Chicken

I Finally Learned to Love Chicken Breasts, Thanks to My Slow Cooker

A little trick that changed my meal-prep game forever.

by:
April  5, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


Cooking for one, for me, doesn't always mean a single-serving recipe. Yes, it's deeply satisfying to cook exactly one portion of risotto for myself and to eat it in bed, straight out of the pan. But that's not the full picture, that's not real life.

As much as I love eating a perfectly cooked steak or one mugful of gooey peanut butter and jelly cake, real life means giving myself room, and permission, to sometimes cook once and eat for days. But on one condition: That big batch of whatever I've cooked must be transformed each time I eat it. There's nothing I hate more than eating the same thing for days on end, which is why I often think of my cooking less in recipes and more in strategy.

Take, for instance, a whole roast chicken. If I roast a chicken one night, then I can have some of it for dinner along with a nice side salad. The leftover meat will make for delicious lunches throughout the week, and the carcass, if I remember to save it, can become the most wonderful, fortifying Instant Pot chicken soup in the world.

I derive so much satisfaction from this kind of cooking. It feels in many ways like I'm cheating the system by cooking once, yet reaping all of the rewards over and over again after that initial work in the kitchen. It also happens to take the pressure off when, at the end of the day, all I'm really trying to do is feed myself.

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Top Comment:
“I'm also cooking for one and do pretty much the same as you with roast chicken although l often make a cheats naughty 'curry' with the leftovers. I reduce a bottle of cream with some curry powder, and frozen whole green beans then stir in shredded leftover chicken long enough to heat through. I portion up a serving of most meals l make and freeze it for something quick and tasty when l'm unwell or too tired.”
— Bella95
Comment

But I don't apologize for any of this because, again, this is real life—and sometimes, real life is hard. And there are times when cooking, too, can feel hard.

That said, I find that it's when I take a break from cooking that the itch to get back into the kitchen is strongest. It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy this way: I never let cooking become a chore, or else I'll grow to hate it. And I never want to grow to hate cooking because it's the one thing that gives me so much pleasure so much of the time.

I find that it's when I take a break from cooking that the itch to get back into the kitchen is strongest.

On days when I need something a little more hands-off, and with less clean-up, I turn to boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Full disclosure: I used to despise breast meat because of its dry, stringy texture, its terrible flavorless monotony, its unforgiving tendency to go from raw to overcooked in the blink of an eye. But when I started working in food, I learned what a demand there was for it (Google "chicken breast" and you'll get back more than 200 million search results).

The boneless, skinless chicken breast dinner: where flavor goes to die. (Or so I thought.) Photo by Rocky Luten

When I was last in Atlanta, I went to the store in search of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (my favorite cut of meat to cook and eat). But I couldn't find any. No dark meat at all, actually—none, whatsoever. Mind you, this was one of the largest grocery chains in the heart of the metropolis. There were, however, about six to seven different brands of packaged chicken breasts, ranging from budget family packs to the organic, grass-fed stuff. It was a blinding wall of white meat.

Who the hell is eating all of this? I thought to myself. (Everyone, apparently.)

In an effort to get over my disdain for it, I decided to make it my own personal mission to come up with an easy, forgiving way to cook chicken breasts so they're as juicy as thigh meat. For this I turned, as ever, to my trusty slow cooker, Hal (a name I gave him on the general principle that people named "Hal" are good, sturdy stock, reliable and well-dressed).

Good ol' Hal. Photo by Amazon

I've found that if I poach my chicken breasts low and slow in some milk with lemon and sage—à la Jamie Oliver's Chicken in Milk—then the meat will come out unutterably tender and moist. Even better if I add garlic here, or maybe swap out the sage for thyme or rosemary. What I love most about these slow-cooker chicken breasts is that they're really just a blueprint, never hard or fast in their rules of what flavors can join them in the hot tub.


How to Cook Chicken Breasts in the Crock-Pot

Ever since testing this method over and over to get the cooking time just right (one hour on the first side, then 30 minutes on the second side, or until the internal temperature reaches 165°F), this is now my favorite way to prep boneless, skinless chicken breasts for meals throughout the week. Thanks to my slow cooker, I end up with the softest, silkiest texture (which, again, sounds oxymoronic because breast meat tends to go dry and stringy most of the time).

But I'm convinced that the low heat here, along with the full tablespoon of salt (which almost quick-brines it, making it so juicy that water will come out when you squeeze it), contributes to a flawlessly cooked chicken breast.

I mean, just look at it:

You could eat one of these breasts for dinner as is with a little olive oil and lemon, or with your favorite condiment (I like spicy chile crisp or English mustard). After yoga during the week, I like to come home to a clean protein-and-veg dinner, which is where these slow-cooker chicken breasts come in, plus my latest obsession: broccolini. Its bitterness tastes so good to me against the sweet, herb-scented chicken.

