Juicy, Well-Seasoned Meat
Golden-Brown, Crispy Skin
Simple Sauce Options
Choosing boneless, skinless chicken breasts over less expensive bone-in breasts is like paying extra for a car that has had its air bags removed. You’re spending more for less protection. Boneless, skinless breasts are entirely exposed to the heat during cooking, and the bare meat turns leathery as it dries out. But bone-in chicken breasts, with skin on one side and bone on the other, have protection built right in. What’s more, the crispy, nicely browned skin of roasted chicken adds flavor and textural contrast.
Bone-in breasts have only one problem that I can see: People view the bone and skin as a complication rather than an asset. In fact, in my research I couldn’t find a single recipe for how to actually cook them well. I resolved to devise an easy method that would deliver juicy, well-seasoned meat and crispy brown skin.
I started with the simplest approach. I placed four bone-in breasts on a rimmed baking sheet, sprinkled them with salt, and roasted them in a 425-degree oven. In 25 minutes, they had reached the target temperature of 160 degrees, and the skin was crackly and brown. But the meat was quite dry, especially at the narrow end of each breast, and the seasoning had not penetrated beyond the surface. Lowering the oven temperature to 375 helped: The narrow ends of the breasts weren’t as dry, and the chicken was slightly juicier. The skin was still flabby and pale, but I’d deal with that later.
Three Strikes and You’re Out
Why buy bone-in chicken breasts? First, the crisped skin adds flavor and nice textural contrast. Second, bone-in breasts are far less expensive than boneless. Finally, unlike boneless, skinless breasts, which have no barrier against drying out, bone-in breasts have built-in protection (skin and bone), making them more foolproof to cook.
Since the more moderate oven had produced juicier meat, how about dropping the temperature more drastically? I decided to try the reverse-sear technique, a method we often use with steaks. We cook the meat in a low oven until it reaches the desired temperature and then sear it in a skillet on the stovetop. The interior stays incredibly juicy, while the oven-dried exterior browns quickly, with little mess and minimal chance of overcooking the meat just beneath the surface.
After poking holes in the skin to help the fat render, I baked the next batch of chicken in a 250-degree oven. When it reached 160 degrees, I placed the pieces skin side down in a hot skillet. After 3 minutes, the skin was brown and supercrispy. The meat was terrifically moist, too. I noted just two problems: There was zero seasoning once you got past that beautiful skin. And that stint in the oven? It was 1 hour and 45 minutes long.
A cooking time approaching 2 hours was not an option, so I ran through several tests to find the temperature that would produce juicy chicken in a reasonable amount of time. The sweet spot was 325 degrees for about 40 minutes.
The meat was juicy and the skin was crispy, but the chicken still tasted bland. I had hoped to forgo pretreatments like salting and brining because I didn’t want to add time to the recipe. My technique was working so well that I could get away with skipping the salt for its moisture-retaining effect, but I realized that I did need it for seasoning. Before putting the next batch in the oven, I carefully peeled back the skin on each breast and sprinkled 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt over all four before smoothing the skin back into place. After 40 minutes in the oven and a quick sear on the stovetop, this was the juiciest and most flavorful batch yet.
As for the searing, I found that there was often a small amount of collected moisture hiding underneath the skin, which caused the chicken to splatter alarmingly when I placed it in a smoking-hot skillet. Rather than try to remove the moisture (and possibly mar the skin in the process), I kept the heat low until the chicken was safely transferred and then turned it up. By the time the pan was hot enough to splatter, the hidden water had evaporated.
Except for the salting at the beginning and the quick sear at the end, my method was pretty much hands-off. That left me with time to make a sauce, which I could put together, start to finish, while the chicken was in the oven. Because chicken breast meat is quite lean, I would base the sauce on a rich ingredient: mayonnaise. Jalapeño and lime added zing while cilantro lent some freshness. With that, I had a sauce that was as uncomplicated to prepare as the chicken.