I've always been a huge fan of chicken breasts, but since giving up red meat (and because I've never been a fish fanatic), they have quickly become the centerpiece protein of my diet.
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As previously noted, I'm a real chicken advocate. I have grown tired of seeing it being maligned across food media — from Food Network and myriad cooking shows to countless articles throughout the landscape of the internet. When I hear people extol the virtue of chicken thighs or declare chicken breasts to be monotonous or dull, my love for a well-seasoned and well-cooked breast is only further crystallized.
Now, I do get it — I've ordered far too many chicken Caesar salads that were topped with flaccid, arguably not-even-actual-chicken "strips." However, a perfectly cooked piece of chicken is insurmountable: nothing dry, tough, or bland here. Chilled, sliced and served with cool, crisp lettuce or vegetables? Seared and properly seasoned and served with a rich, viscous pan sauce? Broiled under a hot flame and enrobed in perfectly bronzed cheese? I will opt for that any day.
Of course, there are a few steps that must be taken to ensure the most satisfactory chicken breast experience:
Buy a high-quality option
I tend to choose organic, non-"brand name" chicken, but that doesn't mean you have to dole out an inordinate amount of money for said chicken. I love Wegmans, Aldi, Kings, Stop and Shop, and a small health-focused store near me called Green Life; each store boasts a stellar selection of high-quality chicken breasts.
Buy the right type of chicken breast for your dish
Depending on the final dish, I tend to aim for skinless, boneless chicken breasts. However, when it comes to certain dishes — barbecued chicken, some fried chicken, an unbelievably delicious take on panzanella from a now-closed Brooklyn restaurant that I make every summer — I tend to go for boneless, skin-on chicken breasts. And of course, there are some instances in which a good ol' bone-in, skin-on option is best.
When it comes to a well-cooked piece of chicken for snacking or salads, I prefer a standard chicken breast, un-pounded. For some dishes, a pounded-out cutlet, butterflied breast or a thin-sliced chicken breast may be the way to go. It really is dependent upon the recipe and what you envision for the final product.
Find the seasoning that works for you
I'm not a big marinade guy, but some people swear by marinades. Up to you! Instead, I tend to sear my chicken (and all proteins) very aggressively, so I opt for just salt and sometimes freshly-cracked black pepper. If you're not as aggressive with your cooking method, seasonings such as paprika, garlic powder and onion powder are all good options. I also tend to choose a neutral oil, such as peanut, grapeseed, canola, or vegetable, but if you're not searing over high heat, a good olive oil is always welcome.
Get your cook right
Depending on the thickness of your chicken, you may have to finish the piece in the oven in order to ensure that the interior is fully cooked through and the chicken isn't burnt "on the outside." For whatever reason, I have an affinity for slightly over cooked food, so I don't mind it (as a matter of fact, I enjoy it), but I know that most normal human beings prefer a non-overcooked piece of chicken.
Just like outlined in this piece, cast-iron is a great option here, but any heavy-bottom skillet would be a good choice; try to aim for oven-safe in case you decide to finish in the oven.
Clean-up fun fact: if you have lots of browned, crisped bits on the bottom of your pan after cooking, deglaze with some stock, wine, or even water, throw in some pats of butter, and reduce until slightly thickened. A cleaned pan and a delicious pan sauce? Win-win!
Follow these rules and you're bound to have an outrageously delicious topper for your next salad — or a reliable, ridiculously good, high-protein snack option.
Recipe: No-frills chicken breast
- 1 lb. high-quality, organic chicken breasts
- Neutral oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- In a heavy-bottomed skillet or cast-iron pan, add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and heat over medium or medium-high heat until rippling.
- Let chicken come to room temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes, season both sides heavily (I mean very heavily — you need more salt than you realize, and even more so if you're not seasoning with anything else) on both sides. Also, be sure the chicken is well-dried prior to adding to the pan. This is important for both culinary purposes and safety purposes. If the chicken is wet at all, the water and oil can start to pop or splatter. Once properly dried and seasoned, carefully add chicken to the pan.
- Cook, undisturbed, for 7 to 10 minutes. Flip and cook for another 7 to 10 minutes.
- This now becomes a "choose your own adventure" type recipe. You can either cover the pan with a lid and cook for an additional 5 minutes, transfer the entire shebang to a preheated oven to finish for 5 minutes, or merely continue cooking as is, flipping more often. Each method produces a slightly different product with differing tastes, textures and dynamics. Try out each one to help decide your favorite approach.
- Let chicken cool for 5 minutes before checking for doneness. If cooked through, feel free to slice, chop, or eat with reckless abandon. I'm personally a sucker for a chilled chicken breast "chunked" and tossed with a green salad, lots of freshly cracked black pepper and an abrasively acidic dressing or vinaigrette, with nuts, seeds, cheese, and some sort of dried or dehydrated fruit or berry.
More by this author:
- On Porchetta: An ode to the East Village stalwart
- Beyond Chicken parmesan? Notes on alt-milks and vegan cheese from an Italian kitchen
- Want impossibly crisp chicken parmesan? Try this simple sheet pan layering trick
- Demystifying buttermilk: How to use this amazing ingredient to make chicken cutlets, desserts & more