The Godfather of chicken rings

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Silly question. But if you're talking about chicken as we know it today — barbecued, boneless and skinless, served as sausages, bologna, nuggets, and burgers — the answer is actually "neither". What came first was Robert C. Baker, a Cornell University food scientist who is credited with popularizing chicken as a convenient, everyday meat.

At Slate, Maryn McKenna has a really interesting piece about Baker's role in the invention of the chicken nugget. Although you've probably heard that the nugget was invented by McDonald's research and development staff, Baker actually beat them to the punch by a couple decades, turning out "chicken sticks" in 1963. The catch is that, as a researcher at a publicly funded university whose primary goal was to increase the profitability of family-operated chicken farms in upstate New York, Baker never patented his own ideas.

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.

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