CRUNCH FACTOR: The breading on a chicken nugget is mostly flour (but can also contain gums, starches, sugars and chemically derived flavors). It adds inexpensive heft to the nugget (up to 30 percent of its weight) and provides a material for the nugget’s crispy outside layer — a key factor in the sensory experience. The breading also provides an appealing, uniform color (some manufacturers add a caramel coloring agent to the nugget to enhance the golden, fried look) and toasty aroma. Finally, the breading provides a moisture barrier to prevent water loss, creating a moister interior that contributes to a satisfying mouthfeel.
- FRIED TO A CRISP: The chicken nugget is dunked in a vat of hot, liquid fat (most often, a cheap vegetable oil such as soybean, sunflower or safflower oil — it depends on market price and availability), which causes the protein to denaturalize and the starch in the breading to become more gel-like. A crust forms on the nugget’s outer layer. During deep-frying, much of the nugget’s original water content is replaced with oil.
- SWEET SAUCE: Most of the sauces served with chicken nuggets (barbecue, sweet and sour, etc.) have an array of added sugars in them. Others, like ranch and blue-cheese dressings, contain creamy dairy ingredients rich in natural sugars. This helps to create the fat-sugar-salt trio that renders so many processed foods irresistible. Although the ingredients of one popular restaurant chain’s ginger-citrus sauce sound relatively ordinary (sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch and orange juice concentrate), sugar and salt dominate. The dipping action produces new sensory elements — mixing cool with hot, crispy with creamy, savory with sweet, mellow with spicy, and so on.
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