When you need to turn out a fast, tasty and healthful weeknight dinner, it ought to be so easy to reach for skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
They cook quickly, you can do endless things with them and while they cost a little more than other cuts, what you get is all meat, no waste.
Except for the downsides: Skinless, boneless chicken breasts can be boring. If you overcook them, you end up sawing away at a plank of compressed leather. With no bone or skin, you don’t get much to carry flavor, either. (Yes, I know — you could cook a skin-on breast and throw away the golden, crispy skin, but let’s face it: It’s golden, crispy skin. Who has the willpower to resist that?)
I decided to hit the kitchen with a big tray of naked breasts and figure out what really makes a difference in turning them into fantastic weeknight dinners.
PREPPING YOUR BREASTS
Now, common wisdom says that if you want a juicy breast that doesn’t dry out, you need to go hot and fast in a skillet. That doesn’t turn out to be true.
Using fresh breasts, I rubbed one with plain yogurt and refrigerated it for an hour, I wet-brined one in 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of water for 30 minutes, and I dry-brined one, simply sprinkling both sides of a breast with 1 teaspoon of salt and refrigerating it, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
While yogurt makes a great breast if you’re going to grill or roast it, it’s not the best for pan-searing. It’s messy and doesn’t get that great golden color, plus the yogurt can clash with other ingredients in a recipe. Wet-brining is fine, but it’s messy, too, and it can make the cooking juices too watery.
Hands down, the best method is dry brining: It’s simple, and it gets quick results. While you can salt and refrigerate breasts in the morning to cook that night, even doing it for 30 minutes results in a noticeably juicy and flavorful piece of chicken.
Next, I tried two cooking methods. One, on joyofcooking.com, gets a lot of recommendations. You flavor the breasts with salt, freshly ground pepper and Italian seasoning or herbs (those are optional), then heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Place the breasts in the pan and cook for 1 minute, then turn them, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Finally, you turn off the heat and let the chicken stand, covered, for 10 minutes.
While it did make a juicy breast, I had trouble getting it cooked through. Breasts vary so much in size that a large breast was still pink in the middle. While it was definitely juicy, it didn’t get that golden appearance either.
The second cooking method was developed by food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt of seriouseats.com and the author of “The Kitchen Lab.” While some of his methods can be complicated, this is as simple as it gets: You pat the breasts dry with paper towels, then dry-brine, sprinkling them with salt and pepper. Refrigerate them, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Pat them dry again before cooking.
To cook them, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium-low until it shimmers. Place the breasts in the skillet, smooth side down. Cook for 9 minutes without moving them, until they’re pale gold underneath and release from the pan without sticking. Add 1 teaspoon butter and swirl it around a little, lifting the breasts to get it underneath, and cook 1 minute. Turn the breasts and cook 6 minutes or until the center registers 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and let stand for 3 minutes.
Now, that’s a great skinless, boneless chicken breast: Golden brown and appetizing, flavored all the way through, and as juicy as I’ve ever had.
TIPS FOR YOUR BREASTS
No matter which method you use, these are always worth doing to cook the best skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
Pound. Breasts tend to be uneven, with a thick end and a skinny end, which makes it hard to cook the thick end without overcooking the thin end. To cook them evenly, it’s worth the extra step. Place them on a sheet of plastic wrap, cover with another sheet of wrap and give them a few whacks with a kitchen mallet, focusing on the thicker end.
Pat dry. You’ll get a much better sear and a better chance of getting that nice golden color. It sounds like a contradiction: You want them moist, right? But you’ll get that if the meat is dry on the outside so it develops a better sear, sealing the moisture inside where you want it.
Use a thermometer. An undercooked breasts isn’t safe, but an overcooked one isn’t tasty. Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the thickest end gets to 155 degrees. Carry-over heat will take it to 165 degrees, which is safe, without drying them out.
Thaw smartly. Skinless, boneless chicken breasts can be expensive, but there’s no waste. If you buy them frozen and you don’t have time to thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, take out the number of breasts that you need, put them in a resealable plastic bag and put them in a sink of cold water. They’ll thaw in 30 minutes.
CHICKEN WITH GOAT CHEESE VINAIGRETTE AND PASTA
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon butter
About 6 ounces uncooked penne pasta
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 ounces (1/2 cup) crumbled fresh goat cheese
About 1 cup small tomatoes (grape or cherry), halved or quartered
Place the chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a kitchen mallet to flatten the thick end and create an even thickness. Pat dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta, stirring so it doesn’t stick, and cook as directed, about 10 to 11 minutes, and drain.
While the pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Place the chicken in the skillet, smooth side down, and cook about 9 minutes, until golden underneath. Turn the chicken and spread the tomatoes around the skillet. Continue cooking, turning the tomatoes occasionally, about 6 minutes or until the chicken is done.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil, parsley and pepper flakes. Fold in the crumbled goat cheese.
Divide between plates. Top each serving with a chicken breast and some of the tomatoes. Drizzle the goat cheese dressing over the chicken and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.