Maybe you'll shred the rest of the chicken to add to your favorite soups, salads, or enchiladas. Or chop it up for the ultimate curry chicken salad.

Tender breast meat is the ideal base for curried chicken salad. Photo by Rocky Luten

My curried chicken salad is much spicier than most, thanks to a heaping tablespoon of curry powder and a pinch of cayenne pepper (but adjust according to the spiciness of your curry powder). Lots of crunchy celery goes in (because I love celery), along with halved red grapes for sweetness. For acid, feel free to use some juice from that lemon you just zested for the slow cooker.

To serve, I love to make sandwiches to take to work (or to the park), or I'll pack it in single-serving plastic containers to eat throughout the week in Little Gem lettuce cups, aka sucrine, or just simply on a plate with diced avocado. Whichever way you slice it, chicken makes for a pretty darn good solo lunch.

What's your favorite way to cook chicken breasts? Tell, tell in the comments.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

64 Comments

Monika April 18, 2019
Please can you write a cookbook? I love your approach and writing and everything sounds delicious! I can't wait to try this chicken, I'm an unapologetic chicken breast fan.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
Thank you so much, Monika.
 
Mimi G. April 16, 2019
These turned out to be (3 hours later) hard, tasteless rocks. Even using the chicken for other dishes is questionable. Very disappointed.
 
gourmet B. April 16, 2019
Obviously you overcooked them.
 
BeyondBrynMawr April 30, 2019
Maybe the 3 hours are the issue - the recipe says to cook on low for an hour, then flip and cook for another 30 minutes to an hour, so it looks like you might have almost doubled the cook time.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
So sorry to hear, Mimi. Yes, 3 hours is a very long time to cook chicken breasts, even in the slow cooker...
 
Beth April 16, 2019
Even though my chicken breasts had been in the freezer for about 10 months, they still came out juicy and tender with this method. Only thing I didn't like was the faintly tart taste of the sauce from the lemon. Next time I'll add more seasonings for more flavor and maybe a little honey or stevia to cut the tartness. Definitely the best way to cook them. In reading the comments, this recipe lends itself to infinite variations too.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
Love that idea, Beth!
 
Suzy S. April 14, 2019
I think Eric’s slow cooker is hotter than mine — 3 hours, and, though technically cooked, quite tough. Flavor was MUCH better than most ways I’ve had them. Next time, I will either plan for 4 hours on low, or slice them horizontally so they are thinner. But there will be a next time, because they were moist and had a lot of flavor.
 
Bella95 April 13, 2019
Thanks for this. I really don't use my slow cooker enough. Not a fan of poached meat but this does look good enough to try. My usual method with chicken breasts is to slice thinly and coat with parmesan, egg and breadcrumbs. Makes a chicken breast go a long way, they only take a minute to cook and are great cold in a sandwich too. I also mix the leftover egg, parm and breadcrumbs and add nutmeg to make passatelli in broth. Get a two course meal for not much cost and also waste nothing. Win, win. I'm also cooking for one and do pretty much the same as you with roast chicken although l often make a cheats naughty 'curry' with the leftovers. I reduce a bottle of cream with some curry powder, and frozen whole green beans then stir in shredded leftover chicken long enough to heat through. I portion up a serving of most meals l make and freeze it for something quick and tasty when l'm unwell or too tired.
 
Marilyn G. April 12, 2019
My favorite method of cooking chicken breasts is the Chinese ‘White Cut’ method of cooking chicken, where the chicken is poached to a moist and velvety texture.

Bring 2 qts of water or chicken broth to boil in a large pan that is large enough to hold the chicken pieces comfortably. Place chicken breasts, about an inch of peeled ginger, cut into ‘dime’ slices, and about two-three inches of sliced scallions stalk into the pan. Bring to boil again, cover tightly, reduce heat to medium, and cook without peeking for 15 minutes. Turn flame off, and allow to cool in cooking liquid for 20 minutes. Skin and bone the chicken, and you can either shred the chicken, or cut into cubes.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
So interesting! Thanks for the tip, Marilyn.
 
JOE R. April 11, 2019
Sous Vide! Makes for perfect breasts. Also great for precooking before frying.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
Sous vide is always great.
 
Helaine April 11, 2019
Eric, What’s your go to crock pot? I’m looking for a new one.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. August 5, 2019
Hi Helaine! I have this super lo-fi one: https://www.amazon.com/Hamilton-Beach-Cooker-3-Quart-33232/dp/B074T765LP

But it's from ages ago! There are some fancy-shmancy ones out there these days, if you're in the market: https://www.amazon.com/Crock-Pot-SCCPVL600S-6-Quart-Portable-Stainless/dp/B003HF6PUO?tag=food52-20 (This ones looks like the highest rated?)
 
