A tender, tasty, boneless chicken breast is supposed to be easy to produce in a skillet, but as a novice cook, I often served my family ones that were either tough and overcooked or rubbery and not quite done. (Ignorance can be dangerous.) I followed instructions from a variety of cookbooks, but the outcomes were always the same: unpleasantly chewy. In desperation, I enrolled in a chicken-cooking class, and, although there were several weekly sessions involving lots of different sauces and cuisines, I learned all I needed to know in the first 30 minutes of the first session.
So, when First born asked me recently to write a blog post on how to cook chicken breasts, I had a sense of déjà vu. (If I could, I’d tell my young cooking self about this technique, and that my favorite black tea should be steeped for four minutes, and that I should give up on trying to get my husband to like carrots. Also, don’t leave a turkey carcass close to the edge of a kitchen counter, and never walk backwards while barefoot on a city street.*)
I had a chance on Saturday to test the worth of what might have been the shortest cooking lesson ever. My daughter was almost out the door on her way to her boyfriend’s house when I remembered there were two boneless chicken breasts in the fridge that needed to be eaten. Here, I said as I handed her the package. Want to make these for lunch? She was agreeable.
Okay, I said; here’s what you do. Dry the chicken breasts with paper towels, season both sides with salt and pepper (observing all germ-control measures), then sauté them in a hot, oven-safe pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and butter until golden brown on each side. Turn only once. Then transfer them to an oven preheated to 425°F. for 10 or 15 minutes to finish cooking. (That was the part that changed my chicken-cooking life. A few minutes in a hot oven was the step that none of the other recipes I consulted required, and that made all the difference.**) Here’s some butter with olive oil already in it, I said, handing her a stick of the stuff.
The text message above arrived within the hour.
(For extra flavor and tenderness, brine the raw, boneless chicken breasts for 30 minutes in the fridge in a solution of 2 quarts cold water, 1/4 cup salt, and 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Drain, rinse very well, then proceed with recipe.)
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A light and lovely pan sauce (not essential but nice) can be made easily in the skillet once the cooked chicken is transfered to a plate and kept warm. Several that I like can be found in How to Cook Without a Book, by Pam Anderson, © 2000, published by Broadway Books of New York, NY. All of the book’s pan sauces follow the same siimple premise, as adapted here for a red wine-Dijon sauce.
To the hot skillet, add 1/2 cup liquid (1/4 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth and 1/4 cup full-bodied red wine). Simmer until the liquid reduces by half, then stir in a little Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. Season to taste, and serve over the hot, cooked chicken breasts.
The 1/2 cup liquid can be comprised of other elements, like 6 tablespoons of chicken broth with 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar (plus Dijon mustard and butter), or 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar with 1/4 cup chicken broth (plus butter only), or 1/2 cup port wine (plus dried cranberries, a little seedless raspberry jam, and butter). Combinations are endless. If I were you, I’d buy the book. It’s still in print, although now the publisher is Clarkson Potter.
*Roadkill run-in. It was a rabbit.Technically not cooking-related, but a bit of wisdom I would have appreciated none the less.
**Sometimes the cooking instructor loosely covered the pan of chicken with foil before putting it in the oven, and other times he left the chicken uncovered, probably depending on how brown the chicken was after the initial sauté.