There are fewer foods that enjoy more popularity among US consumers than chicken. Whether it’s chicken breasts, chicken wings, chicken legs or chicken nuggets, Americans can’t seem to get enough of Gallus gallus domesticus (the Latin name for your everyday domestic chicken). In the United States alone, a staggering 8 billion chickens are consumed every single year. Given how frequently Americans eat chicken, it’s certainly worth studying how to best prepare this household staple.
The nutritional value of chicken largely depends on how your chicken was prepared; safe to say, fried chicken or chicken nuggets from fast-food outlets don’t do your body any favors. Additionally, not all chicken parts are created equal; the “dark meat” sections of chicken (i.e. the leg and thigh) tend to contain more fat and cholesterol than the “white meat” parts. As a result, it’s a safer bet to focus on these healthier sections, especially the chicken breast.
When it comes to cooking chicken breast, amateur chefs have a number of options. Chicken breast can be broiled, baked, sautéed and poached. Don’t get frustrated if you’re cooking skills leave something to be desired; in the following paragraphs, we’ll detail the various methods for preparing a delicious and healthy chicken breast.
Broiling – Not to be confused with “boiling,” broiling simply refers to a cooking technique that relies on short, intense bursts of heat to thoroughly cook various foods. This method is especially useful when cooking meat products with relatively little fat. Chicken breast, with its lack of fat content, fits the bill nicely. In gas ovens, the broiler is usually given its own section below the main oven door. In contrast, the broiler is located near the top of the oven’s interior in electric ovens.
Start off by adding olive oil, salt and pepper to the chicken breast. Garlic, thyme and fennel can also be added into the mix. Preheat your oven to broil, and proceed to place the chicken on a nonstick cooking sheet. In order to prevent the chicken slices from touching, place the pieces several inches apart from each other. When sliding the chicken breast into the oven (or the broiler section if you’re using a gas oven), position your cooking sheet roughly 5 to 6 inches underneath the broiler’s heating source.
Unlike other cooking methods, the oven door should be left open while the chicken is broiling – if you are using an electric oven. For gas ovens, it’s probably best to keep the door closed; this will help ensure that the oven’s smoke is channeled safely through the oven’s vent, and doesn’t wind up polluting your kitchen. In either case, make sure to pay close attention to your chicken breast while it’s being broiled; broilers use an immense amount of heat to cook food, and can easily burn your meals if not properly monitored.
When the top sides of the chicken breast have turned brown, turn them over with a pair of metal tongs. Once the chicken has taken on an entirely brown color, it should be done broiling. To be absolutely sure, stick a meat thermometer into the chicken; if the temperature reads at least 170°F (or 77 degrees Celsius), you are good to go.
Baking – If you’re using a frozen chicken, remember that it must be properly thawed well in advance of being put into the oven. A good rule of thumb is to move the chicken from the freezer to the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking. Cooks who are pressed for time do have an alterative option. Once removed from its packaging, place the chicken breast into an appropriately-sized resealable bag. Fill up a large bowl with cold water, and let the chicken thaw inside it for 1 to 2 hours.
When the chicken has finally defrosted, thoroughly rinse it with a steady stream of cold water. This will serve to cleanse unhealthy preservatives from your chicken. During this stage of the cooking process, you can also remove any unappealing veins from the chicken breast.
After drying the chicken with paper towels, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (or 177 degrees if you prefer the Celsius system). While the oven is getting warmed up, cover the surface of a baking dish or cooking sheet with a piece of aluminum foil. Wrap the foil tight around the edges so that it stays in place, and proceed to spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Place the chicken breast on the foil, and cover it with your preferred seasonings; some tasty options include olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon pepper and rosemary.
It should take 20 to 30 minutes for the chicken to be finished baking. A telltale sign that the chicken is ready is the color of its juices, which should appear as a clear liquid when the breast has been cooked. Take the baking dish/cooking sheet out of the oven, and let it sit on the counter. While resting outside the oven, the chicken will actually continue to cook for a few minutes. After 5 minutes or so, you should be able to take your chicken breast off of the foil and serve it.
Poaching – Unless you have a good deal of cooking experience under your belt, you probably aren’t too familiar with the term “poaching.” In a nutshell, poaching simply involves cooking meat in heated liquids, usually between the temperatures of 140 °F and 180 °F (in contrast, a liquid must be cooked at 212 °F to boil). Foods can be poached in water, milk, wine or broth. Of course, poached foods are typically cooked on stovetops.
Poaching chicken is not an especially difficult process. Begin by placing your chicken breast pieces in a cooking pot; this pot should be just big enough to barely accommodate your chicken. Pour your liquid of choice into the pot, to the point that it covers the chicken breast by at least ½ to 1 full inch. Bring the liquid to a boil, but only briefly; after it reaches its boiling point, decease the liquid’s temperature back to the 140-180°F range. Partially cover the chicken with the pot’s lid, and let it cook for 10 minutes before shutting off the oven’s heat. Allow the chicken to cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Sautéing – If you didn’t know what poaching meant until 10 seconds ago, chances are you don’t know what “sautéing” means either. This French term refers to a cooking practice in which food is cooked rapidly in a skillet, usually in a shallow pool of fat. To properly sauté chicken, begin by placing two tablespoons worth of butter in your skillet. Chefs who are more health-conscious can use olive oil as a substitute. Be careful to use only a moderate amount of heat, as excessively high temperatures can turn your butter or olive oil into a burnt brown mess.
After the butter has melted into a foamy liquid, take a pair of tongs and place your chicken breast onto the skillet. Cook the sides of your chicken breast strips for 6 to 8 minutes. Upon completing this step, turn the heat of your stovetop down to a low level and place the cover on your skillet. It should take 10 to 20 minutes for your chicken to develop a pink texture and fully lose its pink coloring; in other words, for it to be ready to serve.
Grilling – Last but not least, we come to grilling. Before placing your chicken breast pieces on the grill, check to see if your grill needs any cleaning. If it looks a tad messy, take a few minutes to clean the grilling plate with a scraper. You might also consider using some nonstick cooking spray.
Preheat the grill to a medium-hot setting, and after five minutes place the chicken breast onto the grill. Space your chicken pieces a reasonable distance apart from each other; this will make flipping them over much easier. It should only take roughly 3 minutes before the chicken breast is ready to be flipped. Once again, color is a key indicator as to the condition of your chicken; if all the pink coloring has vanished, the bottom side has been fully cooked.
The opposite side of the chicken breast might take longer to cook. After roughly 5 minutes, lift the chicken pieces and check for pink coloring. Not surprisingly, thicker slices of chicken breast take longer to cook than their thinner counterparts.