Go ahead, sniff the shredded chicken that’s chilling in a container in your fridge. If it’s fresh, it probably doesn’t smell like much at all. And that’s the problem.
Cold meat just doesn’t smell or taste as flavorful as it does at room temperature or warmer. This is why chilled chicken, even on salads, isn’t as delicious as it could be. Warming that chicken before adding it to your salad would return it to its juicy, satisfying best. If you cook chicken ahead of time and chill it, be sure to let it come to at least room temperature before adding it to a salad.
“Flavor molecules—in fact, all molecules—are less mobile at colder temperatures, so instead of easily leaving the chicken and flying up your nose and across your taste buds, they tend to stay put,” says Paul Adams, science editor at America's Test Kitchen.
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To experience this for yourself, heat up that chilled chicken you just sniffed. Notice the difference?
“Heat lets the volatile flavor components waft up from the chicken both before and while you eat it,” Adams says.
Call it the chicken noodle soup phenomenon: The warm liquid helping the chicken release its flavor molecules is what fills your kitchen with its signature savory, comforting aroma.
And cold chicken isn’t just an aroma and flavor bummer. It’s also not as sumptuous, texturally, as it would be at room temperature or warmer. Again, this is because of the way heat changes the meat itself. Chicken meat is muscle, and muscle fibers are less limber at cool temperatures. When chicken is cold, the piece of meat doesn't yield or give when you bite into it the way warm chicken does. Instead, the texture feels stringy and tough.
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Juiciness and flavor are not just a function of moisture, but also fat and salivation. Gelatin and fat are both solid at cool temperatures. Those substances don’t flow freely when the meat is cold, so when you take a bite, you won’t experience that “juicy” sensation. The gelatin dissolved in the chicken’s “juices” is solid at cool temperatures, locking up most of the water-based liquid and the flavor it carries. Less flavor is released, so our mouths salivate less.
All this means the meat fibers aren’t lubricated as they slide against each other. Adams says this makes chewing cold chicken feel like “taking a bite of a cotton ball dressed with Crisco.”
Bottom line: Unless a Crisco-covered cotton ball is your thing, heat that chicken up before you add it to your Cobb salad.