The chicken breast may be humble—but it’s also a budget-conscious cook’s best friend. Leaner and cheaper than pork or beef, it’s also versatile enough to work in anything from red-hot Thai curry to golden crispy schnitzel to classic pot pie.
The one caveat, though, is that chicken breasts are easy to overcook, leaving them with all the flavor of cardboard (not to mention a rubbery texture). Thankfully, that’s easy enough to avoid—with a few simple tricks up your sleeve, you can transform plain chicken breasts into the tender and succulent star of any meal. Consult this handy guide for everything you need to know to get perfect results every time, whether you’re baking, sautéing, frying, poaching, and grilling.
Secret: A bed of veggies
For cooks without a lot of time and energy, baking is the way to go. There’s one secret trick that works every time: lay the chicken breasts atop a bed of vegetables, rather than just straight onto the pan, before popping them in the oven. The natural moisture of the veggies keeps the meat tender, prevents it from getting stringy, and adds a ton of flavor.
Try this recipe for chicken with roasted cherry tomatoes and olives, or experiment with other veggies. Any combination—think carrots and leeks, butternut squash and apples, or broccoli and potatoes—works beautifully.
Secret: Pound ’em
Sautéeing is another simple method, especially if you start by pounding the breasts flat. This step speeds up the cooking process, and ensures you won’t end up with a crispy exterior and pink center. Next, season the breasts with salt, pepper, and your favorite herbs and spices before adding them to the pan—crucial for locking in flavor. Then lightly sauté in olive oil or butter until the edges turn golden brown, turn the heat down to low, and cover until cooked through.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and whatever you do, don’t lift the lid until it goes off. Trust that the steam and juices trapped in the pan will do their job. This method yields perfectly cooked chicken you can use in salads, sandwiches, casseroles—you name it!
Secret: Use healthy fat
Though it requires more oil than sautéeing, pan-fried chicken can still be relatively good-for-you—it all depends on which oil you use. Extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil do the trick, and both have tons of healthy fats.
With frying, again, pound the breasts flat first. Then, for a satisfyingly crispy crust, dredge them in flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs, as this New York Times recipe recommends. The result is moist, tender, and just indulgent enough to satisfy a craving for fried chicken.
Secret: Add aromatics
Poaching may not be the sexiest cooking method, but it’s quick, easy, and extremely healthy. And it doesn’t have to be bland! All you have to do is place the chicken in a pot with some water or stock, aromatics like garlic, bay leaves, and fresh herbs, and even a splash of white wine, if you have it handy. Boil for about 8 minutes, then drain and serve. That’s it!
Secret: Brine it … and add a brick!
Come summer, take dinner outside and throw some chicken on the barbecue. First, make sure the grill is nice and hot—if you can’t hold your hand over it for more than three seconds, it’s ready.
If you have a little time, brine the meat using a mixture of salt and water, at a ratio of 1 tablespoon per cup. Add herbs, spices, and other seasoning—Tamari! Hot sauce! Curry paste!—then let the chicken rest in it for 2 to 3 hours in the fridge to lock in moisture.
Whether or not you brine, try this somewhat unusual tip: set a brick (wrapped in foil) on top of the meat as it cooks. The weight helps the chicken cook more evenly, stops it from drying out, and ensures you’ll get great grill marks.
With these foolproof methods in your arsenal, there’s no need to suffer through dry meat anymore. Say goodbye to cardboard chicken—it’s a thing of the past!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont