The science of chicken nuggets


Photo Courtesy to Al Marx on flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Chicken nuggets are so much more than just food. To some desperate parents, they are a lifeline. Kids being picky again — dinosaur chicken nuggets. They refuse to eat your homemade lasagna that took hours to make —  dinosaur chicken nuggets. You just want to be able to go to bed early so you have to bribe your kids to cooperate — star shaped chicken nuggets. 

Besides being nearly a fully fledged parenting tactic for some, chicken nuggets have had quite the complex history despite only gaining popularity in 1983. 

The chicken nugget was invented in the 1960’s by Robert C. Baker in his laboratory at Cornell University. Why did it take so long for chicken nuggets, a seemingly simple item to be invented? Food engineering problems! 

The first problem has to do with the relationship between the chicken and the batter. Obviously, the chicken meat and the batter are two different entities. The chicken and the batter need to remain attached to one another in freezing temperatures and in frying temperatures. This is because, in order to store food, one has to freeze it, and in order to cook it well it has to get hot. However, this does not bode well for the batter and chicken as both naturally desire to shrink and expand in response to the violent temperature changes. This problem could be solved by keeping the skin around the ground chicken — in-between the chicken and batter. This is not as tasty however and would best be avoided. 

After a lot of trial and error, Baker and his student Joseph Marshall finally solved the problem.

The intricate and detailed process involved adding vinegar, salt, powdered milk, pulverized grains and included specific molding and freezing techniques. All-in-all, they created a very special process for the perfect chicken nugget.

Thus, Baker created a recipe that allowed for his nuggets to survive both frying and freezing. This was key to the success of the chicken nugget as in order for it to be profitable and taken on by major food companies, it had to be easily mass produced and transported. 

Surprisingly, Baker did not patent his chicken nugget recipe. Instead, he mailed the recipe to hundreds of companies to spread his newly obtained knowledge. 

Thanks to Baker, the chicken nugget was born and could be utilized by practically any American company willing to take it on. But for a while, the chicken nugget recipe simply lay  dormant. It would literally take government intervention for the chicken nugget to reach its way to American households. 

During World War II, the army started providing their soldiers with chicken as they had already blasted through the country’s beef supply, causing major shortages. At the time, Americans were fine with this as they really did not have that much of an appetite for chicken. Many felt that the chickens were too small to feed an entire family, yet too big for an individual and prepping whole roasts was a waste of time. 
Then came the red meat scare of 1977. 

Congress released a report in 1977 encouraging Americans to eat less red meat and instead opt for white meat poultry. The United States Department of Agriculture thought that red meat, like beef and pork, naturally contained too much bad cholesterol among other things. Inevitably, the sale of hamburgers started dropping at fast-food chains, and suddenly all companies were laser focused on finding their red meat alternative — enter McDonald’s.   

McDonald’s, spurred by CEO Ray Kroc, started the hunt for their chicken dish. They hired chef Rene Arend, who first created a fried chicken breast enveloped in sauce, and then a chicken pot pie — both dishes were rejected.

Finally Arend, drawing inspiration from Baker’s recipe, landed on the chicken nugget with his four signature shapes, the bell, the bone, the ball and the boot. McDonald’s swiftly patented Arend’s slightly altered recipe in 1979.  

After a very successful test run in Knoxville, Tennessee, their chicken McNuggets were added to the menu nationwide. The McNuggets were a smash success with McDonald’s, even creating McNugget themed collectible toys called McNugget Buddies. 

Bring it all together and the McNuggets were undoubtedly a massively successful product. McDonald’s smashing success with their McNuggets brought chicken nuggets into the national spotlight and thrusted chicken nuggets directly into America’s households. 

Eventually, the McNuggets inspired copycats, and decades later Americans now have access to all the dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets they could ever aspire to have. Thus, it remains clear for all to see that chicken nuggets will remain integral to the American fast food diet.