I don’t like raw chicken. I associate its smell with salmonella, and when I see it I want to don a hazmat suit and break out a bottle of clorox. I long ago gave up cooking chicken myself: I err on the side of overcooking, and overcooked chicken is tough and dry. But I do like properly cooked chicken. It so happens that my mother is a phenomenal and experienced cook. So I asked her how she makes chicken so delicious every time. Here is her answer:
First, equipment: An accurate instant-read thermometer is essential. Expect to pay at least $40 for one by such companies as ThermoWorks or ThermoPro.
Now, for boneless, skinless chicken breasts:
Pound. Place the thawed breasts in a zip lock bag and pound the thickest portion (using a heavy bottle, rolling pin, or the bottom of a glass) so the breast has a more uniform thickness throughout. You want it to be about ¾” thick. This helps it cook more evenly.
Cut. Cut each breast into about a 6-8 oz portion.
Brine. Place the breasts back Into the same zip lock bag. Add about 2 cups cold water and 2 Tablespoons salt. You want the water to cover the chicken. If you need another cup of water and tablespoon of salt, add it. Close the bag, pressing out some of the air. Massage slightly to try to dissolve some of the salt. Place in a container like a pie plate or shallow bowl in case the bag leaks. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. (Note: If you want to prepare the chicken ahead of time, you can let it soak in a weaker brine for hours. About 1 teaspoon salt to 2 cups cold water.)
Cook. The most important thing is to cook it until it is 155-160 degrees F. To check the temperature, insert the probe into the thickest part of the breast.
Rest. After it reaches 155-160 remove it from the heat to a plate, tent it with foil, and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before you cut into it. Covering it lightly with foil and letting it rest off heat brings it up to 165 degrees, the safe temp for chicken. Letting it rest allows the juices to recede away from the surface and back into the muscle tissue.
Even if chicken was great when first cooked, microwaving it inevitably ruins it for me. Apparently this is a problem called “warmed over flavor” that is so well known that foodies refer to it as WOF. Minimizing the meat’s exposure to oxygen can prevent this. Also reheating sous vide, or even in a conventional oven, seems to reduce WOF compared to microwaving. But supposedly nothing short of prompt vacuum sealing can totally eliminate WOF for those who are sensitive to it.
Here is my new favorite breakfast: A chocolate protein smoothie with banana, peanut butter, almond milk, and cold-brew coffee concentrate.
For more than two decades previous my breakfast was half a box of Post’s Great Grains Raisins Dates Pecans. Every few weeks drug stores would put that cereal on sale and I would buy every box on the shelf. (Before COVID sale prices would be $2.50/box. 5+ years ago $2/box. $1.50/box before that, and 20 years ago the (Air Force) base commissary would often sell them for $1/box!) Keeping a stock of more than 60 boxes was not uncommon. Here’s a typical view of my pantry:
My custom is to steep cereal in milk for a few minutes until it gets a little soft. I used to use skim cow’s milk, but some years ago I developed a lactose sensitivity and switched to almond or oat milk.
There was an interlude about 20 years ago after I bought a batch of this cereal that was infested with moths. That took away my appetite for it for a few years, during which I switched primarily to General Mills’ Basic 4 cereal.
In college and earlier my appetite was enormous: In dining halls I would fill my tray with 4-6 bowls of cereal (granted, dining hall bowls aren’t very big), leading people to jokingly suggest that I switch to Total cereal. Total is just boring cereal that General Mills mixes with extra multivitamins. For many years they ran commercials like this showing how many bowls of competing cereals it would take to accumulate those extra vitamins:
Walking through Costco I was offered a sample of a “collagen peptide” supplement. “Yum, more protein,” I said. “No, this is collagen, not protein,” said the sample lady. I replied, “Collagen is a protein. You know, the collagen triple helix?” Then I realized, most people don’t know enough molecular biology to make sense of the proliferating collagen supplement market. So let’s clear this up.
Short: Gelatin and collagen peptides are the same thing. And the bulk of them is just two amino acids you can get by eating other food.
