3 ways to make chicken breasts better for cooking

Dry-brined chicken breasts. Unlock juicier, more flavourful white meat with smart techniques.
Dry-brined chicken breasts. Unlock juicier, more flavourful white meat with smart techniques.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In the 1723 cookery book, The Cooks And Confectioners Dictionary, author John Nott shares a recipe for chicken breasts, in which the skins get lifted and stuffed with grated bacon, anchovies and herbs.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is one of the first written accounts of the noun cluster "chicken breasts" in the English language. It is also a great way to cook white meat so that it does not dry out.

One major design flaw of the chicken breast is that its thickness varies significantly from end to end. This makes for uneven cooking, especially when the meat comes boneless and skinless. By the time the wide, bulbous side has cooked through, the lither, tapered side (not to mention the outer edges of the entire breast) has gone stringy, practically desiccated.

The trick to keeping breast meat tender and juicy is to alter its anatomy completely. There are a few ways to do this.

The easiest is to carve the breast in half crosswise where the thicker end meets the thinner end. This way, you can pull the thinner pieces off the heat earlier, allowing the thicker ones to finish cooking for another minute or two.

Another method is to ensure the meat retains its natural moisture. What makes a chicken breast juicy is water, not fat. A simple dry brine - a mixture of salt, sugar and spices - provides that bit of insurance. It is the salt that is most crucial, as it draws out the meat's water. That water then dissolves the salt on the surface of the meat and, through diffusion, the two re-enter the meat, seasoning the chicken thoroughly.

A marinade can yield similarly juicy results through different means.

In one of the recipes below, a group of enzymes in fresh pineapple, bromelain, breaks down the connective tissues of fibrous chicken, turning the otherwise taut meat into slackened nuggets.

But proceed with caution: Marinate the chicken too long and you will end up with gluey shreds of meat. Fifteen minutes is just about right.

Other acidic ingredients have similar benefits.

The lactic acid in sour cream tenderises chicken and also helps crunchy, savoury coatings stick to the meat. Smear it all over chicken breasts and encase them in a thick coating of buttery Ritz cracker crumbs and grated sharp cheddar for a result equal parts moist and crisp.

This comforting chicken bake tastes best with cutlets. Although you could pound a thick breast out into a thin paillard, it is better to slice through the middle of the breast horizontally so you get two cutlets of equal size.


Dry-brined chicken breasts

Ingredients

• 5 dried bay leaves, crushed into small pieces

• 1 tsp whole black peppercorns

• 21/2 tsp kosher salt

• 1 packed Tbs dark brown sugar

• 2 tsp garlic powder

• 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 680g total)

• Vegetable oil

• Lime wedges, for serving (optional)

Method

1. In a spice grinder, blitz the bay leaf pieces and peppercorns until finely ground. Transfer to a small bowl and add the salt, brown sugar and garlic powder, and rub it all together with your fingers.

2. Cut each chicken breast in half crosswise into two pieces of equal weight, creating one shorter, thicker piece and one longer, thinner piece. Place the four chicken pieces on a large plate or sheet pan and sprinkle generously on all sides with the spice mixture, moving the chicken around to catch any fallen spices. Refrigerate, uncovered, to dry-brine for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour.

3. When ready to cook, take the chicken out of the fridge and heat a large skillet with a lid over high heat. Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the skillet. Carefully add the chicken pieces, smooth sides down, and immediately reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the bottoms are browned but not burnt, for five to seven minutes. Flip the chicken, cover the pan and cook until the other sides are browned and the internal temperature at the thickest part of the meat reaches about 70 deg C, for another five to seven minutes. You may want to pull the longer, thinner pieces off the heat a minute or two sooner, as they may cook faster.

4. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board to rest for at least 10 minutes so the juices can redistribute. The meat will continue to cook as it sits and should reach an internal temperature of about 75 deg C. You can also check for doneness by cutting into the chicken - it should look white and juicy and no longer pink. Slice the chicken against the grain and serve with lime wedges if desired. You can also keep the meat whole and refrigerate it, covered, for up to four days.

Serves four


Pineapple-marinated chicken breasts


Pineapple-marinated chicken breasts. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ingredients

• 3 packed Tbs dark brown sugar

• 2 Tbs rice vinegar

• 1 Tbs soya sauce

• 1 Tbs fish sauce

• 2 Tbs olive oil, plus more for cooking • 1 tsp kosher salt

• 1 tsp garlic powder

• 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cayenne

• 1/2 tsp black pepper

• 1 cup diced fresh pineapple, cut into 1.2cm chunks

• 1/4 cup finely diced red onion

• 2 Tbs finely chopped fresh cilantro

• 2 Tbs finely grated fresh pineapple, including accumulated juices

• 680g boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into about 4cm chunks

• Cooked white rice, for serving

Method

1. In a large bowl, stir together the brown sugar, rice vinegar, soya sauce, fish sauce, 2 Tbs olive oil, salt, garlic powder, ground cayenne and black pepper. Transfer 1 Tbs of this marinade mixture to a separate medium bowl and add the diced pineapple, red onion and cilantro. This is your salsa - toss until well mixed and set aside.

2. Add the grated pineapple and its juices to the marinade mixture in the large bowl, then add the chicken and toss to coat. Set aside to marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes.

3. Once the chicken is done marinating, heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken pieces, leaving any marinade behind, in a single layer so they do not touch. Let cook for two to three minutes until the bottoms are browned. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the chicken pieces are browned on all sides and no longer pink on the inside, for four to five minutes more.

4. Serve the chicken over rice and top with the reserved pineapple salsa.

Serves four


Ritzy cheddar chicken breasts


Ritzy cheddar chicken breasts. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ingredients

• 1 Tbs olive oil, plus more for greasing wire rack

• 1/4 cup sour cream

• 1 large egg white

• 1 tsp Dijon mustard

• Kosher salt

• 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 680g in total)

• 1 sleeve Ritz crackers (about 100g)

• About 60g extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)

• 1/2 tsp garlic powder

• 1/2 tsp onion powder

Method

1. Place the rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat oven to 230 deg C. Place an ovenproof wire rack over a sheet pan. Dab a folded-up paper towel with olive oil and rub it over the wire rack to grease it.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, egg white and Dijon mustard until smooth. Season with salt. Lay the chicken flat on a cutting board and carve each breast in half laterally, so you end up with four thin cutlets. Add the chicken to the sour cream mixture and, using your hands, smear the sour cream all over the chicken.

3. In a large bowl, crush the Ritz crackers into coarse pieces with your fingers. Some crackers will turn to rubble while others turn to dust. Add the cheese, garlic powder, onion powder and olive oil. Season with 1/2 tsp salt and toss until evenly distributed. Holding one of the chicken cutlets by its thinner end, add to the bowl with the crumbs and, using your hands, pack the crumbs onto the chicken, pressing them in to create a thick coating. Transfer the breaded chicken to the rack in the sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining three cutlets.

4. Bake the cutlets until the outsides are crispy and the insides are no longer pink, for 10 to 15 minutes. Let the chicken cool slightly so the coating can set, about five minutes, before transferring to plates and serving.

Serves four