When cooking chicken breasts, cutting technique and dry brine are everything
In the 1723 cookbook “The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary”, author John Nott shares a recipe for chicken breasts, in which the skins are lifted and stuffed with grated bacon, anchovies, and herbs. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is one of the earliest written accounts of the group of names “chicken breast” in English. It’s also a great way to cook white meat so it doesn’t dry out.
One of the main design flaws of chicken breast is that its thickness varies greatly from start to finish. This makes the cooking extremely uneven, especially when the meat is boneless and skinless. By the time the large, bulbous side is cooked, the tapered, tapered side (not to mention the outer edges of the entire brisket) has become stringy, practically dried out.
But here’s the problem: you don’t to have to accept this awful imbalance. Take control of your life and your chicken.
The trick to keeping breast meat tender and juicy is to completely change its anatomy. There are a few key ways to do this. The easiest way is to cut the breast in half crosswise, where the thicker end meets the thinner end. This way you can remove the thinner pieces from the heat earlier, allowing the thicker ones to finish cooking for a minute or two.
Another method is to make sure the meat retains its natural moisture. What makes a chicken breast juicy is water, not fat (after all, white meat is very lean). A simple dry brine – a mixture of salt, sugar and spices – provides that little assurance. It is the salt that is most crucial, as it draws water from the meat. This water then dissolves the salt on the surface of the meat and, by diffusion, the two sink into the meat, carefully seasoning the chicken.
As evidenced by volume 3 of “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”, dissolved salt alters the protein structure of meat, allowing it to retain water by slowing the contraction of muscle fibers during the process. Cooking. This contraction usually “squeezes the juice while cooking,” but a dry brine rewards you with retained juiciness.
A marinade can give equally juicy results in a number of ways. In the following stir-fry recipe, a group of enzymes in the fresh pineapple, bromelain, break down the connective tissue of the fibrous chicken, turning the otherwise strained meat into relaxed nuggets. Watch and be amazed by this powerful potion that transforms tough, ordinary white meat into a supple dark meat doppelganger.
But be careful: marinate the chicken for too long and you’ll end up with sticky shreds of meat. Fifteen minutes is Goldilocks time, which is just the right amount.
Other acidic ingredients have similar benefits. The lactic acid in sour cream tenderizes the chicken beautifully and also helps the crispy, flavorful coatings stick to the meat. Spread it over the chicken breasts and wrap them in a thick layer of buttery Ritz cookie crumbs and grated sharp cheddar cheese for an equal parts chewy and crispy result.
This comforting chicken dish is best with cutlets, which are always a great option on weeknights. While you can mash a thick brisket into a thin strawberry (which also breaks down the fibers of the meat), another less violent approach is to slice horizontally through the middle of the brisket to end up with two cutlets of equal size. As with most things in life, two is better than one.
Dry-cured chicken breasts
- 5 dried bay leaves, crushed into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon of whole black pepper
- 2 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt (crystal diamond)
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
- 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 ½ pounds total)
- Vegetable oil
- Lime wedges, for serving (optional)
In a spice mill, crush the bay leaves and peppercorns until finely ground. Transfer to a small bowl and add the salt, brown sugar and garlic powder, and rub it all together with your fingers.
Cut each chicken breast in half crosswise into two pieces of equal weight, creating a shorter, thicker piece and a longer, thinner piece. Place the four chicken pieces on a large plate or baking sheet and sprinkle generously on all sides with the spice blend, moving the chicken to catch any fallen spices. Refrigerate, uncovered, to dry brine for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour (shorter and the osmotic brining process will not end; longer and you will end up with charcuterie).
When ready to cook, take the chicken out of the refrigerator and heat a large skillet with a lid on high. Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Gently add the chicken pieces, smooth sides down, and immediately reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until bottoms are golden but not burnt, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the chicken, cover the pan and cook until the other sides are golden and the internal temperature in the thickest part of the meat reaches 155 degrees, another 5 to 7 minutes. You may want to remove the longer, thinner pieces from the heat a minute or two earlier, as they can cook faster.
Transfer the chicken to a cutting board to rest for at least 10 minutes so that the juices can redistribute. The meat will continue to cook while it rests and should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Slice the chicken against the grain (that is, perpendicular to the parallel fibers that run through the breast) and serve with lime wedges if desired. You can also store whole meat and refrigerate, covered, for up to 4 days.
Makes 4 servings.
Pineapple Marinated Chicken Breasts (The New York Times / Armando Rafael)
Pineapple marinated chicken breasts
- 3 packed tbsp dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil and more for cooking
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt (diamond crystal)
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 cup diced fresh pineapple (½ inch pieces)
- ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 tablespoons finely grated fresh pineapple, including any accumulated juices
- 1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 ½ inch pieces
- Cooked white rice, for serving
In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, garlic powder, ground cayenne pepper and black pepper. Transfer 1 tablespoon of this marinade mixture to a separate medium bowl and add the diced pineapple, red onion and cilantro. This is your salsa; stir until well combined and set aside.
Add the grated pineapple and its juice to the marinade mixture in the large bowl, then add the chicken and toss to coat. Let marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes (and no more).
Once the chicken is marinated, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken pieces, leaving any marinade behind, in a single layer so they don’t touch and cook until the bottoms are golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on all sides and no longer pink inside, 4 to 5 minutes more.
Serve the chicken over rice and top with the reserved pineapple salsa.
Makes 4 servings.
Ritzy Cheddar Chicken Breasts (The New York Times / Armando Rafael)
Ritzy Cheddar Chicken Breasts
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil, plus more to grease the grill
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 1 large egg white
- 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
- Kosher salt
- 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 ½ pounds total)
- 1 pouch of Ritz crackers
- 2 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon of onion powder
Place the rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place an ovenproof rack on a baking sheet. Dab a folded paper towel with olive oil and rub it on the grill to grease it.
In a medium bowl, whisk together sour cream, egg white and Dijon mustard until smooth. Season with salt. Lay the chicken flat on a cutting board and cut each breast in half sideways to make four thin cutlets. Add the chicken to the sour cream mixture and, using your hands, spread the sour cream all over the chicken.
In a large bowl, crush the Ritz crackers into large chunks with your fingers. Some crackers turn to rubble while others turn to dust. Add the cheese, garlic powder, onion powder and olive oil. Season with ½ teaspoon of salt and stir until evenly distributed. Holding one of the chicken cutlets by its thinner end, add it to the bowl with the crumbs and, using your hands, press the crumbs onto the chicken, pressing them together to create a thick layer. Transfer the breaded chicken to the wire rack in the baking sheet. Repeat with the three remaining cutlets.
Cook the cutlets until the outside is crisp and the inside is no longer pink, 10 to 15 minutes. Let chicken cool slightly so that the coating can harden, about 5 minutes, before transferring to plates and serving.