Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Chicken Breasts, According to 28 Tests

Our columnist Ella Quittner tackles the polarizing issue of going boneless-skinless without going flavorless.

January 18, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Then I add chicken breasts directly to the cookie sheet (usually with a dry rub of sorts) and broil it for about 3-5 minutes or so per side, depending on thickness. It turns out juicy and beautifully golden brown every time, and I avoid oil splatters all over my counter and oven (which always happens when I pan sear). ”
— Emily
Comment

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.


Controls

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...


For the Juiciest Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

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.

Stovetop Low-and-Slow

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.

En Papillote

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).

Photo by Ty Mecham; Food Styling: Anna Billingskog; Props: Brooke Deonarine

For the Best "Crust" on a Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

Stovetop-to-Oven

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.


For the Halfway-to-Dinner Approach to Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

Braise

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.

Poach

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.


For the Most Efficient Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

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.


Methods to Skip with a Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

Microwave

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.

Slow Cooker

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.

Sous Vide

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.

Stovetop Sear

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.

Broil

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.


What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

65 Comments

BOUBOUNNE May 19, 2020
La meilleure façon de cuire les blancs de poulet c'est de les cuire au four dans une cocotte comme indiqué dans la méthode à la poêle et au four ,la cocotte recouverte d'un couvercle lequel sur sa face intérieure seras enduit de beurre en pommade,le beurre aromatise ou non de pastis ,d'herbes de Provence,de curry,des ingrédients du beurre d'escargot ,je vous laisse vôtre imagination pour trouver un arôme qui vous plait.
Bon appétit
 
Merci ( What you Said )
 
Cathy O. April 30, 2020
I tried the Stovetop Low-And-Slow. It was perfect! Found a new way to cook boneless skinless chicken breasts.
 
c March 3, 2020
Well you missed the *very best way* to cook a chicken breast. On the grill. (We have a Outdoor Chef kettle grill ambri 480 and have the funnel small end up. https://www.barbecue-smoker-recipes.com/outdoor-chef-ambri.html)
At 3-4 minutes per side (depending upon the thickness of the thickest part) on medium with the lid on and chicken breasts are always juicy perfection. You don't even have to worry about the difference in thickness of the breast. It has great browning, is juicy and perfect *every* time.
 
[email protected] March 2, 2020
Google interesting thoughts about tenderizing Chicken breasts "Use of Baking Soda in Asian
Cooking of Chicken Breasts"
 
Dana March 7, 2020
I tried it and it actually works! It is supposed to work on beef, too. I'm going to give that a try next.
 
[email protected] March 2, 2020
Here's another thought about the tenderness of Chicken breasts
Search Results
Featured snippet from the web
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For every 250g/8oz chicken breast strips or pieces, toss with 3/4 tsp baking soda (bi-carb) Marinate for 20 minutes. Rinse well under running water, pat with paper towel to remove excess water. Cook per chosen recipe and marvel at the most tender chicken breast you've ever had, just like at Chinese restaurants!!!Feb 23, 2019

Velveting Chicken - Chinese restaurant secret to tenderise ...www.recipetineats.com › Stir fries
 
meathead March 1, 2020
The color of the juices or meat cannot tell you when chicken is safe. The color depend on other things than temperature. Even pH can impact the color. Here is the science. https://amazingribs.com/more-technique-and-science/more-cooking-science/myth-chicken-ready-when-juices-run-clear-and-why

The fact is that chicken has a high rate of contamination and the one and only way to tell if it is safe is with a thermometer.
 
Christopher D. March 1, 2020
From my experience, brining the chicken (same goes for turkey) is as important as the cooking method to have the poultry remain moist. I do a dry brine; I mix salt (1 teaspoon for each pound of meat) with other herbs and spices, then rub it on all sides. It's best to brine 3 days before cooking, however in a pinch 2 days will do.
 
pconlan March 1, 2020
Did you try an airfyer? My cutlets come out so moist and cooked fine. I spray them with sesame oil.
 
Leslie V. March 2, 2020
I wrote about Air Frying It is the best.
 
carol March 1, 2020
Boneless breast of chicken is bad news these days. Its often got a weird rubbery taste. I can't even buy it anymore. I think thigh sales have soared because boneless breast is so bad. Google it. There's a problem with production.
 
Leslie V. March 2, 2020
carol did you know some chicken is shipped to China for processing and shipped back? I contacted both Fred Meyer( Kroger) and Foster Farms WEST Coast companies and they assured me NO Never does their chicken go to China..All processed here and shipped to stores. You might call your market and ask.
 
Gabby March 1, 2020
Are you to bring the chicken to room temp like you would beef? Or straight from the fridge is best?
 
GF March 2, 2020
Gabby, that’s a good question. If I have marinated my chicken in the fridge and I’m not in a hurry, I might let it sit at room temp (covered) for 5-10 minutes at the most while preparing the parchment/pan, chopping veggies, etc.. I have cooked it chilled though, and never noticed any difference.
 
Gabby March 2, 2020
Thank you!
 
GF March 1, 2020
After too many sad attempts at cooking chicken breasts over the years, I finally found my go-to method. I apply my seasoning/marinade (anything goes), do a light stovetop sear - THEN finish the chicken en papillote. I use parchment “purses”, on a baking sheet, at 350 degrees for 20 minutes (or so). Works for me every time.
 
Mathieu G. March 1, 2020
What I love to do is to marinatw the chicken in kefir or buttermilk, with spices, salt, pepper, garlic and onions. It always comes super tender, being cooked either with a pan, on a grill or in the oven!
 
PETER S. March 1, 2020
Sous vide is guaranteed to give the most moist breast. When I was in cooking school, my first assignment as to saute a boneless skinless breast. Giving it fierce attention, I got it right - best one I have ever had! It is possible, but demanding to get it right without sous vide, but why?
 
Arthur J. March 1, 2020
Deep frying unhealthy? From time to time one should throw caution to the wind and just enjoy! For the rare deep fryer, the Fry Daddy sells for under twenty bucks. It’s a whole lot easier and cheaper to use than your sous vide setup. Close your eyes and live a little! Eat some lethal French fries. Eat some heavenly fried scallops. Go for it! Good grief!
 
eirroc March 1, 2020
For Stovetop-To-Oven, could a sheet of parchment paper be laid over the top of the chicken in the oven to minimize splatter? Or would that trap moisture and ruin the crust?
 
Wendy S. March 1, 2020
What's the best way to cook green beans?
 
Nancy O. March 1, 2020
Doing sous vide correctly is the BEST! Check some of the sous vide sites for directions, (Sous vide chicken breast search term) basically - you season(or not) , bag it, 1-2 hr at 140-145 F. You will have The most tender sweet and delicious chicken ever! No browning needed-searing just makes the unprotected skin tough. If the texture is off it could have been the chicken itself. I have had only 1 breast with an off texture. If you vacuum seal then ice bath, the sealed chicken stays amazingly fresh all week. Just open bag, and chop or slice for desired use Sous vide is the best at giving perfect, sweet, tender, moist chicken.
 
Levike2 March 1, 2020
Great job, Ella. Thanks for another comprehensive study. This definitely will change my approach to chicken breasts going forward.
 
Djay March 1, 2020
Or, better yet, eat chicken thighs.
 
cookbookchick March 1, 2020
Exactly!
 
Djay March 1, 2020
Chicken breasts? Not my favorite. But, if I must, the only method I've found that results in a juicy breast is to bake them in a covered pan almost like tandoori chicken which is the only juicy chicken I've encountered. There's no crust, but who cares.