Vikki S. April 8, 2019
Would this work with the chicken poached in coconut milk? That infused coconut milk would be delicious reused in a curry.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 8, 2019
Totally. In that case I’d use flavorings like lemongrass, ginger, cilantro stems. That does sound delicious!
 
Joanie922 April 7, 2019
Were you put off by the color or texture of the slow cooker chicken? Sounds odd, but sometimes the appearance of food will put me off from trying it.

Thanks for the chicken salad recipe. You may want to add slivered almonds that have been toasted in a bit of butter to the salad.

 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 7, 2019
Hm, I know what you mean, but these come out looking like regular poached chicken to me (because that's essentially what you're doing to them).

Buttered, toasted almonds sound incredible.
 
Joanie922 April 7, 2019
Based upon one of your other pieces about your love of roasted chicken (which I 100% agree with), I'm going to try this recipe.
 
Bella95 April 12, 2019
I have the same problem. There's something about the appearance of poached meat that l find utterly offputting. I'm thinking the flavour boost in these may be enough to convince me though.
 
Joanie922 April 13, 2019
Me too. Trying this weekend
 
Matt M. April 7, 2019
How would you store the chicken for meals throughout the week?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 7, 2019
Hello Matt, I like to keep them in individual pint containers in the fridge.
 
Gibson2011 April 7, 2019
I'm trying the opposite approach - In an effort to cut our grocery bill and always have bones for stock on hand, I'm trying to only buy whole chicken. I usually just roast it and shred it, but I need to mix things up.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 9, 2019
Smart move. Also, gotta love that chicken skin + fat.
 
Tamara April 6, 2019
Eric, thank you for being such a beautiful writer. For conveying how I think many of us feeling about cooking, and for also turning stereotypes on their heads. Reading your essays is like being with a wonderful friend who reminds you to take care of yourself and also to find magic in the small things. Thank you so much!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 9, 2019
Tamara! This made my day. Thank you.
 
Rochelle April 6, 2019
I may be the only person on the planet that doesn't own a slow cooker aka "Hal". But I am determined and am going to try using my Instant Pot's slow cooking function. Does anyone have any tips for this?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 6, 2019
I’ve tested this in the IP and it works great! Just use the ‘Slow Cook’ function on ‘Less.’ Same idea: 1 hr first side, 30 min second side.
 
delbor April 6, 2019
Sous vide. perfect every time.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 9, 2019
Would love to hear your process / what model you use.
 
Janice April 6, 2019
When you're in a hurry and have zero time to cook, put 2-3 boneless, skinless breasts in the bottom of a (ceramic) slow cooker and cover with about half a jar of your favorite salsa. 2.5 hours on HIGH (or whatever your favorite low setting happens to be). Last five minutes, smother with shredded sharp cheddar. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, rice, veggies, warm tortillas if desired, and the rest of the salsa, warmed. (The salsa in the cooker will break down and get watery.)
 
Janice April 6, 2019
2-3 chicken breasts in the bottom of a ceramic slow cooker. Dump about half a jar of your favorite red salsa over them (just enough to cover). 2.5 hours on high. Last five minutes, sprinkle shredded sharp cheddar over them, melt, and serve with a dollop of sour cream. It's my "I have zero time to cook today" go-to healthy recipe. Pair it with some Mexican or coconut rice and vegetables, and serve with extra, warmed salsa (as the slow-cooked salsa can get watery). Easiest recipe I know, less than a minute of prep time, and comes out perfectly.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 9, 2019
Sounds v yummy.
 
Louisd April 6, 2019
Hi,
What temperature do you set your slow cooker on? Thanks
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 6, 2019
Low!
 
boulangere April 6, 2019
I find that smaller, independent markets are dependable sources for skin-on bone-in pieces of chicken. That said, nothing could make me eat anything for an entire week. Regardless of the various iterations, chicken breast is chicken breast. As for, "the carcass, if I remember to save it..." Inconceivable.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 6, 2019
Chicken thighs are the best.
 
Terri April 7, 2019
I love baking a panful sprinkled heavily with Himalayan salt and pepper in a very hot 475° oven! The skin is amazing!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 9, 2019
Good tip!
 
marsha April 11, 2019
Use your freezer to store well labled dinners created by you in a hurry! Saves you from eating the same thing night after night
 
Paula April 6, 2019
I also really prefer to cook bone-in chicken pieces, but they are getting darn hard to find. I discovered dry-poaching about 18 months ago and it has become my go to for cooking b/l, s/l chicken breasts. I think your method would be a great option for those months where you don't want to even think about turning the oven on. Pinned for a couple months from now.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 6, 2019
I’d love for grocery stores to start carrying skin-on, boneless chicken breasts. It’s what I ask my butcher to do sometimes. Best of both worlds: crispy skin, convenient cooking/eating.