Perfect Juicy Chicken Breasts: What’s the Secret?
After a sold month of daily Christmas cookie recipes, and the usual end-of-year promises made to your muffintop (“I will release you to the wild, my darling food-baby! Fly, be free!”), we thought it was time to get back to reality — it’s a new year, and the only way to make those eat-healthier resolutions stick is to make them delicious.
Which brings us to chicken breasts. They’re lower in fat than the rest of the bird, but they’re also as boring as tofu. In fact, one could argue that tofu has a better chance at being tasty because nobody fools themselves into thinking that grilling it and slapping it on a whole-wheat bun is any kind of acceptable substitute for a burger.
Chicken breasts aren’t going to be moist, juicy and flavorful all on their own. But you can make them all those things, and it’s easier than you think.
First of all, what makes them so dry? This part of the bird is lower in fat to start with; cooking it without the skin and bone takes away two important sources of moisture. One thing to consider might be to cook bone-in chicken breasts and simply remove the bone afterwards — it’s easier than you think.
Many people think that cooking chicken in any kind of liquid will ensure that it’s moist. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, you can — if you boil it too fast — end up with dry chicken even in the middle of a soup. A low simmer, rather than high heat, is your friend if you’re doing any kind of poached chicken. If you can master this method — and really, it’s not so hard — you’ll have the tastiest, healthiest, moistest breasts in town (no comments from the peanut gallery!). Steaming is another moist method — use white wine or even sake rather than water to infuse it with fat-free flavor.
You can also treat the chicken ahead of time with a marinade or a brine. Everybody has their favorite marinade recipe, but what they all have in common is salt (sometimes in the form of soy sauce) or acid (vinegar, citrus, wine, or even buttermilk). As I was researching this, the reasons sounded, to my ear, a bit like “blah blah blah science blah science blah,” but the bottom line is this: the salt or acid breaks down the cells in the chicken, allowing it to absorb more moisture on that cellular level (::Pushes glasses back up onto nose::). No need to get fancy: a very simple, never-fail mixture of plain yogurt and mustard spread over chicken breasts before grilling will revolutionize your chicken experience.
Of course, rather than going from the outside-in with a marinade, you can moisturize your breasts from the inside-out (stop sniggering — what are you, twelve?). Some folks simply cut slits into their chicken breasts to allow more surface area to reach the liquid. But another method is to butterfly the breast and put some olive oil or butter inside (with some garlic and spices, why not?).
Cheese, of course, is another moist stuffing, and my darling Mark Bittman even uses an olive tapenade, which sounds outrageously good. There are even folks who get these syringes to literally inject oil, flavor or other liquids directly into chicken breasts. (And when I say “other liquids,” I’m including Diet Dr. Pepper, in case you were wondering.) Now, as for adding oil to something you’re eating because it’s low fat — well, at least you can use a heart-healthy oil, and don’t overdue it.
Of course, the first thing we discussed was that you had removed the skin — so you can replace it with bread crumbs, matzo meal or cereal to retain moisture as well. Traditionally, you’d fry breaded chicken cutlets, but you can bake them for a healthed-up version. You can also brush them with sugar (as in a good barbecue sauce) or oil (just a little!) to create that moisture-retaining barrier.
Many chicken recipes call for you to pan-sear the chicken, or at least brown it, before cooking in a stew or baking. This is another way to create a seal before the slower cooking, to keep the moisture firmly in place. It can be tempting to skip this step; don’t. It has a purpose.
So there you have it: many, many secrets designed to keep your chicken moist. Now you have no excuse for anything but bodacious, buxom, double-D flavor. (Fine, you can snicker at that one.)
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