Chewy Chicken: What Causes It—And What To Do About It

When it’s done correctly, chicken should be tender to the bite, with just enough moisture to make it appealing. Sometimes, though, the meat turns out unpleasantly chewy. What went wrong? Is there any way to fix chewy chicken? And how do we avoid it in the future?

Chewy Chicken

Chicken might turn out too chewy if it was undercooked, overcooked, or left uncovered for too long. A muscle condition known as woody breast might also be to blame. For best results, cook white meat to 165 degrees and dark meat to 180 degrees, and start with locally sourced products whenever possible.

White Meat vs. Dark Meat

Before we begin, let’s cover the major differences between the breast—also known as the white meat—and the darker meat of the leg and thigh.

White meat is at its best when it’s cooked just enough to destroy any potentially dangerous bacteria. 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the recommended temperature for chicken breast, but you can pull it from the heat a bit sooner as long as you keep an eye on the thermometer. The temperature will rise slightly as the meat rests.

Thighs and drumsticks, meanwhile, should cook for a bit longer. The dark meat becomes more appetizing when it’s cooked to 180 degrees. That’s because it contains a fair amount of collagen, which breaks down and moisturizes the meat at higher temperatures.

Possible Causes for Chewy Chicken

Undercooking

We pointed out the difference between thigh and breast meat because the chewy texture can come into play for various reasons. Some of them depend on which cut you’re working with.

As we mentioned, chicken thighs have a more appealing texture when their internal temperature surpasses 165 degrees. If you take them off the heat too soon, the collagen won’t have a chance to tenderize the meat. This could make them tough or chewy.

To circumvent the issue, try cooking the thighs and drumsticks longer. If you’re grill-roasting a whole chicken, you can carve away the breast meat when the temperature reaches 165 and set it aside. Let the white meat rest while you return the dark meat to the grill to finish cooking.

Overcooking

On the other end of the spectrum, breast meat is more likely to have this issue when it’s overcooked. The white meat is naturally lean, so overcooking it will dry it out, making it tough and difficult to chew.

For best results, cook the chicken over medium-high heat. When grilling, it helps if you prepare zones for direct and indirect heat. That way, you can move the breasts over to the cooler side if the outsides appear to be cooking too quickly.

Remove the chicken breasts from the heat when their internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Test the temperature on the thickest portion of each breast to ensure accuracy. Let the meat rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Alternatively, you can try brining the breasts for 30 minutes before cooking. The saltwater solution will help the meat retain more moisture, so it’s less likely to dry out on the grill. For chicken breasts, try a ratio of 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to 1 cup of liquid.

Dry Exterior

Whether it’s because you left the chicken uncovered while it was marinating or failed to tent it with foil as it rested, a dry exterior can lead to chewy chicken. Dry-heat cooking methods such as roasting can also cause this issue, especially if the meat was overcooked.

Inspect the packaging before putting chicken in the fridge, and add another wrapper if you notice any holes or leaks. When marinating, cover the container with either a lid or plastic wrap the entire time. After taking chicken off the heat, cover it loosely with a layer of tin foil to help it stay moist.

Woody Breast

Sometimes, a chicken breast will turn out chewy or rubbery even when you’ve followed the instructions to the letter. In this case, it might not be your fault.

Woody breast is a condition that’s characterized by toughened muscle fibers. It doesn’t affect any other part of the bird, and it seems to be more prevalent in chickens that were bred to grow to a large size in a short period of time. The condition won’t make the meat unsafe to eat, but it may make it less appetizing.

Although the root cause is unknown, this condition is present in about 5 to 10 percent of commercially sold chicken breasts. You can sometimes detect woody breast by pressing down on the meat while it’s in the package, but this doesn’t always work. The best way to lessen the risk is to purchase your chicken breasts from local sources.

How To Salvage Chewy Chicken

Even if your chicken turns out too chewy, it may not be too late to save it. Chicken has a mild flavor that blends well with many other ingredients, so it’s easy to use it as a base for various dishes. Here are some of our favorite tips on how to salvage inferior chicken.

Baste it with sauce

This method works best for overcooked chicken breast, which will benefit from the additional moisture as well as the flavor. Barbecue sauce is a good bet for grilled chicken, but you can use pesto, honey mustard, sweet Thai chili sauce, or whatever strikes your fancy.

Slice it for sandwiches

When the meat is hiding behind a bunch of other ingredients, you won’t be as focused on the disappointing texture. Dress it up with lettuce, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, avocado, or whatever veggies you prefer. Smother it in mayonnaise or another favorite sauce, and you’re good to go.

Tip: If you’re making sandwiches to disguise chewy or rubbery chicken, make sure to use a nice soft bread. Stay away from baguettes or sourdough, as these are chewy enough on their own.

Make chicken soup

Saute aromatic vegetables (such as onions, carrots, and celery) in a few tablespoons of butter, then stir in the chicken. Add stock or broth and bring to a simmer. Stir in uncooked egg noodles or rice and simmer until tender, then season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Eat it cold

If the meat is already tough, reheating it can make the problem worse. Unless you’re planning on slathering it with plenty of sauce or simmering it in liquid, it’s better to eat it right out of the fridge. Try mixing chopped cooked chicken with mayonnaise, tarragon, Dijon mustard, celery, salt, and pepper to make chicken salad.

The Bottom Line

Chicken that’s too chewy can put a damper on the barbecue, but it doesn’t have to ruin it. Sometimes, the problem is out of your hands. Your best bet is to start with a quality product and cook the meat to the recommended temperature. If all else fails, you can reshape the leftovers into something truly memorable.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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