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The Science of Crisp Skin

The Science of Crisp Skin

Let’s learn how to cook chicken paying special attention to the skin: with these tips even meat will have “something” extra. A clue? It all depends on salt.

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In the kitchen, there are certain things you do but don’t talk about. For example, munching on the skin of a lovely roast chicken, or that of a big piece of pan-roasted salmon. Aside from being a treat, the skin plays a major role in the preparation of a dish because it helps maintain internal moistness. Or, at least, it slows down the evaporation of the liquid inside the meat. In addition – let’s face it – if it is tasty and crisp, it is a delight for fine palates. But let’s repeat that: it has to be tasty and crisp. Today, then, let’s learn how to cook chicken (but these concepts apply equally well to many other foods) paying special attention to the skin. And we will discover with these tips that even meat will have that “something” extra. A clue? It all depends on the salt.

Let’s start with that, the tender white meat of a lovely chicken. The composition of the skin is to a large extent salt and water. Now, if we salt the chicken on its surface – the skin – then the water contained in the meat tends to move towards the grains of salt by a process called osmosis. Without annoying you with all the details, I’ll explain briefly: the water moves to the area where the salt is most concentrated in an attempt to balance out the dilution. Once it reaches the surface, however, the water dissolves the crystals. When you cook the chicken, the water on the surface evaporates and starts to form an increasingly concentrated salt-and-water solution. It gets to the point where the osmosis begins the reverse process, and the dissolved salt penetrates the skin. That is why we don’t have to worry too much if we “only” salt the chicken on the surface.

Once the salt gets into the meat’s fibres, it performs two functions. The first is that it “expands” some proteins, creating more space to be filled with liquid. The second is that it dissolves other types of proteins, creating “cells” like a sponge, so that it can absorb more liquid. In essence, this explains why adding salt to the meat of the chicken helps to tenderise it. You have almost certainly heard the exact opposite, haven’t you? Fortunately, science is here to help discredit urban legends too. But there is one rule to follow: this process takes time, a lot of time. That is why a chicken needs to cook slowly, at a low temperature.

Salting the skin – and this is the good part – has one other advantage. Because of this entire process, there comes a moment when the diluted salt passes into the meat, and what little water remains on the surface evaporates. Basically, the skin becomes dehydrated, and this enables it to turn a lovely golden colour and, most importantly, crisp. How can you apply what you’ve learned? Simple: since we can cook the chicken the way we want, we pay attention to salting it. Perfect salting can be done using fine salt, but it would be better to use kosher salt, because it has long, crushed crystals, perfect for sticking to raw meat. You put the salt in the chicken’s cavity and, where possible, under the skin. Now we move on to the skin: sprinkle the entire surface and, pressing lightly, make certain that the salt adheres well. Do not use a lot of salt on the skin: the important thing is to distribute the salt evenly. Some people rub oil into the skin before salting it to get a better colour. Once the chicken has been salted, all that’s left is to add some spices and put it in the oven. For an average-sized bird, I recommend a temperature of 180°C for about an hour and a half. At the end of the cooking time, you’ll have a gorgeous bird you’ll enjoy through and through.

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