The 7 Biggest Mistakes When Cooking Chicken Breasts

Bid Farewell to Dry Bird

Yuliia Mazurkevych / FOAP / Getty Images 

When it comes to cooking chicken breasts, the most common mistakes stem from trying too hard to avoid either overcooking or undercooking them. Here are seven of the top errors most home cooks make and how to avoid them.

  • 01 of 07

    Cooking Whole Chicken Breasts

    anchiy / Getty Images 

    These days, chicken breasts are huge. If you buy a plain, boneless, skinless chicken breast at the meat counter, it's not uncommon for the piece to tip the scales at three-quarters of a pound, or 12 ounces. Trying to cook a behemoth like that is difficult—by the time the middle is fully done, the outside tends to be dry (if not downright burnt!).

    The solution: Slice it lengthwise (i.e. with your knife blade parallel to the cutting board, as in the photo) to produce two flatter chicken cutlets. This is far easier than trying to pound a chicken breast flat with a meat mallet, which will mash it to a pulp.

  • 02 of 07

    Failure to Season

    Spices
    Helaine Weide

    Whether you're cooking the chicken breast on the grill, in a pan, or in the oven, seasoning is a must. While Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are the bare minimum—in most cases you'll also want to coat the breast in olive oil first so that the seasonings stick—there are many other flavoring possibilities. Try garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, paprika, even dried herbs like basil or oregano. Don't go overboard, though. One or two of the above, in addition to salt and pepper, is probably enough.

  • 03 of 07

    Overcooking

    The Spruce

    Chicken breasts are naturally lean, which means there isn't much room for error when it comes to overcooking them. Couple that with a healthy, yet disproportionate fear of serving undercooked chicken and the result is, all too often, dry chicken.

    Yes, it's important to cook chicken breasts all the way through. But they don't need to be incinerated. The proper internal temperature for chicken breasts is 165 F, but remember carryover cooking means that it'll likely hit at least 170 F by the time you cut into it. And if the center is 170 F, the outer parts are even hotter. An instant-read thermometer can help, but it's a crude tool at best, since it requires you to poke holes into the chicken. Better is to check that the juices run clear rather than pink. When they're clear, it's done.

  • 04 of 07

    Cooking Cold Chicken Breasts

    Tetra Images / Getty Images 

    As with steak, chicken breasts don't taste good when they're overcooked. And while this might sound obvious, the best way to avoid overcooking a chicken breast is to cook it for as short a time as possible. When you start with cold chicken breast straight from the fridge, it's going to take longer for the middle to heat all the way through. Instead, leave your chicken breasts at room temperature for 30 minutes before they go in the pan.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Cooking in a Cold Pan

    sf_foodphoto / Getty Images

    Speaking of the pan, putting chicken breasts in a cold pan is another big no-no. And it's for the same reason you don't want the chicken itself to be cold when you start cooking. But even worse, starting with a cold pan means that the chicken heats up slowly, and the juices start to seep out as the pan heats—instead of searing or sauteing, you're effectively steaming it. That means your chicken breast will come out pale, white, and overcooked rather than with a flavorful brown crisp exterior. The easy solution: let your pan (or grill) get hot before you add the chicken.

  • 06 of 07

    Slicing Too Soon

    Ian O'Leary / Getty Images

    Otherwise known as not resting the chicken breasts after you cook them. We have a longer explanation of what it means to rest your meat and why it helps your poultry stay juicy. The short of it: if you cut into your chicken breasts the moment they come off the grill or pan, you're going to lose a lot of juices. The solution: Wait five minutes before cutting into your chicken breasts, and those juices will stay inside the meat where they belong.

  • 07 of 07

    Failure to Dry

    Westend61 / Getty Images 

    If you've ever looked underneath the chicken breast in the package from the store, you probably noticed a flat pad for soaking up the juices from the breast. This means the breast is pretty wet. And sure, it's a good idea to wash the breast before you cook it, but for the best cooking results, make sure it's dry before it goes in the pan. All the excess liquid will just cause steam and get in the way of browning. Even worst, it can cause hot oil in the pan to splatter. A good wipe with a paper towel is all it needs, then go ahead and brush with oil, season, and cook.