Tenderizing Chicken

Updated 14-Sep-2023

Home-raised chickens -- gai-baan in Thai -- can be extremely tough. The main reasons is that the chicken has a normal life, and is not kept sedentary, overfed, given growth hormones, nor treated with enzymes after being slaughtered. There are three approaches to tenderizing this standard-variety chicken:

  • Brine the chicken for 12-24 hours (less time for smaller pieces), or (usually not in addition to)
  • Marinade the chicken for 2-6 hours, depending on the cut (least amount for skinless breast, longer for skin-on quarters. Marinade for longer if using a yoghurt-based marinade.
  • Cook low and slow

There is also pounding flat the (boneless) chicken with a mallet.

Brining a Chicken

Note that one can wet or dry brine (yes, I realize that dry brining might not make linguistic sense). The idea is that salting the chicken will draw out moisture then put it back in. Of course with dry brine you get overly salted chicken.

Brine can have additional herbs and spices and other ingredients to impart flavor. The main goal is getting salt into the meat to increase water retention during cooking.

Marinating a Chicken

Marinade imparts flavor but can also tenderize, depending upon the ingredients in the marinade. There are two basic marinade types:

  • Acidic marinades
  • Enzymatic marinades

Marinating with Acidic Marinade

Lemon juice and vinegar have a Ph of 2-3 and can be a great addition to a marinade. Mustard generally has a similar Ph (due to the vinegar) though it could be higher or lower depending on the recipe.

A simple acidic marinade combined of three parts:

  • Dijon mustard
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar

One can use lemon juice in addition to or in place of the balsamic vinegar. Of course add any herbs or other flavors desired.


Tenderizing a Chicken with Yogurt Marinade

Plain yoghurt also acts as an acidic tenderizer, but with a higher Ph, it is not as strong an acid as vinegar and lemon juice. In addition, the calcium in yoghurt also helps tenderize. The tenderization process is slower than with vinegar. Use a cup of yoghurt per pound of chicken (250g per 500g). As per the acidic marinade above, one can add balsamic vinegar and dijon mustard (and herbs) to yoghurt for a flavorful marinade. There are many Indian yoghurt-based marinades, such as Tandoori.


Tenderizing a Chicken with an Enzyme-based Marinade

Enzymes such as papaya or pineapple can, with enough time, completely dissolve meat protein. Of course some of the fruit flavor is also imparted. Best done when papaya or pineapple is a part of the final recipe.

Not recommended.

Tenderizing Chicken with a Mallet

It is possible to tenderize chicken (boneless, skinless filets with a mallet, but this makes a very flat chicken. It is actually difficult to pound it flat. I once worked for a chef who pounded chicken extremely flat and then used that to cover a mound of rice, fruits, and vegetables, draped with a yellow sauce. Voila, Poulet Alexandre. It was a favorite of customers for lunch, though it always tasted dry to me.

Not recommended.