How to Cook Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Grilled chicken breasts in pan
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Chicken breasts are probably the most popular cut of meat sold in America today. They are quick, easy, low fat, and universally popular. What are the best ways of cooking them so you end up with moist, tender, flavorful meat? Read on and learn how to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

It's nice to have a supply of cooked chicken meat on hand for many recipes, from chicken salads like Chicken Caesar Salad, to casseroles like Creamy Mexican Crockpot Chicken and Santa Fe Chicken, and sandwiches.

Size Considerations

First of all, when you're buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts, beware of the size. Never buy any chicken breast halves with the bone and skin removed that weigh more than 8 or 9 ounces. Very large breasts come from stewing hens, and they will never get tender unless they are cooked in liquid.

Time Considerations

Second, there are two basic methods for cooking: dry heat and moist heat. Dry heat methods include baking, roasting, grilling, sautéing, and deep-frying. Moist heat methods include microwaving, poaching, baking in parchment, steaming, and slow cooking. This is the rule: when cooking chicken breasts with dry heat, use high heat and cook for a short period of time. When using moist heat, use low heat and cook for a longer period of time.

Now when I say longer, that doesn't mean hours. Grilled chicken breasts cook in 8-10 minutes, while poached breasts cook in about 15 minutes.

And here's another tip: when cooking with dry heat, pound the chicken breasts to an even thickness so they will cook evenly.

Chicken breasts have little connective tissue; that means they can be cooked quickly because the long cooking time needed to soften those tough areas isn't necessary. They also have little fat, which means they can become dry if cooked too long.

One way to ensure juicy, moist chicken is to brine before cooking. To brine chicken, place thawed chicken breasts in a solution of salt and water for about 1 hour in the refrigerator. The cells will absorb water through osmosis. 

Temperature

Many experts recommend that chicken breast meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F, but others say 160 degrees F is fine. You will have moister chicken if you cook to 160 degrees F. According to Dr. O. Peter Snyder, the chicken has to reach a temperature of 160 degrees F for 5.2 seconds to kill pathogens. Now the USDA is recommending that, because of bird flu fears, chicken should be cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees F. Remember that the meat will continue to cook after it's removed from the heat; the internal temperature will rise about 5-10 degrees in the first few minutes it's off the heat.

Choose the final temperature based upon the health and risk factors of those who will be eating the meat. If you have young children, elderly persons, or those with a compromised immune system in your household, choose the higher temperature.

Dr. Snyder told me that healthy people above the age of 5 have built up a tolerance to low levels of bacteria and won't get sick when served chicken cooked to the lower temperatures.

Also be sure to cool the meat very quickly if you're reserving it for later use or using it chopped or shredded in another recipe, preferably in a container placed in an ice water bath. And hold the cooked chicken in the refrigerator no longer than 3-4 days.

I was once asked why chicken had to be cooked through, while steaks can be served rare or medium rare. The answer lies in the physiology of the chicken. The meat is less dense than beef, which allows bacteria to travel throughout the muscle. And the way chicken is processed spreads bacteria. Finally, removing the feathers forces bacteria into the crevices and into the meat. So cook the chicken to a safe internal temperature and your food will always be safe.

Any of these methods will result in juicy, moist, and tender chicken breasts. Follow the instructions carefully with a meat thermometer in your hand and you'll always have success.

Cooking Methods

You can season the chicken with lots of ingredients in these cooking methods. I like adding thinly sliced lemon to any method, along with fresh thyme sprigs for more flavor.

Brining
Brining pulls water into the chicken flesh and helps flavor it too. I don't brine my chicken because of the food safety risk of handling the raw meat so much, and the need to rinse the raw chicken after it's brined.

To brine boneless, skinless chicken breasts, in a large bowl mix 4 cups of water with 3 Tbsp. of salt and 2 Tbsp. of sugar, if desired, and stir until the salt and sugar dissolves. Add thawed chicken breasts to this mixture, cover, and refrigerate for one hour. When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the brine, rinse under cold running water (this is the only time I recommend rinsing chicken in the sink), and cook according to one of the following methods.

