They are the fallback for most cooks, but if you’re going to make them, make sure your chicken breasts taste great. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows I am not a big fan of the boneless, skinless chicken breast. A stunning 65% of chicken sold in the USA is white meat. Part of that popularity is due to our love of chicken wings. Most is a result of the Chicken McNugget and other chicken nugget/tender items, but plenty of adults shopping for themselves automatically go right for boneless breasts.
I understand they are easy and cook quickly; they don’t have those pesky bones, or the skin we’ve been taught to disdain, but unless you treat them nicely, they can end up as dull and flavorless as sautéed tofu. I won’t waste your time by trying to talk you into using the whole bird, cooking your chicken with skin and bones (even if you plan to remove both before consuming) or switching to dark meat. There are a number of things you can do to make chicken breasts tastier. Ironically one of the things many people do is bread them and fry them, essentially adding back all the fat that was removed in the form of chicken skin.
- Marinate them: it takes about thirty minutes to marinate a boneless, skinless breast. There are an endless number of suitable marinades for chicken, from your favorite bottled salad dressing, to soy sauce with crushed garlic. I like to add a bit of fat to the marinade; it will cling to the meat when you remove it and will make it less likely to stick to the pan. No need to refrigerate if you’re going to cook them in under an hour, and it’s good to let the meat warm a bit before cooking.
- Cook in a very hot pan or grill: When the heat is high enough to create a brown crust, or grill marks you have achieved the maillard reaction, and that will create both deep color and flavor. To get nice grill marks lay the breast down at an 11:00/5:00 o’clock angle, and when you have good marks, move them a quarter turn to 1:00/7:00 angle, don’t move them around. When you turn them to cook the other side no need to make those marks.
- Brine them: Brining is similar in effect to marinating. You can use anything from a simple salty water solution to one with herbs and peppercorns to infuse flavor. This will also take about thirty minutes. Most recipes for brine will instruct you to use cold water (which is a food safety issue) but I prefer to dissolve the salt a small amount of warm water and add ice cubes to cool it down. For each breast you’ll need 1 cup of water and 1TBL of kosher salt. Before cooking, rinse the brine off, and dry the chicken well.
- Sauce them: Make a sauce to accompany your chicken breast. If you’ve sautéed the chicken in a pan, deglaze the pan with white wine or sherry (about ½ cup per chicken breast) then add ½ cup of stock and some beurre manié to thicken it. If you don’t want to add any fat, use a slurry of /1-2 teaspoons of cornstarch mixed with an equal amount of cold water, add the slurry one teaspoon at a time until you reach the desired thickness (the sauce will thicken almost immediately).
- Make a dry rub: Use spices you like together. I used a combination of Herbamare (a favorite spice blend that is a staple in my house) and smoked paprika. You don’t need to let this sit for too long, a few minutes to an hour is fine. Dry rubbed chicken breasts are great for the grill, I made mine on a stovetop cast iron grill pan.
I used a package air chilled chicken breasts from Whole Foods Market. (Air chilling means they weren’t cooled by getting dumped into a solution of cold water, and who knows what else.) They were uneven in size, but for my purposes that didn’t matter. I brined the larger one for thirty minutes in a solution of 1 cup of water,1 TBL of kosher salt, a heaping teaspoon of dried rosemary and fresh ground pepper. After brining I rinsed it and dried it well with paper towels. I put 1 tsp, of olive oil into a pan and got it almost smoking hot, then carefully put in the chicken breast. It was a bit thick, and in hindsight I should have pounded it a bit to make it thinner, though I didn’t want it as thin as a cutlet. I left it to brown for about five minutes, checking on it form time to time. When the first side was brown I turned it. Because it was so thick I covered it while the second side cooked which worked well.
To make the sauce I added ½ cup each of white wine and chicken stock, getting up as much of the browned bits in the pan. I added the beurre manié and stirred until it was a nice consistency. The entire process took about half an hour.
For the other breast I got my grill pan hot, and brushed a small amount of olive oil on it, then laid the breast at an angle, let that get some good grill marks, then turned it to the opposite angle. (My grill marks aren’t as nice as I like them to be, but you can see them clearly. That one was smaller and cooked on a higher heat, so it cooked in about eight minutes.
I let both pieces of chicken rest before slicing them, and both were nice and juicy, not overcooked and had plenty of flavor thanks to technique, seasoning and sauce. Do you have a favorite go-to recipe for chicken breasts?