Rubbery Chicken: Causes and Consequences-And How To Avoid It

We like to think of chicken as a quick and easy option for the grill. And most of the time, that’s true. However, it’s just as easy to make the kind of mistakes that lead to rubbery chicken. In our guide, we’ll teach you how to steer clear of these mistakes–and how to correct them, if possible.

Rubbery Chicken

If the chicken is too rubbery, it may be because the meat is overcooked. Undercooking can also lead to a rubbery texture, which is why it’s imperative to test the meat with a reliable instant-read thermometer. Conditions like woody chicken breast and white striping are possible culprits as well.

Possible Causes 

Overcooking

This is the most common way to wind up with rubbery chicken. Fortunately, it’s also easy to avoid.

Overcooked chicken can have a rubbery texture because when the protein fibers are exposed to the heat for too long, they lose their elasticity. If you’ve ever overcooked a piece of chicken before, you’ll know that it loses most of its moisture this way, too.

To avoid overcooking, cut the pieces so that they’re uniform in size. If this isn’t an option, try to arrange the larger pieces right over the heat source and move the smaller ones over to the side.

When dealing with boneless chicken breasts, make sure to pound them to a uniform thickness. Place them between two sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap, and use a meat tenderizer to flatten them. If you don’t have a meat tenderizer, use a heavy pan or a rolling pin to pound them out instead.

You can also cook larger and smaller pieces separately, starting with the big ones. These will hold their heat longer, so they’ll still be fresh and hot when you’re finished cooking the smaller ones.

When grilling, it’s important to keep an eye on the temperature to make sure it’s not running too high. This is one of the main reasons why grilled chicken can sometimes turn out rubbery–the pitmaster didn’t know how to regulate the grill temp.

Pay close attention to the meat itself, too. If any pieces appear to be cooking too fast, shift them to a cooler section of the grill.

Finally, invest in a good instant-read thermometer. Remove chicken breasts from the heat when they reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and thighs when they reach 180 degrees.

Undercooking

It’s crucial to ensure that your chicken has reached a safe internal temperature before you eat it. When chicken is undercooked, it can be rubbery, but it also poses a health risk.

Chicken flesh can harbor many types of bacteria, some of which can cause food poisoning. These bacteria can’t survive at high temperatures, which is why you need to cook chicken thoroughly. This is especially important when you’re dealing with ground meat, because the bacteria could be spread throughout the mixture.

Why is it acceptable to eat steak that’s cooked to medium or medium-rare, but not chicken or turkey? It’s because the flesh of cows (and pigs and sheep) has a denser texture than poultry. Any potential bacteria won’t penetrate as far beneath the flesh, so as long as the surface is heated to the correct temperature, the meat is safe to consume.

The only way to be sure that your chicken is cooked through is to use the aforementioned thermometer. It’s a good idea to calibrate the thermometer on a regular basis, just to be on the safe side. Always test the meat at its thickest point, as the thinner portions will cook through more quickly.

When chicken is fully cooked, it will lose its translucent appearance and be opaque throughout. Be aware that chicken can be slightly pink in the middle and still be safe to eat, as long as it’s been cooked to at least 165 degrees.

Lack of Moisture

What if you’ve prepared the chicken correctly and it still has a rubbery texture? In this case, it was probably that way before you bought it.

Because chicken is so lean, it can be dry. Sometimes, the moisture content is so low that the meat will have texture issues no matter what you do.

Since there’s no way to tell whether or not the chicken you bought will have these problems beforehand, all you can do is keep the meat as moist as possible throughout the preparation and cooking process.

One way to do this is to brine the meat, soaking it in a saltwater solution prior to cooking. You can also use a marinade, provided you don’t expose the meat to acidic ingredients for too long. Chicken breasts in particular shouldn’t be marinated for longer than 2 hours, or the meat will turn out mushy.

Another tip: If you buy your meat from a local butcher shop rather than a supermarket chain, ask the staff if they have any information about how the chickens were raised. If the birds were treated humanely, the meat will be superior in terms of both texture and flavor.

Woody Breast

Let’s say you purchased some chicken breast from a trusted source, brined it according to the recipe instructions, and cooked it to the ideal temp. When you cut into the meat and take your first bite, though, it’s still rubbery. Why would this be?

The most likely cause is a condition known as woody breast. This occurs when the muscle fibers in the breast are too tight. They can even be knotted up in some cases. This can give the meat a rubbery texture when it’s cooked.

In the US, 5 to 10 percent of chickens are afflicted with woody breast. Some experts believe that it’s more common among chickens that are grown organically, while others think it’s a genetic issue. It doesn’t make the meat harmful to consume, but it won’t be all that appetizing, either.

The good news is that woody breast doesn’t affect the rest of the chicken, so you can circumvent the issue by choosing chicken thighs instead. If this isn’t an option for your recipe, there are a few other ways to test for woody chicken breast.

First of all, test the texture of the breasts by pressing on them. Compare several packages to see if you note any differences. Woody chicken breasts will be unusually firm to the touch. There may also be hard lumps throughout the meat. If you notice any of these signs, choose another package instead.

White Striping

You’ve probably noticed white striping in chicken breasts from time to time. This discoloration runs in the same direction as the regular muscle tissue, and it comes about as the result of a muscle disorder. Breasts with white striping will be tougher and fattier than their counterparts. It also lessens their nutritional value.

Take a close look at chicken breasts before purchasing them. If you notice any white stripes that resemble wood grain, don’t buy them. Again, it’s a good idea to get on speaking terms with your butcher, so you can ask them if they know anything about the farming practices under which the birds were raised.

How To Salvage Rubbery Chicken

If your chicken turned out rubbery, is there any way to save it? The answer is yes, but you might have to adjust your expectations.

You can try to soften the chicken by reheating it in a broth. If you have homemade chicken stock on hand, pour a small amount into a baking dish. Slice the chicken and add the pieces to the dish. Reheat in a 300-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. You can substitute canned broth or bouillon for the homemade stock, but watch out for the salt content.

When you reheat the chicken in this manner, it’s better to use the meat for soups or sandwiches. You can eat it on its own, but when the chicken is surrounded by other ingredients, it’s easier to forgive the inferior texture.

Is It Safe To Eat Rubbery Chicken?

The only time it would not be safe is when the rubbery texture is due to undercooking. As long as the meat has been heated to the correct temperature, it shouldn’t pose a health hazard. Disappointment is the only thing you’ll risk by consuming it.

Is Organic Chicken More or Less Likely To Be Rubbery?

Although we recommend buying organic or free-range chicken whenever possible, there can be downsides to this practice.

Since organic chickens get more exercise than their factory-raised counterparts, the meat can sometimes be tougher and chewier. You can try to offset this effect by cooking the chicken at a lower temperature (see Avoidance Techniques, below). Remember to plan on a longer cooking time if you take this step.

Avoidance Techniques

How can you keep the chicken from turning out rubbery to begin with? In addition to what we’ve suggested above, there are a few precautions you can take.

First of all, use a bit more cooking oil than you normally would. We recommend oiling the grilling grates with a neutral oil, such as canola, just before adding the meat. In the case of a lean product like chicken breast, you can also put a thin layer of oil on the meat itself. Just be careful when adding it to the grill, as the oil may cause flare-ups.

You should keep the chicken covered while you’re marinating it or waiting for the grill to heat up. Ditto when the meat is cooked and you’re letting it rest. If you leave it uncovered, it’s more likely to dry out.

Also, consider lowering the grill temperature to medium. This will lessen the risk of overcooking and give you plenty of time to monitor your progress. If the chicken appears to be cooking too slowly, you can always turn up the heat later on.

When you’re cooking a whole chicken, you can introduce moisture by spritzing or mopping the meat as it cooks. A 50-50 blend of water and an acidic ingredient like vinegar will help to keep the chicken tender. Be aware that this method only works if you’re using high heat. At lower temps, the spritz can make the skin too soggy.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes, chicken turns out too rubbery as a result of things that are beyond our control. The only way to avoid this situation is to pay close attention to the meat you’re buying. That’s good advice in any case, whether you’re shopping for chicken breasts or beef brisket.

Often, though, the rubbery texture is due to poor cooking practices. Take steps to ensure that the meat retains as much moisture as possible, and remove it from the heat when it’s reached the recommended temperature. That way, you’ll know you’ve done everything in your power to achieve a tender and appetizing dish.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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