Why you should fry chicken twice & other scientific food tips

Torri Donley

In an old television show called Heroes, the main villain gains the powers of his victims by examining their brains to see how their powers worked. While I would like to think I am not a villain, I’ve also approached things similarly in cooking. I always want to know how […]

In an old television show called Heroes, the main villain gains the powers of his victims by examining their brains to see how their powers worked.

While I would like to think I am not a villain, I’ve also approached things similarly in cooking. I always want to know how things work, which methods are effective and the scientific reasons behind them. That’s why I find chef Kenji Lopez-Alt a kindred spirit.

Kenji, a James Beard award winner for his cookbook The Food Lab, is similarly committed to explaining the scientific sides to cooking. In short, he loves to learn and discuss the hows and whys of cooking, so imagine my excitement when he agreed to appear as a guest on our Sini Gang podcast (available on Spotify). Together with my cohosts, chef Edward Bugia and food blogger Richie Zamora, we got to sit down with him to discuss the science of food.

The secret to crisp fried chicken is to fry it twice, Kenji says.

COVID-19 and food

Since the science of COVID-19 is relatively young, we are all still struggling trying to fully grasp the effects of the virus and nail down the specifics of how it is transmitted.

Kenji and his team did put out a relatively comprehensive article on it and, being a chef, I was particularly concerned about transmission in food.

“Every day we are constantly learning more, but thus far, there are no known cases of getting it through eating food,” Kenji says. “You should be relatively safe getting takeout. The problem is coming into contact with people.”

He mentions that what we should be watching out for is not so much the safety of the food itself but the safety of the food workers. He personally avoids places where the workers are working in cramped kitchens and dense, unsafe working conditions.

Crosshatching on steaks may not be the best way to cook them, says Kenji.

On cooking steaks

One of my favorite Food Lab videos is the one where they perform experiments to prove which steak cooking tips work and which ones are myths. The results will stun even the most veteran of cooks.

Removing a steak from the ref 15 minutes before cooking to get it to room temperature and cook more evenly, for example, is a myth.

“It takes three or four hours to get a steak to come to room temperature, which is not a safe thing to do, anyway.”

The idea that you only turn a steak once while cooking it? “That works fine, but it turns out you can actually cook the steak faster and more evenly if you flip it frequently.”

On crosshatch or grill marks on a steak, Kenji shares, “I personally like to have no crosshatching on steak. One of (American barbecue expert Meathead’s) big things is that crosshatching is great visually, but what it really is: some of the meat is overdone and some of the meat is too pale.”

He suggests, instead, moving the steak more to get even browning all over.

The secret to fried chicken

We asked about Kenji’s secret to frying chicken as well. He recommends brining the chicken overnight in a saltwater solution to keep it flavorful and moist. Then, he adopts the Korean model of double-frying the chicken.

“We fry it once at 275 degrees F and cook the chicken all the way through at that temperature. We take it out and let it rest. Then we fry it again at 375 degrees F and it crisps up.”

He explains the reason why chefs double fry: The first time you fry, the outside may be dry but some of the moisture inside the secondary layer of coating migrates to the outside layer, so when you fry it again, you eliminate more moisture to get that extra-crispy crust.

Food and mood

We’ve all heard about food that’s supposed to improve your mood romantically, like chocolates and oysters, so we decided to check the science behind that.

“A lot of people think that there are a lot of objective truths about food, like this tastes better than that, but taste is not just something we sense with our mouth and our nose; it’s something we synthesize with our brains,” Kenji says.

In effect, we combine tastes with memories, ambiance, mood and the like. If one associates oysters with romance in their mind, then it will work on them.

He explains further by using an example close to home: “As Filipinos, you have a very different connection to Filipino food than I do. You can say chicken adobo is the best food in the world. I’m from New York, so I think pizza is the best food in the world. Neither one of us is wrong. It has something to do with how we were raised and what we’re used to.”

Interestingly, this is part of the message of his new children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night (available in the Philippines through Amazon both as physical and Kindle editions). Inspired by his daughter Alicia, the book is about a little girl who believes pizza is the best food in the world. In her journeys, though, she discovers that the best food changes depending on the mood or context she’s in.

“It’s a book on multi-culturalism and expanding your mind.”

Science as art

We talked about a lot more in our podcast, but I’d probably fill up 10 more pages if I recounted all the stories. I’d like to close with my favorite quote among many of Kenji’s gems, as he assured people that understanding science takes nothing away from the romance of cooking.

“I don’t think science and art are necessarily antithetical to each other,” he says. “Understanding the science and technique actually, in many ways, enhances the art side and the emotional side of cooking.”

* * *

You can catch Sharwin’s videos on his YouTube channel “chefsharwintee.” Follow Sharwin’s food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him at www.sharwintee.com.

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