Perfect Chicken Breasts!
It is a plea heard throughout civilized kitchens – how to prepare chicken breasts that are consistently juicy? The answer lies in several steps, some of which are not intuitive. So, as it is with many things in life, if it were easy, everyone would do it. This is not a process you have to read every time; for the most part, once you’ve done it one or two times, you’ve got it.
A few givens:
● You cannot avoid a little oil or fat – but I will show you how to use it so that only the required minimum remains.
● You cannot do the cooking part of the process while overly distracted. Much like certain sports, the attention requirement is intense but short lived.
● Skip steps at your peril; there are not that many, and they go quickly with practice.
Executive Summary: start with breasts which have been trimmed of excess fat and have been pounded to a fairly uniform thickness. You then place just a thin bread crumb coating on them, give them an intense sear on both sides, then lower heat and pan-roast a bit.
Please look at the videos – some of this is tricky to put in words.
1. Using a very sharp smaller knife (paring knife, if you have it) develop a quick style to remove visible fat, cartilage and sinew from the meat. Ideally, you should plop the trimmings into a little saucepan and cook up a bit of broth a la minute. If you are using complete, bone‑in breasts, you must first de-bone them and separate the tenders. The tenders could be cooked during this process also (no pounding) or set aside for another day. See a separate video or instruction if you are not comfortable with boning a chicken breast. Your broth-making saucepan will then also include the bones and probably some additional trim.
2. Place the breasts with the shiny, smoother side up, one at a time, on a cutting board (preferably one that is flush to the countertop). Take a heavy mallet. Using the side with tiny pyramid-shaped spurs, create a pounding motion (about 2 strokes per second) on the thickest part of the meat, only raising the mallet eight inches or so off the surface. You are looking for quick strokes that are both light and firm at the same time. You don’t want to take all day to do this, but you also don’t want to punch holes in the meat, either. Experiment with your technique a bit until you get the hang of it.
3. As you’re done with each breast, put it aside on a plate. When done, wipe the cutting board with a fresh paper towel and discard the towel.
4. Lay out the breasts in one layer on the cutting board (if you don’t have enough room, do this in as many batches as needed). Sprinkle each side with a little sea salt (use tongs or a fork to turn them over). Optional additions are pepper, paprika, smoked paprika, celery salt, chili powder. My strongest recommendation, though, is to do none of those – save them for your sauce or other treatment. If you plan to serve these without any sauce whatsoever, you might include one or more of those seasonings, though.
5. Sprinkle each side with plain bread crumbs, flipping them with the tongs or fork. Press the bread crumbs in a little with your hands or the back of a large spoon.
6. Heat a ¼” layer of vegetable or grapeseed oil in a large, heavy skillet to 450° to 475°.
7. Wear an apron or other clothing protection. Place breasts in the hot pan, making sure they have at least ¼ “ around them, probably 3 or 4 at the most. You should be getting an intense sizzle, but no splattering or popping (the bread crumbs should have absorbed surface moisture).
8. Cook about 2 minutes, until you have a nice brown. Increase the fire if your temp starts dropping. Flip the breasts, browning the other side for about two minutes.
9. Lower the heat quite a bit, and loosely cover the pan. Cook in this way for about 10 minutes. Very thick breasts may take as much as 20 minutes, but it’s unlikely. You will know they are done when you press on the thickest part and it springs back quickly, without any hesitation. This takes a little practice, and if you really don’t want to overcook them, you will occasionally find yourself wanting to cut into one of them just to make sure. You will also get some carryover cooking from this treatment, but not a lot – don’t depend on it. Because they have been so nicely seared in the pan and sealed with the bread crumbs, the bad effect of a tiny bit of overcooking will be minimal. Everyone hates to see even the slightest bit of pink in chicken.
You also can flip the breasts about halfway through the step 9 cooking phase. This promotes evenness both in doneness as well as exterior color.
Here’s the Brilliant Bit for the breasts; you can do any of these treatments next:
- Teriyaki (you might use Panko for your bread crumbs)
- Feta and Calmata chopped on top, with a bit of flat parsley
- Salsa, cheddar, cilantro (run under the broiler before topping with the cilantro)
- Sauteed mushrooms with a dash of red wine
- BBQ sauce and slivered celery or slaw on the side
Also, the reason I usually cook the breasts with nothing more than S&P, is that they make great leftovers, cold or reheated. So if you’ve kept them plain, more options are open to you.