We’ve had a lot of “what will they think of next?” discoveries over the years. We’ve coated our chicken kebabs in bacon paste to keep them tender. We’ve figured out how to grill a steak from frozen. And for better browning on grilled boneless chicken breasts, we turned to an unexpected ingredient: nonfat dry milk powder.
Here’s the dilemma when it comes to grilling and glazing boneless, skinless chicken breasts: If you wait to apply the glaze until the meat is browned well, it’s usually dry and leathery by the time you’ve lacquered on a few layers. But if you apply the glaze too soon, you don’t give the chicken a chance to brown, robbing it of a flavor boost that this bland cut badly needs.
So the key to flavorful, tender chicken breasts is speeding up the browning, also known as the Maillard reaction, and the consequent formation of all those new flavor compounds that help meat taste rich and complex.
The idea to use milk powder came to Cook’s Illustrated’s Keith Dresser after one of his fellow test cooks had tried using it to expedite the browning of pork chops. In that recipe, dredging the meat in milk powder had caused it to brown more quickly, but the finished chops turned out too sweet.
It proved better suited for browning chicken. All it took was a light dusting of milk powder (½ teaspoon per breast) and a light spray with vegetable oil to help ensure that the powder stuck. Less than 2 minutes later—about half the time of Keith’s most successful previous tests—the chicken was lightly browned and had nice grill marks.
Why Milk Powder Is So Effective
As usual, the secret behind milk powder's effectiveness in this application comes down to science. Dry milk contains about 36 percent protein. But it also contains about 50 percent lactose, a so-called reducing sugar. And the Maillard reaction takes place only after large proteins break down into amino acids and react with certain types of sugars—reducing sugars such as glucose, fructose, and lactose. In short, milk powder contained just the two components that Keith needed to speed things up.
But that wasn't the only reason milk powder was so successful in quickly triggering browning. Like starch, it's a dry substance that absorbs the excess moisture on the meat. This is helpful because moisture keeps the temperature too low for significant browning to take place until the wetness evaporates. There was yet one more benefit to using the milk powder: It created a thin, tacky surface that was perfect for holding on to the glaze. And with expedited browning in place, Keith had time to thoroughly lacquer the chicken with glaze by applying four solid coats before it finished cooking.
So if you need only a small amount of milk powder for your chicken breasts, what should you do with the remainder? We use it in a variety of (mostly sweet) recipes, including Malted Milk Pancakes, Hot Chocolate Mix, and Nanaimo Bars, so there's no need for it to go to waste.