Long: Collagen is a protein. Proteins are composed of amino acids – think of amino acids as the building blocks for your body. (And, by the way, “peptides” are just chains of amino acids.) Collagen makes up the bulk of skin, cartilage, and other connective tissues. Everyone wants healthy skin, so won’t eating collagen improve your skin? Well … does eating hair improve your hair? Does eating brains improve your brain? Not really: When you eat any protein your stomach breaks it down into its constituent amino acids. Your cells then use those amino acids to rebuild the proteins in your body from scratch.
Human bodies use 20 different amino acids to build the many thousands of different proteins that make our body grow and work. 9 of those amino acids are “essential” meaning we have to get them in our food. (The human body can create the other amino acids itself.) If you have a nutritional deficit of essential amino acids then you won’t be able to build all of the proteins your body wants. If you have more amino acids than your body wants then those amino acids are not going to get used. Your body doesn’t say, “Hey, I have some extra glycine and proline, why not use those to make some extra collagen to plump up my skin?”
The bulk of collagen is just two amino acids: glycine and proline – neither of which is essential. If you really aren’t consuming enough food for your body to make those amino acids, then yes your body will not be able to make as much collagen as it wants, and yes your skin and other tissues made of collagen will suffer. And yes, eating animal collagen is one way to make sure you aren’t deficient in the amino acids that make up collagen. But you don’t need precious collagen supplements. Gelatin is literally just denatured collagen (a.k.a., “collagen peptides”). And you get the exact same nutrients by eating bone broth, skin, and other animal-based food. But even if you don’t eat those exact things, your body gets the amino acids used to create collagen from the other food you eat.
I lost 15 pounds in six weeks. I went from 190 pounds to 175, and have stayed at 175 for two months. All I changed is what I ate and how much.
The first trick is what to avoid eating: Avoid simple carbohydrates, and absolutely no sugary food! Before this experiment I had a very carb-heavy diet (i.e., one built around cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes), and I never abstained from desserts. In my experience, eating simple carbohydrates – especially sugars – leads to blood-sugar crashes that make me extremely hungry after a few hours. When I cut out sugar I never experience hunger like that. So I stick to vegetables and protein. (My go-to snack now is a Pure Protein bar.)
The second trick is to eat less. Before this experiment I didn’t have any portion control: I would whatever was served, and at a shared meal I would volunteer to finish anything that was left. Now the question became how little can I eat? I could eat two hamburgers, but I can also eat just one. Where before I would pour a full bowl of cereal, now I pour half a bowl. Less also means avoiding extra fats when possible. So no adding butter or mayonnaise to things. No fatty/starchy snack foods. Nothing deep-fried.
Eating less actually reduced my stomach capacity. I get full on less food, and I can’t eat as much in a sitting as I used to.
Neither of these tricks completely eliminates hunger or cravings, but not being fully satisfied at all times is part of life. The only thing I allow myself to eat outside of mealtimes are protein bars, carrots, or diet soda. That’s it. A simple rule, so there’s no thinking, no bargaining, no calorie counting. And no way to not lose weight!
(NB: Some cravings might be driven by nutritional deficits, so I take a daily multi-vitamin. As long as I have body fat I don’t have a calorie deficit.)
It’s huckleberry season! Huckleberries ripen beginning in late July. And since huckleberries resist cultivation, they have to be picked in the wild from bushes that grow on mountain slopes.
In Idaho and Montana, huckleberry foraging locations are traditionally family secrets. I was permitted to accompany one expedition to a patch just off a dirt road deep in Forest Service land at 6,600 feet elevation.
Picking huckleberries is not easy: The bushes are low to the ground, the sparse berries tend to form under the leaves, and even when fully ripe the small berries do not easily detach. An hour of concerted picking yields dark purple fingertips and only about three cups of huckleberries (which reduce to just two cups when crushed).
What’s the attraction? Huckleberries have a taste along the same axis as blueberries, and blackberries, but the flavor is far more intense than that of similar fruit.
Huckleberries are often canned as jam and syrup. I helped can a traditional jam recipe that cooks equal parts berries and sugar, plus some pectin. The result was a precious product that we canned in 4-ounce jars. Given the strength of the huckleberry’s flavor I thought that recipe was excessively concentrated. So for a second batch I added crushed cultivated (i.e., large and relatively flavorless) blueberries in equal part to huckleberries; reduced the sugar by 20%, and canned the jam in 8-ounce jars. Informal blind taste tests concluded that my modification did not diminish the product.