Have you ever had a dried out, stringy, flavorless chicken breast?
Everyone reading this story probably has, and here’s why: It’s because the breast needed to be treated like white meat, but was in fact handled like dark meat: Cooked over high heat for an extended period of time, braised, or cooked to a high internal temperature.
The list of crimes is long and the list of chicken breast criminals even longer. But you needn’t be among them! Read on (or watch the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan?) to learn everything you need to know to make perfect, flavorful, tender, juicy, delicious breasts every time.
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1. White Meat vs. Dark Meat
To understand chicken breast, you first need to understand the difference between white meat and dark meat.
The color difference between a chicken breast and a chicken thigh is largely due to the amount of myoglobin found in each. Myoglobin is a dark-red oxygen-binding protein that provides a rich source of oxygen to muscles that do strenuous and continuous activity.
Chicken thighs contain more myoglobin and therefore appear darker than chicken breasts, which do short bursts of work with plenty of time in between to refuel on oxygen.
More myoglobin tells me that this muscle does continuous work. In order to do that work, those muscles need fat for fuel. That means it has a richer flavor, because fat is flavorful.
That continuous work also demands supportive connective tissue, particularly collagen. Collagen is a triple helix protein that unwinds into strands of moisture binding gelatin through extended cooking.
All we need to see is the color of the meat and we know we want to cook it long enough that the collagen dissolves into gelatin and the meat turns tender and juicy.
The opposite is true for white meat. Less myoglobin tells me this muscle does short bursts of activity, doesn't contain much flavorful fat, and lacks collagen that can dissolve into gelatin over a long cook time.
It needs to be cooked to as low of a temperature as possible to retain natural moisture and keep muscle fibers from toughening up.
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2. How to Prep Juicy Chicken Breasts
Cooking juicy, tender chicken breasts starts before you turn on the heat. Here are four simple preparation tactics that can make a huge difference.
Applying salt to muscle proteins changes their structure, allowing them to hold on to more moisture.
Method: Sprinkle kosher salt on a breast and let it sit. Doing this early is best, as it takes time for salt to move. You want at least 45 minutes, but 4 hours to overnight is ideal.
Soak in a Brine
The salt in brine seasons the chicken and promotes a change in its protein structure, reducing its overall toughness and creating gaps that fill up with water and keep the meat juicy and flavorful.
Brining can work faster than salting and can also result in juicier lean cuts since it adds, versus merely retains, moisture.
Method: Combine 1 1/2 quarts water and 3 tablespoons of salt (I also add an equal amount of sugar as I like that balance of flavor, but it’s cook’s choice) and whisk until dissolved. Add breasts and let sit for 30 minutes to an hour.
Make a Salty Marinade
Something like fish sauce provides plenty of salt, as well as glutamates, which provide meaty intensity.
Method: Combine breasts and a marinade of water, fish sauce, honey, salt, and pepper in a sealable bag. Press out the air, seal and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Use Baking Soda
Add baking soda to meat is a common technique in Chinese cooking—it raises the pH of the chicken where it touches the surface. That prevents proteins from squeezing together as tightly during cooking, leading to really tender, moist chicken.
This technique is particularly effective on ground and thinly sliced meats with lots of surface area for the baking soda to come in contact with.
Method: For our caramel chicken recipe, we combine 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1 1/4 cups cold water, and 2 pounds of chicken pieces. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
3. How to Cook Juicy Chicken Breasts
There are two methods we love to use for chicken breast: Here’s a little more on each.
Internal temperature has a massive impact on how tender and juicy a chicken breast is. Chicken in this country throws us an extra curveball when it comes to internal temperature: The CDC estimates that 1 in 25 packages of chicken at the supermarket contain salmonella, a bacteria that can make us pretty sick.
Salmonella can be killed by being heated to 165 degrees F (at the center of the breast) and then held at that temperature for less than a second. That’s a guaranteed way to make sure your chicken is safe to eat. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that salmonella can also be killed when held for 10 seconds at 161 degrees, and 45 seconds at 155 degrees.
The good news is that using the chemical options we just covered, breast meat will still be juicy at 165 degrees. BUT, it doesn’t mean you always have to go that high. I cook breasts to 160 or even 155 degrees all of the time, and I just ensure that they remain at that temp for up to a minute.
There’s a really foolproof way to cook your breasts to a lower temperature and guarantee their safety: Use sous vide.
I like the texture of chicken breast cooked sous vide to 155 degrees. Simply drop the chicken in for a swim at 155 and leave it there for an hour.
The low oven reverse sear is my all-time favorite way to make well-browned, super juicy breasts.
After using a fork to open some channels in this thicker part of these breasts, you season them all over with kosher salt (this step can be done ahead).
Then, place the chicken, skin side down, in a baking dish and cover tightly with foil (By wrapping the dish in foil we trap moisture which keeps the exterior portions from drying out and actually speeds up cooking by limiting evaporative cooling).
Then, slowly bring the entire breast up to temperature so that no part gets overcooked in a 275 degree oven. Getting the breasts to 145 to 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer takes about 30 minutes.
Then, it’s time to sear. After patting the breasts thoroughly dry, paint on a mixture of butter, flour, cornstarch and pepper (a formulation that leads to deep, flavorful browning) and sear them in a just-smoking skillet.
After searing for a couple minutes on the first side, paint the side facing up with more magic browning spread and then flip.
These breasts temp out at 160 degrees and will easily climb to 165 thanks to carryover cooking.
3. How to Dress Up Chicken Breasts
There are so many ways to dress up chicken breasts so that they impress. Here are some of our favorites:
Dress them in peanut sauce and toss them in a salad
This is a salad that makes a plenty hearty full meal.
Want to learn more about cooking chicken breasts? Check out the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan?.