Chicken

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Chicken Breasts, According to 4 Chefs

Once and for all.

by:
November 12, 2018
Photo by James Ransom

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.

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Top Comment:
“Now about chicken. I don't know if I'm channeling my mom, or we just have a good oven, but my got-to seasoning is kosher salt, ground black pepper, onion powder and tons of sweet paprika. It forms this lovely crust almost as if it was skin on. ”
— Cindee W.
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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 "Breast" Way to Cook Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Photo by James Ransom

Marinate them, then sauce for extra measure

"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.

Cut them (against the grain) into cutlets

"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."

Brine them (so they retain moisture), then bake

"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:

  • Place your chicken breasts on a wire rack over a sheet tray and sprinkle generously with salt and sugar. Leave them uncovered in the fridge overnight.
  • The next day, brush off any excess dry brine and pat them off with paper towels. (This will help them brown nicely.) Season with whatever spices you want and sear them in a super hot pan with a bit of oil.
  • Once browned, flip them and transfer into a hot oven (about 350°F) to finish cooking. "If you were to cook them completely in the pan," Jesse tells me, "the outside might get overcooked before the inside cooks through. You want them to reach an internal temperature of 165°F, keeping in mind that they will continue cooking once you take them out of the oven. I usually take mine out around 160°F and let them finish cooking on the counter."

It's important not to go by time, but by internal temperature when deciding how long to bake boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

When in doubt, batter and fry them

"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:


Our Best Chicken Breast Recipes

What's YOUR favorite way to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts? Let us know in the comments below.

31 Comments

Shirley B. December 5, 2018
Why are you cooking with factory-raised chicken?<br />
 
Abigail December 5, 2018
Shirley, as much as I’m sure everyone would love to cook with pasture raised chicken, it’s just not a realistic goal for many of us. Unfortunately in some areas those cuts can be as much as four times as expensive as their factory counterparts. For those experiencing food insecurity that extra money can be better spent purchasing other food or maybe some vegetables to round out the meal. It shouldn’t be, you’re absolutely right, but pasture raised chicken is somewhat of a luxury.
 
Shirley B. December 5, 2018
Yes, the price of pasture-raised chicken is prohibitive for far too many people. But let’s not ignore the fact that Food52 sells butter warmers for $50 and dish towels @ $17.50 (plus shipping). Do we really think that many of its readers are experiencing food insecurity? It seems to me that the least the most fortunate among us can do is educate ourselves about the very real environmental and health hazards that factory farming creates, and advocate for safe and delicious food for everyone. Brining our poultry to disguise its shortcomings falls short of the mark.
 
Shirley December 1, 2018
Chicken Marsala is a favorite one of mine. Excited to try the other recipes out too. The tip on brining is something I had forgotten. My grandmother did this often with her meats.
 
OnyxIsTops November 28, 2018
I feel rather badly for these comments, as there are so many that are appreciative of these suggestions. For as long as I can remember my mom preparing chicken, my favorite has always been boneless chicken breast. I never found it bland or not flavorful. I am not a fan of the thigh and leg meat, and as you mentioned it is a matter of preference or opinion. My sister only likes the darker meat. It may have been sheer luck, as my mom is not a great cook. About ten years ago my brother showed me how he filets breasts, as you mentioned; and it was even better, especially easier with the larger breasts that you may get in bulk or at a club store (ie BJs or Costco). I make a variety of marinades for our company picnic each year. Most likely they include some salt so that may be similar to the brine you mention, but I always get huge raves and I don't think that is just because they like me, because I know they don't as the evil accounting woman. LOL. My brother also cooked chicken breast in a slow cooker to make it part of a burrito buffet. It was out of this world. He used only salt and pepper and then shredded the very tender meat as an option to add to our bowls. Thanks for reading and thank you for your post.
 
OnyxIsTops November 28, 2018
Ah! I forgot...using a meat mallet has always been a go to for me as well. I have used wax paper rather than plastic wrap. It worked well for me.
 
