Moist chicken breast. It’s the little black dress (LBD) of the dinner table. Okay, maybe it’s not quite as sexy, but let’s face it, it’s easy, able to be dressed up or down depending on the occasion, and goes with everything else in your pantry. But just like your favorite LBD, you have to find the right cut, and know how to treat it, to really rock it. I’m the first to fess up to having served my fair share of cardboard-y chicken breasts in my day, but trust me, you’ll feel way better about yourself when you up your chicken game.
One of the things we all love about chicken breast is that it’s low-fat, making it a no-brainer, everyday kind of ingredient, right? But it’s precisely because it is so lean that chicken breast dries out like a mofo when you cook it. Not to worry, there is hope for you and your chicken dinner yet. Here are my three favorite methods for ensuring that every bite of chicken that lands on your dinner table is moist and delicious—and sexy enough for a night out even if you’re planning to chow it on the sofa while bingeing on the latest season of your favorite reality TV show.
Your Moist Chicken Breast Playbook
Flash some skin (and bone).
It’s tempting to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast because it seems like it will save you so much effort not having to bone it and skin it yourself. But the skin and bone are like layers of insulation, sealing in all the chicken’s succulent juices and flavors during cooking. Unless you are making a dish that specifically requires boneless, skinless breast meat (such as a stir-fry, sauté, or stuffed or rolled chicken breast), opt for the bone-in, skin-on variety. It may take a bit longer to cook, but your tastebuds will thank you for a way more moist chicken breast.
Don’t skip the foreplay.
You won’t regret taking a little extra time to prepare your chicken breast before cooking. Brining, marinating, and a little bit of sorcery called “velveting” don’t take long, and they ensure your chicken breast is plump, moist, and dripping with flavor.
Brining may sound like a fancy thing that only chefs do, but it’s simple. Without getting into a whole lot of fancy science, all you need to know is that a salt brine alters the meat’s proteins in such a way that they retain more moisture during cooking. In other words, juicy meat — such as a super moist chicken breast.
For a “wet brine,” soak your chicken breast in a saltwater solution (I use 8 cups of water with ¼ cup kosher salt). For a “dry brine,” heavily salt the chicken with kosher or sea salt. You can use either method to brine the chicken (in the fridge, of course) for up to a day or two, but even just letting it sit for 30 minutes before cooking will make a world of difference. If using the wet method, pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels before cooking. If using the dry method, wipe off the salt and pat the meat dry before cooking. With either method, you can add herbs, spices, sweeteners like sugar or honey, and other seasonings to boost flavor. Dry brining will give you the bonus of crispy skin, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Marinating relies on acidic ingredients (vinegar, wine, citrus juice, etc.) in the soaking mixture to tenderize and flavor your chicken breasts. My favorite chicken marinade is a mixture of orange juice, honey, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce, plus a splash of sesame oil to help the marinade cling to the meat. As with brining, chicken breasts and thighs can be marinated for as long as a day or two, but gets a great boost in tenderness and flavor with just a 15 or 30 minute soak.
Velveting is another option for making ultra-moist chicken breast. When stir-frying or sauteing chicken breast, the Chinese technique called “velveting” is truly magical for producing unbelievably tender and moist chunks of meat. Toss the cubed chicken breast in a mixture of egg white, cornstarch, wine, and oil (for 1 pound of chicken use 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1 egg white, 1 tablespoon wine, 1 tablespoon oil, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt). Refrigerate the coated chicken for 20 to 30 minutes and then par-cook it either by dropping it in boiling water or quick-frying it in hot oil just until it is opaque. Cook the rest of your ingredients in a skillet and add the par-cooked chicken at the end of the cooking time, just long enough for the chicken breasts to come up to temperature and cook through.
Don’t rush it.
As with most good things in life, patience pays off when cooking chicken. When you cook a big, ol’ boneless, skinless chicken breast in a super-hot oven or skillet, the outer meat is sure to be parched and leathery by the time the inner meat is cooked through. For an evenly moist chicken breast, take your time and cook them at medium heat in a moist environment so the inner and outer meat cook at a similar rate. Season the meat well and cook, covered with foil, in a baking dish in a 275ºF (135°C) oven until almost cooked through (20 to 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 150ºF (65°C) on an instant-read thermometer). Once your chicken breasts is just barely cooked through, you can sear it in hot oil in a skillet for just a couple of minutes to add a bit of that nice, brown caramelization everyone loves. And even after it is cooked, give it a few minutes to rest and reabsorb its juices before serving, just as you would with a steak or roast.
I promise you, the way a killer pair of heels can level up a basic LBD, these methods will make your fallback chicken recipes way, way sexier.