School Days Friday: Chicken Nuggets Make Us Get All Political

15th Sep 2006

Library_4676 As we were pulling the dark brown breaded chicken nuggets from the bubbling pot, dropping them onto the oil-soaked paper towel to cool and drain, the whole thing struck me: this is the most unhealthy food I’ve eaten all year.  It follows: Kids eat total crap in school.  If it isn’t fried, it’s poor quality meat seasoned like crazy, processed and emulsified and water-injected and generally squeezed through a process to make bad ingredients somehow taste good , but "good" in a half-truth, crooked sort of way: good at first and tasty and addictive, but destructive in the long term. It isn’t until I’ve begun cooking for myself that I’ve thought carefully about ingredients, learned that better quality ingredients used in simpler ways equals better and healthier food.  It’s a slow transition, but now, going back to processed kinds of food, my body has been completely rejecting this.  Once in awhile is fine, fast food will do well and I’ll go in for a big greasy meal when it’s late at night and nothing tastes better.  But if I had to go back and eat my meals daily in a cafeteria again?  I think I’d gain twenty pounds and get depressed. Granted, some of these meals we’ve made for their kitsch value--for the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for lunchrooms and the jokey tone that comes with it.  I mean, we all remember these meals, and our indestructible kid-bodies could basically handle it.  But this time, when we started shaping ground up chicken into a gooey paste, rolling it in bread crumbs, and deep frying it in a gallon of greasiness, the whole affair really got gross fast. I’ll admit it: last week, in an excursion I rationalized by calling “research”, I slinked into the McDonald’s on Union Square over lunch break, which I’d passed many times with an air of superiority.  Why would anyone in their right mind eat there when there’s bountiful cheap and unprocessed food all around (like Rainbow Falafel, a 30 second walk away, which will make you a $3.50 falafel that’s pretty decent)?  But I made my way in through the crowds, ordered my McNuggets meal, and plopped down against a tree to eat. How would it compare to my admittedly wonderful memories of youth, the crispy bite covered in honey?  I mean, I used to really love Chicken McNuggets.  So I took a bite.  And the verdict was, I’ll readily admit: they tasted pretty darn good.  A little processed around the edges, of a strange (but not bad) texture, mildly artificial.  But I thoroughly enjoyed eating them. But what was in these things, and could we make them at home? We did loads of research for this topic, and learned a few things about how chicken nuggets came to be.  A fairly recent creation, Robert C. Baker created them in the 1950's by discovering how to effectively bind the breading to chicken.  McDonald's suppliers claim invention of today's nugget, the gob of skin and forgotten parts of the chicken reconstituted, gummed up, battered, breaded, and fried in partially-hydrogenated oil. But for an item so entrenched in our daily cuisine, a recipe for real chicken nuggets alluded us.  Nick searched through Barnes and Noble for some 45 minutes, thinking he'd find a few chicken nugget recipes lurking in odd books.  But he found nothing.  Not in the Joy of Cooking or Betty Crocker's Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today .  The book How to Cook Everything , didn't have anything. (Guess that title goes out the window--good one, Bittman.)  As far as making one at home, there is essentially no record that chicken nuggets are even a food. But they're ubiquitous: a few years ago Guardian did an extensive investigation (really worth reading) which concluded smartly that nuggets, as a representation of a globalized and fragmented supply network representative of 21st century food consumption, have a taste and texture more about the chemical processes and additives than the raw ingredients themselves: from a physical and philosophical standpoint, the form is far removed from the contents.  Nuggets are designed to disguise cheap, low quality ingredients. We found a few recipes online that called for using bite-sized pieces of chicken breasts, breaded and baked, but we knew that fast food nuggets were anything but that. In fact, chicken nuggets, especially those cooked in fast food restaurants, contain ground chicken meat and other questionable ingredients.  Don't believe us?  Here's the ingredient list for McDonald's new "Chicken McNuggets made with White Meat": Boneless chicken breast, water, modified cornstarch, salt, chicken flavor (yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (animal source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (natural extractives of rosemary, canola and/or soybean oil, mono-and diglycerides, and lecithin). Battered and Breaded with: Water, enriched bleached wheat flour (flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, modified corn starch, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Breading set in vegetable oil. Cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, (may contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil and/or partially hydrogenated corn oil and/or partially hydrogenated canola oil and/or cottonseed oil and/or sunflower oil and/or corn oil). Contains wheat, milk and soybean ingredients. That's some grocery list.  