Sairah B. November 29, 2018
I agree 100% with your sentiment—I can't do the dark meat that everyone has been pushing as of late, either. The chicken flavor is overwhelming and gross (slightly gamey, maybe?) and I'm just not a fan. Never had issues with BSCB.
 
Hannah November 28, 2018
If you live in a large Metropolitan area, you will be able to find any cut of chicken already brined. Just look for Kosher chicken. Brining is one of the components of koshering and the science behind why Kosher chickens are so delicious. You don’t have to be Jewish to buy Kosher meat and chicken😉
 
Holly November 28, 2018
Sarah Leah Chase 'poaching' method in Nantucket,Open House Cooking only way for me as unless making a chicken salad I am solely bone in thighs, backs, neck, popes nose or livers gal ☺
 
Cindee W. November 14, 2018
First- Eric...your columns are absolutely delightful! I'm so glad I found you! <br />Now about chicken. I don't know if I'm channeling my mom, or we just have a good oven, but my got-to seasoning is kosher salt, ground black pepper, onion powder and tons of sweet paprika. It forms this lovely crust almost as if it was skin on.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Aw, what a lovely comment. Thank you, Cindee. That chicken sounds right up my alley; I adore paprika on chicken.
 
Eric B. November 13, 2018
Best ... sous vide. Pre-season, marinate if you want, add some fresh herb to the bag, cook to suit. Afterwords, if desired, finish quickly in. Hot pan (sear) for added Msillard flavor.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Sous vide is a must for chicken breasts. Do you use a stick?
 
Eric B. November 14, 2018
Joule.<br />
 
Mari O. November 13, 2018
Poached in strong chicken broth, sliced, served on green salad with red grapefruit supremes, avocado, red onion and a slightly sweet poppyseed dressing.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Oh, yum. What a lovely, light chicken breast meal.
 
Jackie November 13, 2018
If you use an instant pot, the chicken does not dry out. I have made some of my most flavor filled meals this way.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 13, 2018
What a great idea, Jackie.
 
So S. November 12, 2018
Reading this article, I JUST realized my mom has never once made a chicken dish for us, though she makes chicken soup (the Chinese way: 1 whole chicken she had a friend butcher for her and defeather that morning, ginger, dry bamboo shoots, scallions, salt) at least 2 times a week.... Wild<br /><br />I don't like to bake chicken breast since im too scared it'll dry out.... I recently made chicken francese with my leftover breasts after brining them in Thomas Keller's recipe for fried chicken brine (I had made fried chicken with the dark meat) and it was actually surprisingly juicy
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 13, 2018
Yum. Chicken francese is exactly what Julia Moskin says is the "single best thing to cook with chicken breasts"! https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/25/dining/chicken-francese.html
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 13, 2018
And aw, your mom's chicken soup sounds like mine's.
 
So S. November 13, 2018
I agree! I want to try butter chicken next though... I was watching Matty Mathesons cooking video for Munchies and I've been convinced https://youtu.be/G6Qjf6IyclQ?t=288
 
So S. November 13, 2018
It's the classic chicken soup!!!!!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Seriously!
 
Janet K. November 29, 2018
How about a recipe for your mother's chicken soup? May God strike me dead, I'm Jewish and that chicken soup unless it has matzoh balls in it, does not do much for me. My husband is Dutch and doesn't like matzoh balls. A Chinese chicken soup even with boring American chickens would be great.
 
Jim November 12, 2018
I cook those delicious chicken breasts on my George Forman grill for aprx 15 minutes after I season them, then shake in a bread bag with seasoned flour and corn starch then rub them with olive oil. So tender and juicy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2018
Delicious!
 
Erin A. November 12, 2018
I have fallen victim to dry, leathery chicken breasts so many times! Honestly this a godsend. I plan on testing each one of these. Up first: batter and fry.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2018
Same. I have a couple chicken breasts brining in my fridge as we speak! Can't wait to go home and pan-roast them.
 
Irene Y. November 12, 2018
Heh I totally do the chicken breast cutlet trick above for my solo dinners ;)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 12, 2018
Huzzah.