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.
Cooking Whole Chicken Breasts
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).
One solution is to slice it lengthwise (i.e. with your knife blade parallel to the cutting board) 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.
Failure to Season
Whether you're cooking the chicken breast on the grill, in a pan, or in the oven, seasoning is a must. 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. Open your mind to many other flavoring possibilities. Try garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, paprika, even dried herbs like basil or oregano. Don't go overboard, though. Try just one or two, in addition to salt and pepper.
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.
Starting With Cold Chicken Breasts
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.
Cooking in a Cold Pan
Putting chicken breasts in a cold pan is another big no-no. 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. Your chicken breast will come out pale, white, and overcooked rather than with a flavorful brown crisp exterior. The easy solution is to let your pan (or grill) get hot before you add the chicken.
Slicing Too Soon
This problem could also be interpreted as not resting the chicken breasts after you cook them. 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. Wait five minutes before cutting into your chicken breasts, and those juices will stay inside the meat where they belong.
Failure to Dry
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 all the excess liquid will just cause steam and get in the way of browning. Even worse, 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.