Moist, evenly cooked meat
Simple, foolproof method
Every time I throw together a salad with chicken using whatever leftover meat I have on hand, I think of what Rodney Dangerfield would say: The chicken don't get no respect.
Corny as that sounds, the chicken tastes exactly like what it is: an afterthought. Straight from the refrigerator, the once flavorful, juicy meat seems dry and dull as cotton (see “Give Cold Chicken the Cold Shoulder” to understand why). Allowing the chicken to come up to room temperature helps, but unless you're using poached chicken, it's never going to be optimally moist.
Here's why: Poaching is much gentler than dry-heat methods such as searing, roasting, and grilling. While the cooler cooking temperature doesn't create a browned crust, it does let the meat retain moisture and fat that would be squeezed out by other cooking methods. And when it's done well, the results are incredibly succulent and clean-tasting, providing the ideal blank slate for tossing with greens and a flavorful dressing.
Give Cold Chicken the Cold Shoulder
If you poach the chicken ahead of time and chill it, be sure to let it come to room temperature before using it in one of our salads. That’s because cold meat tastes less juicy and flavorful than meat that’s warm or at room temperature.
Here’s Why: Juiciness and flavor in meat are not just a function of moisture but also of fat and of salivation. When meat is cold, the moisture is gelled and the fat is firm, so neither flows as freely. Less flavor is released, so you also salivate less. In addition, the solidification of the juices means that the muscle fibers don’t slide against each other as easily during chewing, which gives the meat a tougher, stringier texture.
The Poach Approach
A while back, we came up with a simple approach to poaching that reliably produces flavorful, succulent meat. It's based on the principles of sous vide cooking, a technique in which vacuum-sealed foods are submerged in a water bath that's been preset to the food's ideal cooked temperature. But here, we place the chicken in a steamer basket set in a pot of water, bring the water to a subsimmer temperature of 175 degrees, and remove the pot from the burner so that the water's residual heat gently cooks the meat.
I gave it a try with four boneless, skinless breasts and salted water. It took about 15 minutes to bring the liquid up to 175 degrees, at which point I shut off the heat and let the chicken linger in the steamy water until the meat registered 160 degrees.
Dressed for Success
One of the cardinal rules of meat cookery is letting the cooked meat rest before cutting into it. This allows the muscle fibers to relax and reabsorb the flavorful juices. Typically, I would let boneless, skinless breasts rest for about 5 minutes, which would give some of the juices time to redistribute before the chicken gets cold. But since my goal was exceptionally moist meat, and because I intended my salads to be served at room temperature, I let the meat rest longer. Why? Picture slicing into hot chicken that has rested for just a few minutes: What you see is a stream of vapor escaping from the cut side, which is moisture. Giving the chicken a good 10 to 15 minutes to cool ensured that more of the moisture would stay locked in the meat.
I was now ready to use the chicken in salad. I'd been eager to work up a version of the classic Sichuan dish called bang bang chicken, a staff favorite in which finely shredded meat is tossed with a dressing made of chili oil, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, and black vinegar and then combined with napa cabbage, scallions, celery, and cilantro. When I tossed the fragrant dressing with the chicken, I realized that there were two subtle but significant techniques built into this dish that guaranteed bold flavor: First, shredding the meat instead of cutting it into chunks, as I typically would for chicken salad, created loads of surface area that allowed the dressing to thoroughly soak into the meat and give every bite maximum flavor. Second, dressing the meat by itself before pairing it with the other components ensured that every piece was completely coated.
I applied those lessons to two other bold-tasting salads: a shredded Thai-style chicken-mango version freshened with lots of herbs and spooned into lettuce cups, and a quick chicken Caesar salad, for which I thinly sliced the meat to maximize its surface area.
It didn't take much to give chicken the respect it deserves, and I could taste the difference.
Keys to Success
Moist, evenly cooked meatPounding the chicken to a uniform thickness ensures that the meat cooks at the same rate, and poaching it in a steamer basket that's submerged in a pot of salted water keeps the chicken off the floor of the pot, where it would heat unevenly.
Judicious seasoningPoaching the chicken in salted water produces clean-tasting, well-seasoned meat.
Simple, foolproof methodBringing the water to 175 degrees ensures that it stays hot enough to fully cook the chicken. Shutting off the heat, covering the pot, and letting the chicken finish cooking in the salted water's residual heat guarantees that the meat doesn't overcook.