In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, tasted enough stuffing for 10 Thanksgivings, and mashed so many potatoes she may never mash one again. Today, she tackles the chicken breast.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts have a weird rap.
The high-protein, no-fun poultry cut has long been a scourge of the food industry—how does one coax flavor from fatless flesh?—and meanwhile, a clickbait boon. Which is to say, cheffy types badmouth the stuff, but lots of people love to eat it. Americans consume some billions of chickens each year.
And while dark meat is just beginning to outpace white meat in the U.S., home cooks have been breast-crazed for decades. Blame the late 20th-century fixation on low-fat foods, or blame chicken salad, or airline chicken breasts—just, dear god, don’t blame me.
The complexities of cooking one such boneless, skinless specimen are endless. An already withholding cut fat-wise, chicken breasts stripped of their skin and bone have the uncanny ability to go from still-pink to stringy and dry as cottonmouth in moments. And at a time when it’s clear that meat is playing a leading role in eviscerating the climate—chicken may have a lesser impact than beef and lamb, though it’s still got nearly three times the average impact of tofu—frankly, I’m trying to eat less of it. Which means that when I do, I want every bite of it to be really, really good.
So, how to ditch mediocre boneless, skinless chicken breast for good?
“Bin it!” suggested one reader after I put out a call for intel. Others were more helpful. Here, I’ve tested 14 cooking methods in pursuit of the juiciest breast with flavor so outsized, it could amortize a sink full of dishes.
The name of the game when dealing with chicken breasts is to avoid overcooking the meat. The middle name of the game is to warn your roommate that you’re cooking 28 of them, so he doesn’t walk in on you in your pajamas, surrounded by raw poultry at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I conducted two tests for each of the 14 methods, with breasts that were all roughly one inch at their thickest points. Before seasoning, I gave every breast a whack or two with a rolling pin to even them out for uniform cooking, without going full-on cutlet.
Unless otherwise noted, each breast was rubbed with the same quantity of olive oil and kosher salt. (Like most meats, boneless, skinless breasts would benefit from some foresight—aka, a brine or marinade—to amp up flavor. In these experiments, I skipped it in favor of a stripped-down comparison between test samples.)
How to know when chicken is “just cooked through,” as mentioned below? A couple ways: The most straightforward is to break out a thermometer. The FDA recommends 165 degrees Fahrenheit, though most cooks will guide you to quit cooking that thing closer to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you hate gadgets, or like me, can never find your thermometer in the chaos that poses as your appliances drawer, the juices running out from your chicken breast are a great visual indicator of doneness. Once they begin to run clear, you’re in the clear. And the most foolproof tools are, of course, your eyeballs. Use them to peek at the meat, sliced at the thickest part of the breast, to be certain the last traces of pink have just faded.
Now that that’s settled...
Oven-Roast at 425 Degrees Fahrenheit
The Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover sheet pan with parchment paper. Lay out seasoned chicken breasts on parchment. Roast in preheated oven for 13 to 18 minutes, until chicken is just cooked through.
Why It’s Great: Oven-roasted chicken breast isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but oh man is it juicy and tender! For filling a taco with sliced chicken, or slapping some onto a sandwich with spicy mayo and avocado, or really for any dish that doesn’t require top notch visual presentation of the breast, roasting at 425 degrees Fahrenheit is a super solid bet. Plus, it requires no special tools, and cleanup’s as simple as tossing a piece of parchment and remembering to turn off your oven.
Considerations: As with all of the winning methods in the “Juiciest” category, cooking a chicken breast this way results in little to no “crust.” Also, it takes about a half hour all-in, what with preheating, which is far from efficient if you’re just dealing with one breast and weeknight hanger.
The Method: Heat a large sauté pan over a medium-high flame. When hot, add about a tablespoon of oil. Swirl the pan so it’s lightly covered. Reduce the flame to medium. Add the chicken breasts. Cook undisturbed for about one minute. Flip the breasts and reduce heat to low. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and walk away. (Might I recommend feeding your pet?) After 10 minutes, cut the heat, but leave on the lid and set your timer for another 10 minutes. Walk away again. (Take your pet for a stroll??) After 10 minutes, check if it’s done—it should be just cooked through. (This method is adapted from The Kitchn.)
Why It’s Great: I was initially suspicious of this protocol, which forced me to futz with a timer more than once, but all hail juicy low-and-slow chicken breasts! The one-minute “sear” over a medium flame did pretty much nothing, crust-wise, but the cooked meat was so juicy, I forgot to complain about it.
