My mother never cooked us chicken breasts growing up, but there were always bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs in the freezer for bubbling soups and stews, or crispy fried chicken. The only time we ever had breast meat for dinner was in samgyetang, whole rice-stuffed Cornish game hens boiled with garlic, ginseng, and jujubes (Korean dates). But even with that rich golden broth, the breast meat was much stringier and blander than the thigh and leg meat, so you'd have to eat it with a small dish of salt and confetti-gray McCormick black pepper for dipping, then quickly follow up with a swig of water because you were probably choking, it was so dry.
"Chicken skin is fatty and savory and delicious. Cooking meat on the bone yields a juicier bite," says Josh Cohen, our test kitchen director. "If you take away the skin and the bone, you take away some flavor, texture, and moisture. There's higher risk of the meat tasting bland or drying out."
As Julia Moskin wrote in The New York Times a couple months ago, "finding a higher purpose for boneless, skinless chicken breasts is a lifelong mission."
Like Julia, I do recognize the advantage of boneless, skinless chicken breasts: They're easy to cook, and they're a good source of lean protein. Off the bone, the breast is an ideal cut for weeknights (and for beginner cooks) due to its quick cooking time, whether you're pan-searing, deep-frying, or baking in the oven. Breasts can also be more affordable than you'd think, often on sale in "family packs" or by the case. At Costco, for instance, you can get a 40-pound case for $0.94/pound delivered right to your door. Even the average price of a regular pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is $2.09, according to the USDA, $1.89 if you're getting a value pack.
Eager to live, once and for all, in a new world of not-dry, not-stringy boneless, skinless chicken breasts, I turned to a few chefs to find out the "absolute best" way to cook them. This is obviously a subjective matter based heavily on opinion, but there were some common threads.
"The main question is how to impart flavor," Josh says. "Boneless, skinless chicken breasts cook quickly, so they won't taste of anything unless you marinate them beforehand or surround them with lots of flavor after they're done cooking. Marinate them overnight and make a very flavorful sauce to put on the chicken after it's cooked (curry, chicken Parm, that kind of thing)."
"Right, I think having a finishing sauce or vinaigrette adds a lot," Test Kitchen Chef Chris Robert adds.
"It's a tough one because most factory chickens taste so bland," Chris tells me, offering his workaround. "I like to cut them into half-inch cutlets, or 'steaks,' so that the cut is perpendicular to the grain. (This makes them much softer because the fibers have been shortened.) Then I dip one side in Wondra and sear in some butter or oil. And finish the other side. The Goldilocks-zone is really narrow. Pounding and breading them is good, too—crowd-pleaser right?"
I asked a couple of other chefs what they thought of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Contrary to popular belief, not all chefs are opposed to the cut—in fact, they had some helpful tricks to maximize the end result.
"Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are super easy to cook," chef-friend and Buzzfeed Food Writer Jesse Szewczyk says, "but they take a bit of planning to do right."
"First, you need to brine them," Jesse walks me through his process. "Chicken breasts are prone to drying out, so brining them helps retain some of their moisture. You can go down the traditional route and use a wet brine—which works well but takes up some serious fridge space—or you can use a dry brine that's a bit cleaner and less fuss." To do the latter:
It's important not to go by time, but by internal temperature when deciding how long to bake boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
"Chicken breasts are underrated—even boneless and skinless," cookbook author and Top Chef winner Kristen Kish says. "I grew up on chicken fingers from fast-food spots, and my dad would make homemade ones with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They really are the perfect vehicle. Give them a brine, batter them, and deep-fry them. My dad would mix mayo and Dijon for dipping, but a solid bottled ranch would do the trick, too."
In short, there may not be one, absolute best way to cook chicken breasts, but there are a few useful ways to ensure that they stay moist and delicious. I'm intrigued by the notion of brining them first before cooking, then pairing with a flavorful sauce to account for any lack of flavor due to them being, well, white meat.
But that's the benefit and beauty of the boneless, skinless chicken breast, isn't it? It's the ultimate blank canvas, tasting like whatever you add to it, whatever you want it to taste like. Perfect for when you're feeling creative in the kitchen.
In case you're still hungry:
What's YOUR favorite way to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts? Let us know in the comments below.