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How to Cook Tender, Juicy (not dry!) Chicken Breasts

by Marge Perry on April 29, 2011

From left to right: Johnny, my son Zak, and Hope

My son is getting his first apartment this summer, and I didn’t want him to be hospitalized for food poisoning. Or die from malnutrition. Apparently, he and his roommates feel the same way, so he invited them over for a cooking lesson.

It only took a couple of hours for the three 20-year olds to learn to cook chicken, roast potatoes, sauté zucchini and sear salmon to golden-crusted perfection.

And along the way, I realized how learning a few key skills can have an enormous effect on the outcome of your cooking.

  1. To make tender, juicy, and safe chicken, you need to take its temperature. Otherwise, your chicken is going to chew like sawdust or make you sick.
  2. Learn how to sear, and you master the art of getting hundreds of easy dinners on the table in less than 30 minutes.
  3. Know how to roast and sauté vegetables so you can cook them stovetop or in the oven, depending on which is more convenient.

The first kitchen basic, which applies to cooks young and old, poor or wealthy, novice or accomplished, is:

How to Cook Tender, Juicy, Safe Chicken Breasts

Here’s the deal. As a nation, we’re eating an average of about 84 pounds of chicken a year. So unless you’re eating every meal out or don’t care if your next bite of chicken bears more resemblance to an old towel than a pleasurable and nourishing food, it’s worth learning the one-minute solution that  guarantees your chicken will be moist, tender and safe.

Humor me while I tout the virtues of the boneless, skinless chicken breast for just one short paragraph. A simple boneless chicken breast is healthful (low in calories and fat), convenient (cooks in less than 10 minutes) and when prepared properly, appeals to a wide range of palates and eating styles. Dieting? Have a chicken breast. Picky eater? You’ll love the neutral flavor. Don’t want to eat as much red meat? Chicken is your IT food.  But only if it’s cooked right.

Chicken breasts can go from being moist and succulent to overcooked—meaning dry and flavorless– in a window of less than 5 minutes. But you also can’t err on the side of not cooking chicken long enough: undercooked chicken can make you seriously ill.

Here is the life-changing*, incredibly simple solution: take your chicken’s temperature.  You can’t do this by holding your palm to its brow: you need a thermometer. Specifically, you need an instant-read meat thermometer, like this:

The ESSENTIAL instant read meat thermometer

You can buy one of these at most house wares stores, like Bed, Bath and Beyond, as well as at many supermarkets and on Amazon . I like Taylor and Oxo brands, both analog or digital. These are not the probes you leave in a roast while it cooks, nor the thermometers with timers attached, nor something that withstands gale force rains. You just need a simple instant read meat thermometer that costs $5-15.

Okay, back to the chicken breast. It must be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to ensure that it is cooked evenly, it has to be an even thickness. Otherwise, by the time the thickest part is cooked to a safe 160F, the thinnest part will be like a hockey puck. To make it even, you need to pound it. The good news about pounding chicken is that it is an ideal way to relieve stress. The better news is that it is fast and easy and doesn’t make a big mess. You can pound 2 pounds of boneless breasts to even thickness in about 5 minutes.

First, tear off a 2-foot long piece of plastic wrap and lay about 1 foot on your cutting board. Place a chicken breast, smooth side up in the center of that one foot area of wrap on your board.

This is the smooth side of the chicken breast…

This is the not-smooth, or rough side of the chicken, which you do not want to be face up:

Rough underside of the chicken, which should face down when you pound

Now fold the rest of the plastic wrap over the breast so the chicken is centered on the wrap and not near the edges or the fold. Use the smooth side of your meat pounder (aka mallet), not the side that looks like it has dinosaur scales. (That is for meat tenderizing, which most home cooks don’t do anymore. I think of those as dinosaur scales because they exist for a nearly extinct task).

This is the smooth side of the meat pounder:

Smooth surface of the pounder

This is the dinosaur, or rough side, which you do not want to use

Dinosaur side, which home cooks rarely use

Give the chicken a whack right in the center, even if the center isn’t the thickest part. You are not pounding the breast into submission, as if to say “You will be thin!” When you pound it, the meat spreads out to the sides, which is why you start in the center and work your way out. It sounds more complicated than it is. This process truly only takes a minute or two.

When it is fully pounded, the chicken breast looks like this:

Nicely pounded to about 1/4-inch thickness

Now it’s time to cook. Season the chicken on both sides. For every one pound, use 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper. You can always add more later.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium high. (You don’t need more oil than that, but I can almost guarantee you are using more. Try measuring it: you’ll save calories and money).

Add the chicken breasts, but make sure you don’t crowd them. (If they are too close together, they will steam instead of sear, which means they won’t have that nice golden crust). You can usually fit about one pound of chicken breasts in a 12-inch skillet. In this case, I am cooking enough chicken for two people, about 8 ounces total.

Cook until they are nicely golden on the underside. Not like this:

Barely golden and not ready to turn

But like this:

THis is what the underside should look like when the chicken is ready to be turned over

It will take about 5 minutes for the underside to have this beautiful golden crust– but go by looks, not time. once you turn the breasts over, you will again cook them until they are golden… but now you will know they are ready when they hit 160 degrees.

When you use an instant-read meat thermometer, the wand must be inserted at least one inch into the chicken, and the tip should be at the thickest or most center part of the breast. You can’t stick it in from the top– the breast is only about 1/4-inch thick. You need to insert the thermometer horizontally, like this:

Insert the wand of the thermometer horizontally

And remember, always, a chicken breast must be cooked to 160 degrees.

Cooked to perfection!

This simple, perfectly cooked chicken breast is juicy enough to make into a sandwich. It doesn’t even need sauce!

Enjoy!

*Okay, maybe I take food a little too seriously. But if a great meal is not life-changing for you, I hope it is at least mood-altering. And if so, shall we now think of well-prepared fare as a safe and healthy mood-altering substance?

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Basic Golden Seared Chicken Breast

Dredging the chicken lightly in flour gives it a more even, slightly crunchy golden crust, but is not necessary. To avoid gluten, either simply omit the flour or replace it with rice flour.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in 4 even pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons flour, all-purpose or whole wheat (optional)

1 tablespoon canola or olive oil

 

  1. Lay a piece of plastic wrap roughly twice as long as your cutting board over your board, with half laying to one side. Place a chicken breast half, smooth side facing up, in the center of the board and fold the plastic wrap over it. Using the smooth side of the meat pounder, start in the middle of the chicken and pound in an outward direction until it is an even 1/4-inch thickness. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
  2. 2If you are using flour, combine it on a plate with the salt and pepper; dredge the pounded chicken in the flour, coating it thoroughly and shaking off the excess. If you are not using the flour, season the chicken evenly on both sides with the salt and pepper.
  3. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the chicken, allowing room between the pieces. Cook until the chicken is deeply golden, about 5 minutes; turn and cook until it cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees and is again deeply golden on the underside. Remove from pan. (Keep warm by draping loosely, or by placing, covered in foil, in a 200F oven.)

You can serve the chicken as is, or perhaps make Chicken in Lemon Butter Sauce.

Other posts that may interest you:

How to cook chicken thighs, with step-by-step photos: Grilled or Roasted Chicken Thighs: My Go-To Easy Dinner

How to Buy, Cook and Eat Artichokes

Fast, Cheap and Easy: How to Cook Mussels

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