Fool-proof tricks for juicy chicken breast, every time
I sure am enjoying the slow-down of the season this year. Last fall, I barely had a chance to breathe in that sliver of time between the bustle of summer and holiday preparations. I had a lot going on then—family obligations, unexpected traveling, tons of gardening—and simply no time to catch up on my long “to-do” list.
This year, somehow, I’ve managed to tackle items on my list that have been there, literally, for years… Wahoo!
So, while I call this a slow-down period, it really is far from that, because I always find things to fill up all my spare time. I think the difference is that back-burner tasks don’t feel as pressing, so they’re more relaxing and enjoyable, even tedious paperwork.
But one thing that never seems to change is wanting quickly-made dinner choices, even when my day doesn’t feel quite so hectic. And I’m sure this is true for most of you.
My summer routine—tossing a speedy salad together with some sort of cooked protein—just doesn’t pique my interest in these cooler months. I’m craving foods with a warm, comforting feel, like slow-cooked meats, stews, or soups. And when I don’t get my act together for that, a quick one-pan entrée.
Boneless, skinless chicken pieces, either breasts or thighs, are a saving grace for quick, weeknight meals. Both can be cooked in under 15 minutes, provide a neutral canvas for a multitude of flavor combinations, and most people, even kids, like chicken (a bonus for me, with a picky second grader).
Boneless thighs have the added advantage of more depth of flavor and a bit more nutrition than breasts. Plus, because of their additional fat content, they are less prone to drying out, and when removed from the bone, they are a symmetrically flat piece of meat, making even cooking a breeze.
However, if you’re part of the population that overwhelmingly prefers white meat to dark meat, chances are you’ll stick to breasts, no matter what. So, I’ll give you a couple hints for making the most of this piece of meat.
The biggest problem I have with breast meat is its propensity to dry out. Outside of the fact that it contains little fat for basting, the biggest problem with chicken breast is the shape. Because of its tear-drop figure, and because the rounded end is thicker than the point, it is practically impossible to cook the thick end through without overcooking the thin side.
A fail-safe way to ensure even cooking every time is to butterfly the breast. Make a horizontal slice across its equator and open it like a book before cooking. The result is similar to a cutlet pounded with a meat mallet, but is less messy and far quicker, an advantage when I am trying to make dinner in a hurry. And because I don’t aim to display a perfect, whole breast on each plate, and I almost always slice meat before serving, a butterflied breast is the way to go. The thinner piece of meat also ensures much more flavor-penetration by whatever seasonings are used and allows a breast to be cooked through in under 10 minutes.
Which brings me to my next suggestion for keeping breasts juicy and flavorful: a marinade or dry-rub. Most breasts, when left whole, will need hours—or even an extended overnight stay—for a marinade to really permeate the meat. The butterfly trick eliminates some of the time. The other thing to remember with a meat marinade is to use bold flavors and some sort of acid, to help flavor to build quickly and to increase the tenderness of the final product.
This Lemon-Rosemary Chicken is one of my all-time favorite combinations for a delicious and moist piece of chicken.
Rosemary is an assertive herb, and a little goes a long way. The strong profiles of the medicinal herb, pungent garlic, and tart lemon (which provides both flavor and tenderizing action from the acidity) are potent enough that a quick marinade at room temperature for a mere 10-15 minutes is enough to penetrate the meat with lots of flavor. Ten minutes to cook, and five minutes to rest and allow the juices to settle before slicing, makes this a true 30-minute meal with a bit of gourmet flair.
When I’m feeling up to it, I like to grill the chicken, but in cooler months, I will often cook on the stovetop. A bonus to indoor preparation is that the pan collects all the cooking juices that would be lost when grilling, laying the groundwork for a sauce to pour over the meat.
I like this chicken served with seasonal vegetables and a side of creamy mashed potatoes, rice, or, as pictured here, with my recipe for a yummy Autumnal Quinoa Pilaf.
Prep Time: 5-10 minutes
Cook time: 10-15 minutes
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 8-12 boneless chicken thighs (2-3 thighs per person)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 lemons, juiced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, minced
Salt and cracked pepper
2 tablespoons butter, divided
- If using breasts, slice each one horizontally and butterfly, or halve horizontally. Place meat in a large bowl. Add all other ingredients, except butter, and toss to combine. Let sit at room temperature for at least 10-15 minutes or refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
- When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat a large sauté pan on the stovetop to medium (or heat the grill to high). Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan.
- Remove chicken from marinade and brush off the garlic so it doesn’t burn. Sear the chicken until browned on each side and cooked through, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate to rest. (If you’ve grilled the chicken, top each piece with a tablespoon of butter and allow it to melt on the chicken while it rests.)
- Add marinade to the pan and bring to a boil, scraping up all the browned bits. Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan and swirl through.
- Slice chicken into bite-sized pieces and divide among serving plates. Pour any accumulated juices or sauce onto the chicken to serve.
Image from Briana Goodall.