Considerations: These breasts had marginally less flavor than the ones oven-roasted at 425 degrees, perhaps because all the lidded downtime caused some of their seasoning to steam off.
The Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut out two 12-ish-inch (look, I’m not a scientist) circles of parchment and fold in half. Place a seasoned chicken breast in each, and working from one end, begin tightly folding and crimping the edges of top and bottom halves of parchment paper together to form a seal, so you end up with two sealed packets, each containing one breast. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until puffed, about 14 to 18 minutes, checking to make sure chicken’s just cooked through before serving.
Why It’s Great: Cooking anything in its own personal parchment pouch presents the chance to say “en papillote” over and over again in an exaggerated French accent, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg! In addition to producing an extremely succulent, gently cooked chicken breast, the method allows for all sorts of flavor enhancements—toss some rosemary and lemon in the packet, for example. Add sliced garlic below the breasts. Throw teeny boiled potatoes in with the meat before sealing the packet, and they’ll cook in its juices as it roasts.
Considerations: The major drawback to cooking a boneless, skinless chicken breast en papillote is that that you can’t rely on your eyeballs, or a thermometer, to know when it’s time to unwrap. And given that the B-less, S-less breast is a cut with very little wiggle room, you’ve really got to trust your oven temp consistency and experience to know when each one will be ready to roll (sorry).
The Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over a high flame. When hot, add two tablespoons of high heat-friendly oil, heat until shimmering. Add the chicken breasts and sear for about five minutes, without moving, until there’s a nice crust developing. Flip, and place skillet in oven. Roast another six to 10 minutes, until just cooked through.
Why It’s Great: This method produced chicken of true beauty—breasts that looked as though they had not only a layer of skin, but a layer of skin that grew crisp and glistening with every moment it spent near a heat source. This was a welcome sight amidst a day of greyish, beige-ish flesh. If you’re looking for “crust” (despite paradoxically using a cut with no fatty skin to speak of), Stovetop-to-Oven’s the way to go. The resulting breasts are less juicy than the En Papillote, Stovetop Low-and-Slow, and Oven-Roast at 425 Degrees, but nowhere near as tight, dry, or shreddy as the Stovetop Sear or Broil. Due to their winsome appearance, they could respectably appear front and center on a dinner plate, or sliced over a salad.
Considerations: Things got splattery in the oven, which was smokey and annoying to clean.
The Method: Place a heavy sauté pan like a Dutch oven over a high flame for a couple minutes, until hot. Add two tablespoons of oil, and heat until shimmering. Turn the flame to medium-high and sear seasoned chicken breasts on each side for a couple of minutes, without jostling, to get nice browning. Remove breasts and set aside. Add two-ish cups chicken broth (depending on pan size) to deglaze—scrape up brown bits—then add chicken breasts back. They should be partially submerged. Let liquid come to a rolling simmer, turn flame to medium-low, cover, and braise about 10 minutes, until chicken is just cooked through.
Why It’s Great: There are a few key benefits to braising boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The first is that it produces chicken that’s nowhere near dry, since it’s soaked through with liquid. (That said, the meat wasn’t particularly tender.) The second is that depending on what you use to braise—tomato paste, chile flakes, and crushed tomatoes in liquid, for example, or mushrooms, butter, white wine, and broth—you could end up with a complete, servable meal, including a pan sauce enhanced by the flavor leftover from browning the meat. And finally, should you accidentally overcook your chicken by a minute or two, you can use two forks to shred in its sauce, like a chicken tinga or meaty chili, and no one will be the wiser.
Considerations: Despite early browning, you will not end up with a crust on the breasts by the end of your braise. Also, it’s certainly not hands-off, with the chicken entering and exiting the situation no less than three times.
The Method: Combine two chicken breasts, four cups water or chicken broth, two teaspoons to one tablespoon kosher salt, and cracked pepper in a medium pot over a medium flame. (This is where you’d add things like garlic cloves and herbs, or swap out some of the water/broth for soy sauce, or verjus—were you doing anything saner than cooking 28 chicken breasts for your column.) Let the liquid come to a simmer, about 10 to 15 minutes. Once it’s at a simmer, reduce flame to low and cook another 10 minutes or so, until the breast is just cooked through.
