
2. When the meat shrivels, the gravy gets flavored with the gelatinized connective tissue.
3. When the muscle fiber relaxes, it absorbs the gravy adding flavor to the meat.
There are four basic cooking techniques employed: Stove top Braising, Dum Cooking or Slow Cooking, Pressure Cooker, Oven Bake.
Stove top Braising
Transfer Brown Chicken Mix to a Dutch oven. Slowly increase the temperature. When the internal meat temperature reaches 140º F, it will start to break down the connective tissues and the meat becomes tender. Always cook covered at low temperature. Your objective is for the bird to reach an internal temperature of 160º F. You may cook near 195º F. Do not let it come to a boil. The boiling temperature is 212º F. If boiled, the exterior will cook faster than the inside resulting in tough meat. It will take you twice as long to cook to finally get it tender.
Cook Covered at low temperature.
Rapid High temperature will make the chicken tough.
Cook covered on low heat for 25 minutes. You want to maintain a temperature between 194 to 201 °F. As a normal practice you will watch for air bubbles from bottom to rise up to top. Now, cook covered till the chicken is tender.
Dum Cooking or Slow Cooking
Transfer Brown Chicken Mix to cooker and seal or cover the lid. The cooking is done between 185º F to 200º F. This is ideal temperature to cook chicken.
Transfer Brown Chicken Mix to pressure cooker. In pressure cooker, the meat is cooked at about 250º F. The temperature is so high that the heat reaches the inside of the meat much quicker than just boiling (212º F). Most of the times chicken is over cooked.
Overcooked chicken is rubbery
Transfer Brown Chicken Mix to Dutch oven. To reduce cooking time you may heat the contents to about 140º F on stove top before baking. Preheat oven to 275ºF to 325ºF. Bake covered in the oven till chicken is tender.
Step 5 Resting
After the meat is tender, it should rest for about 40 minutes to reach a temperature equilibrium between gravy and internal chicken temperature. This optimizes the flavor.
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