You can brine frozen breasts as well. Mix up the brine solution and add the frozen boneless skinless breasts. Place in the refrigerator, covered, and let stand overnight until the chicken thaws. Rinse well under cold running water, pat dry, and cook. Sanitize your sink and the surrounding area with a bleach solution after you rinse the chicken. Wash your hands well, and change your clothes, since the bacteria on the chicken is probably on them.

Baking in Parchment
I really like this moist heat method of cooking, as there is a greater margin of error, and the breasts cook without being rearranged. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spread parchment paper or heavy duty foil on your work surface and arrange thawed boneless, skinless chicken breasts on them. Top with lemon slices, bay leaves, or other spices and herbs. Bring the edges of the paper or foil together and fold together (making sure to keep chicken in a single layer), then crimp to hold in the steam. Bake at 425 degrees for 15-25 minutes, depending on the number of chicken breasts you're cooking. Use the longer time if you're cooking more than four breasts.

Frozen chicken breasts can be baked with this method too. Simply place them in paper or foil, allowing space for heat expansion, and bake according to the package directions. The two kinds of frozen chicken breasts I buy have different cooking times; one cooks for 35 minutes, the other for 50. I test at the shorter cooking time with the thermometer.

Poaching
To poach boneless, skinless chicken breasts, place them in a large skillet and add 1-2 cups of water or chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and cook for 9-14 minutes until chicken reaches 160 degrees F. about 15 minutes. You can also poach in the oven. Place chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan. You can add lemon slices, peppercorns, or any other spices or herbs. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and immediately pour over chicken. Cover and bake at 400 degrees F for 20-35 minutes, checking for an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.

Grill
You can grill chicken breasts, but you need to pay attention. Build an indirect fire. Grill the breasts on the hotter side of the fire first, with more coals, turning them as soon as they release easily from the grill. Move to the cooler side to cook through. Make sure you use an instant read meat thermometer you can buy at Amazon.com to check the temperature, and remove the chicken as soon as it reaches 160 degrees F. For quicker grilling, pound the chicken until it's about 1/3" thick. This will help the interior cook before the exterior gets too brown or burns. For more detailed information on grilling chicken breasts, please see Grilled Chicken Recipes.

Microwave
It can be risky cooking chicken in the microwave oven because the oven cooks unevenly. The same piece of chicken can be several different temperatures at the same time! If you have healthy people over the age of 5 in your household, this is an easy method for microwaving chicken. Place boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a glass dish with the thin side of the breasts in the center. Pour 3/4 cup buttermilk over the chicken, sprinkle with herbs and spices of your choice, cover plate with plastic wrap, and cook on high for 3 minutes. Check the chicken, then cook for 2 minutes longer. Rearrange the chicken using tongs, cover again, and microwave for 3-5 minutes longer until internal temp is 160 degrees F. Discard buttermilk mixture.

Crockpot
The crockpot is a wonderful way to cook chicken as long as it isn't overcooked. For fresh chicken breasts, stack the chicken in the crockpot, add 1/2 cup water or chicken broth, cover, and cook on low for 5-6 hours, rearranging once during cooking time. For frozen chicken breasts, arrange in crockpot, add 1/2 cup chicken broth or water, cover, and cook on low for 8-9 hours, rearranging once during cooking time.

Steaming
Nancy H. wrote me about steaming chicken breasts she sprinkles with Mrs. Dash. She says that steaming boneless skinless breasts on the bottom rack of a steamer for 20 minutes for thawed and 30 minutes from frozen produces a juicy result.

Sauteeing
This dry heat method is quick and easy. If you pound the breasts thin, they will cook for about 2-3 minutes a side over high heat. Unpounded breasts take a bit longer to cook; about 4-5 minutes per side. Coat a skillet with olive oil, heat over high heat, add breasts, cook for 4 minutes without moving them, then turn and finish cooking.

Pressure cooker
This is a moist heat method of cooking. Add thawed chicken breasts to the cooker, add sliced onions and lemons for flavor along with 1/2 cup water, cover and lock the cooker, and bring the pressure up to high. Cook for 12 minutes, release pressure, and check internal temperature. You can cover, bring pressure back up, and cook for 2-3 minutes longer if necessary.

Cooked Chicken Breast Recipes