Eighteen years before McDonald’s unleashed the Chicken McNugget, a food science professor named Robert C. Baker was whipping up batter-coated chicken bites from his test kitchen at Cornell University, although this fact is often forgotten. In an article for Slate, Maryn McKenna unearths the history behind the chicken nugget and the man who invented them.
Baker died in 2006, but his technique for making chicken pieces that could be fried without the breading falling off was developed in 1963, long before the Golden Arches version of the nugget became the cornerstone of America’s fast-food diet.
According to McKenna:
Baker’s prototype nugget, developed with student Joseph Marshall, mastered two food-engineering challenges: keeping ground meat together without putting a skin around it, and keeping batter attached to the meat despite the shrinkage caused by freezing and the explosive heat of frying. They solved the first problem by grinding raw chicken with salt and vinegar to draw out moisture, and then adding a binder of powdered milk and pulverized grains. They solved the second by shaping the sticks, freezing them, coating them in an eggy batter and cornflake crumbs, and then freezing them a second time to -10 degrees. With trial and error, the sticks stayed intact.
Baker began experimenting with chicken in an effort to boost poultry sales. The lean meat had been in high demand during World War II, when it was eaten by troops, but the industry took a hit once the war ended. Baker’s task was to turn chicken into a convenience food that would appeal to time-crunched home cooks.
Baker didn’t only think up a way to get bread coating to stick to pieces of chicken. The poultry master was the brainchild behind tons of other creations made from processed chicken and eggs, including chicken hot dogs and chicken steak.
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