Not only are the nuggets constructed with ground chicken, but they are usually padded with filler like soy bean, which along with the breading, can account for nearly half of the matter, meaning that "chicken" in those nuggets might not be as simple as suspected.  Usually, nuggets are far less than half actual chicken meat: sometimes, low end frozen varieties are made up of MRM, an acronym for Mechanically Recovered Meat, which means they take chicken skin and joints and carcasses (where do you think all that stuff goes after the boneless, skinless breasts are cut away and saran-wrapped on the way to the grocery story?) and push all that through big screens to squeeze out protein.  The resulting soup is injected with chemicals to hold it together and sold as chicken meat. But anyway, you can talk forever about the politics and economics about food and the endless immoralities therein--but we did in fact do some cooking to see how it all played out.  By the end, we had thrown in our towels and decided we were just going to have to get in the kitchen and experiment.  We settled on two processes for chicken nuggets.  First, we'd try a nice a relatively healthy and humane chicken breast recipe, using all real white meat.  Then we'd dip into ground chicken and experiment until we found the chicken nuggets of our youth, for better or for worse. Chicken Nuggets Library_4646 1 cup dried bread crumbs 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheeese 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon dried basil 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 1/4 teaspoon dried parsley 1 pound skinless, boneless, chicken breast 1 egg 3 tablespoons water 1 pound ground chicken 1/2 gallon oil Library_4655 Fill a large dutch oven with enough oil to come half way up the pot.  Heat the oil to 375 degrees, or just turn the heat to medium like we did. Library_4643 Chop the chicken breasts into 1 inch by 1 inch sqaures, or whatever shape you deem the most appropriate for chicken nuggets.  It's best not to make them any bigger or they will cook unevenly.   And nice pink insides are not what we're looking for. Library_4648 Crack the egg and toss it into a bowl with the water.  Whisk to combine into an egg wash. Library_4653 Combine the breadcrumbs, herbs, Parmesan, and the salt and pepper. Dip the chicken pieces into the egg wash.  Then dredge the chicken in crumbs until covered on all sides.  Gently slip them into the oil.  It might take some practice runs to get it right.  The pieces need to cook for about 3-5 minutes for the meat to fully cook, depending on oil temperature.  The outside should be golden brown.   When the nuggets have reached the proper color, transfer to a plate with paper towels and let them drain for a few minutes. Library_4661 Whip up some nice mac n' cheese and some more green beans, and enjoy some genuinely wonderful chicken nuggets. Take Two Library_4665 The chopped whole pieces of chicken were great, but we figured that ground chicken would be closer to McDonald's delight.  Open the package of ground chicken and form a nugget into a small oval, exactly like the picture.  We tried two versions.  For the first, we pressed the meat firmly together, to try and form a cohesive mass of chicken.  The other we packed lightly like you would for a hamburger. Dunk them in the egg wash, dredge through the bread crumbs, and slide gently into the oil. Library_4672 In about 4-5 minutes remove.  The packed ground chicken nugget tasted exactly like what you'd expect a greasy, disgusting, McDonald's chicken nugget to taste like.  Very filling, slightly nauseating, but flavorful, nonetheless.  It's just not something we eat that often, and honestly not something we'd make again soon.  The lightly packed nugget, however, was vomit inducing.  Don't try this at home. It became a question of boneless skinless breast or ground chicken.  The former was the healthier route, but more along the lines of chicken tenders or fingers than nuggets.  There’s no way McDonald’s or lunchrooms uses all white meat; we wanted to recreate that.  Would we grind up connective tissue and skin like McDonald’s?  It would never work, because it’s the unnatural processing that makes all that taste reasonable.  It’s the injected soy and water and chemicals and gums that mask how totally strange that whole process is and make the unnatural kinda-natural.  We can’t pull that off at home. And that tells us something.  If a food is processed in ways that can’t be repeated at home, it’s a bad sign. That said, our first experiment, using boneless skinless chicken breasts, was rather successful.  We don’t love boneless, skinless chicken breasts much at all, but for this purpose they suited nicely.  We made a nice meal with green beans and Elin made a fabulous mac n’ cheese with jalapeno jack.  They tasted a bit unhealthy, of course, but reasonable and not disgusting.  It wasn’t until we went after the McDonald’s imitations that things really went haywire.


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