Cooking chicken breast is supposed to be so easy. But when you’re trying to fix not just a good chicken but a perfect one, a bunch of make-or-break factors – such as meat quality, seasoning, marinating, leveling, juice preserving, etc. – all come into play. Now the process doesn’t seem quite so elementary, does it?
I often have people asking me how I get my chicken so sublimely soft and clucking with flavorful, juicy happiness, and I always tell them that the trick is in not taking chicken for granted.
Treat a chicken well, and the bird will reward you with the finest, tastiest, white-meat meal that will have the family asking for more of it in your monthly rotational dinner menu. Here are 9 pieces of smart chef’s advice on the subject to get you started on your chicken rediscovery experience:
# 1: DON’T COOK CHICKEN BREAST STRAIGHT OUT OF THE FRIDGE
• The thick end of a fillet of breast takes a lot longer to warm than the tip. To get the chicken cooking evenly, pull the pieces out of the fridge at least 15-30 minutes in advance.
# 2: DON’T DE-SKIN AND DE-BONE
• The sight of a pasty pink, dimpled skin on raw chicken puts off a lot of people. Some don’t like the taste of cooked skin while others think it’s a needless addition of extra calories to an otherwise healthy piece of chicken breast.
All these concerns are valid, of course, but here’s the thing. Chicken is rather skinny in fat content to begin with and it cooks so quickly there is always the fear of it getting dry and stringy. Keeping the skin – and the bones – intact keeps the chicken soft and juicy because the skin locks the tasty fluids in while the cooking bone imparts its own flavor.
# 3: FLATTEN THE CHICKEN BREAST FIRST
• Pound the raw chicken breast to even out the thickness somewhat. Or butterfly it by slicing the breast open right down the center, and folding it outwards on the pan. This will ensure that the meat does not cook unevenly with a semi-raw, undercooked middle.
# 4: DON’T COOK WITHOUT MARINADE
• Contrary to popular belief, a salt rubdown will not suck moisture out of a chicken breast. Rather, it will `bloom’ the bird’s natural flavor. Don’t be afraid and don’t be lazy about marinating chicken. Add aromatics like garlic, and ginger, soak in soya sauce – do whatever you like to help the meat express itself as best as it can. Remember how the Chinese get their chicken so silky. The trick is: marination.
# 5: CROWDING THE FRYING PAN
• You often see cooking shows where just a single piece of chicken breast in sautéed in butter in the frying pan. This process is not only time-consuming, the butter around the sides of the meat starts to burn quickly too. When sautéing chicken, make sure to comfortably crowd the pan, so there is no burning butter smell clinging to the meat.
This is a handy tip for home-cooking in a hurry, but remember that if you want a really nice, caramelized crust on your chicken, then overcrowding is not a good idea. The heat, denied of an escape route with so much chicken in the pan, will get trapped under it and steam.
# 6: DON’T FLIP TOO SOON IF YOU WANT A CRUST
• Be patient about flipping. Allow the breast to sit in the heated oil for a long enough time for the caramelized crust to form. One way to test this is to try slipping your spatula under the meat. If the meat still feels like it is sticking to the pan, then leave it be. It is not ready. Once a crust has formed, the spatula will slip right under and flipping will be easy.
# 7: MINIMIZE FLARE-UPS IN THE GRILL
• Dripping fat causes a lot of flare-up in the grill when cooking chicken, adding bits of soot and a bitter taste to the meat. Don’t place the chicken with the skin side down to reduce this problem. Cook the flesh side first, when the fire is hottest, and then flip over to the skin side when the intensity of the fire has calmed down.
# 8: WHAT TO DO WITH OVERCOOKED CHICKEN BREAST
• If you’ve left the breast cooking too long and now it’s dry, stringy and rubbery, do a quick turnaround on the meal you had planned for the day. Slice up the breast and lay them under a simple herb sauce made by just adding fresh, chopped herbs to olive oil in a pan and sprinkling it with salt and pepper. Or cube up the meat for a salad. Or make a hearty soup. The trick is to add hydration in the form of stock, cream, mayo, gravy etc. But whatever you do, don’t feel inspired to put the breast back in the oven again.
# 9: COOKED CHICKEN BREAST NEEDS ENOUGH RESTING TIME
• Once the meat is off the heat, give it 5-10 minutes to just sit and rest in peace, assimilating all the juices. Don’t try cutting into it straightaway. Just cover the plate with foil to keep it warm as it rests.