How can I keep chicken breasts from drying out when I cook them?
At this stage in my home-cooking career, I never prepare chicken without brining it first. Brining simply means soaking something in a salt-water solution, and it noticeably improves the flavor, texture, and juiciness of the meat. How? Without getting into too much science, the salt loosens up the proteins in the meat, which allows more water to be “trapped” in the meat when it’s cooked, making it more plump and juicy.
To make a brine solution, dissolve 1 1/2 tablespoons of table salt (or 1/4 cup kosher salt) in 8 cups of cold water inside a zip-top bag. Let the breasts marinate (there’s enough brine for four breasts) for 30-45 minutes in the refrigerator.
This Pan-roasted Chicken with Lemon is the perfect recipe to test the brining method. Before you insert the herbs under the skin, brine the whole pieces in a solution of 3/4 cup of kosher salt and 1 quart of water for one hour. You’ll never cook chicken without brining again.
Chicken breasts are also fairly uneven in thickness -- the top end is usually plump and wide, and the bottom end is fairly narrow and thin -- which can cause the breast to dry out in some places before the thicker section is cooked. To remedy this, you can pound and flatten the breast (with a meat tenderizer or a plastic-wrapped mallet) to a more even thickness. Flattening out the thicker parts also means you can cut your cooking time by a few minutes.
The method you use to cook the chicken will also affect its overall juiciness. Grilling, pan-sauteeing, roasting, or baking the breast in an open pan allows a lot of the moisture in the meat to evaporate. If you cook the breast en papillote [in pap-ee-yoht], a fancy but easy French technique of steam-cooking meat inside parchment paper packets (aluminum foil works too), you won’t lose much moisture. The beauty of this method is that you can throw all sorts of veggies, herbs, or steaming liquid (wine, vinegar, or citrus juice) in the packet with the chicken to make a complete, flavorful meal -- with very little cleanup.
The basic directions for cooking en papillote: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Season both sides of the brined chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Lay out 12-inch squares of heavy-duty aluminum foil for each breast and place the chicken in the center of the foil. Bend opposite sides of the foil into a tent over the widest sides of the breast and crimp the edges together. Fold once or twice more to seal. Close the open sides of the packet by folding them over several times (but not so tightly that the meat touches the ends of the packet). Place the packets on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Be careful when opening the foil to serve. The steam will be very hot!
I know this recipe for Spicy Southwest Chicken Sandwich calls for leftover chicken, but you could easily cook a few breasts, lightly coated in some of the adobo sauce mixture, in foil packets too.
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