Why It’s Great: The breasts poached in chicken broth had the absolute chickeniest flavor of all the trials—no easy feat for boneless meat. They were, of course, well-moistened (don’t you dare @ me) all the way through, though as with the braised breasts, not quite as tender as some of the other methods. Had I skimmed the top, added a few chopped carrots and egg noodles, and shredded the meat, I could’ve been well on my way to a perfectly good weeknight soup. The breasts poached in just water, salt, and pepper were fine, but in the absence of any added aromatics or flavoring implements, I wouldn’t repeat them.
Considerations: I’ve never met a less crispy piece of meat.
Butterflied, Pounded, and Pan-Seared
The Method: With a sharp knife, horizontally halve the chicken breast almost all the way—but stop right before you reach the seam. Open each breast like a book. Cover with parchment or plastic wrap and use a rolling pin (or whatever, honestly) to pound the breast until it’s about one-centimeter (or just under a half-inch) thick. Oil and season. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat. When it’s very hot, add one tablespoon high heat-friendly oil. Now add one chicken breast. Cook for one to two minutes per side, until browned all over and the chicken is cooked through. Repeat with the remaining oil and chicken breast. (This method is adapted from Emma Laperruque’s 3-Minute Chicken Breasts.)
Why It’s Great: All rise to meet the method that yields uncomplicated, cooked chicken in under 10 minutes, prep included. (That’s less time than it takes me to get dressed most mornings, granted I don’t consistently brush my hair!) These breasts turned out to be fairly juicy from the expedient cook—though not nearly as tender as I’d expected from all of the pounding. They were only as tender as the En Papillote, Stovetop Low-and-Slow, and Oven-Roast at 425 Degrees breasts. Each side got some color, but not enough to mimic a crust for visual appeal when serving, since they were seared for less than two minutes per side. Flavor-wise, they were top of the heap, thanks to a greater surface area that enabled more seasoning. Have I mentioned I love salt???
Considerations: Given the nature of these experiments, I did not test a breaded cutlet—however, breading would’ve brought these flat boys to the next level.
The Method: Arrange seasoned chicken breasts on microwave-safe plate, with thickest parts closer to outside edges of plate. Cover the top of the dish with wax paper or plastic wrap, and cook on high five minutes. Check doneness, and as needed, cook longer on high until just cooked through.
Why It’s Skippable: Unless you like your meat seized and shrunken, like the fist of a frustrated giant, look away.
The Method: Place the seasoned breasts in a single layer in the slow cooker. Add about 4 cups of chicken broth, or enough to cover them. Cook on low for 1 hour, then flip the chicken and cook for an additional 30 minutes to 1 hour, until just cooked through.
Why It’s Skippable: Ninety minutes later, you get some tough chicken.
The Method: Pat chicken dry—no oil!—and season all over. Seal in a sous vide–safe bag, one that’s airtight, and sous-vide one hour at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Finish for a couple minutes per side in a very hot skillet with some high heat-friendly oil.
Why It’s Skippable: Despite offering the most give when gently poked, these objectively tender breasts had an odd, unappetizing internal texture. And they took over an hour in total, plus fancy machinery, to make. Next time, I might try an even lower temp for longer (please take your gripes elsewhere, food-safety police).
Oven-Roast at 350 Degrees Fahrenheit
The Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover sheet pan with parchment paper. Lay out seasoned chicken on parchment. Bake chicken in preheated oven for 20 to 24 minutes minutes, until it’s just cooked through.
Why It’s Skippable: While the flavor wasn’t bad, the internal texture was too tight, reminiscent of a clenched muscle. It gave off about twice as much liquid as the Oven-Roast at 425 Degrees breasts, which could explain the resulting dry, shreddy texture.
The Method: Heat a large cast-iron skillet over a high flame. When quite hot, add two tablespoons of high heat-friendly oil. Let it heat until shimmering. Add the chicken breasts and cook for five to six-ish minutes, until there’s a really nice crust. Flip, and cook another five to six-ish minutes, until it’s just cooked through.
Why It’s Skippable: These breasts look delicious when all is said and done, but looks can be deceiving. And in this case, you should prepare to bite into something with all the moisture, give, and tenderness of a hockey puck.
The Method: Preheat broiler on high. Move oven rack up to highest position, closest to broiler. Lay out seasoned chicken on a broiler-safe rimmed pan. Broil for 5 to 8 minutes or so, depending on broiler intensity, until just cooked through.
Why It’s Skippable: These breasts can be best summarized as oddly bouncy, and kind of a bummer. The delicious crust achieved via broiler was noteworthy, but you’d be better off using the Stovetop-to-Oven technique if it’s crust you’re after.
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