Plus, the secret to crispy skin and juicy meat.
While there are whole schools of thought on cooking steak—grilling evangelist Meathead Goldwyn pushes the reverse sear method, for example—chicken, for whatever reason, hasn’t inspired the same fervor. No one gets as excited about it.
But according to the chefs we talked to, chicken is actually much harder to cook than steak. “Chicken is one of the most unforgiving types of meat,” says chef Jon Sloan, the culinary director at Crack Shack. “Unlike beef, it doesn't have any connected tissue or fat collagen, with the exception of the thigh.”
Because of chicken’s lower fat content, you have to nail the cooking times and technique exactly or else you’ll end up with dry, stringy meat. Furthermore, chicken needs to be fully cooked to 165 degrees due to salmonella concerns—your move, chicken sashimi—unlike steak, which can be finished rare. This can make it harder to get a juicy piece of chicken, Angelo Auriana, the chef at Officine BRERA, points out.
So, here are some mistakes that Auriana and more meat pros avoid in the kitchen.
Buying previously frozen meat.
We’re going for juicy chicken, and juiciness comes from locking in water content. When chicken, or any meat, is previously frozen, this can dry it out. Look for the “fresh, never frozen” label on packaged chicken, but sometimes you can’t even trust that, says James Wilschke, the executive chef at Filifera in Hollywood.
“I’m sure there are grocery stores that are overstocked on product and if they don’t want it to spoil, they might freeze it to just extend the life of it,” he says. There are probably higher=end brands of poultry that you can trust, but he recommends checking with your butcher at the meat case just to be safe.
Buying chicken that is brine-injected or has added water.
That's according to Sloan. We know, this seems like a paradox because we just said that water was important for juicy chicken, but brine-injected chicken can actually have compromised texture and flavor, because the industrial brining helps mask deficiencies in both. It’s much better to purchase a higher quality of chicken, if your wallet allows.
Sloan also recommends staying away from chicken with added dyes. “I think it's important to use chickens with non-GMO feed and that are pasture raised—'free-range' is meaningless,” says. “The diet is what makes the chicken taste a certain way and texture.”
Passing up bone-in chicken thighs. (Boneless breasts may be the hardest to get right.)
Boneless chicken breasts may be the least intimidating for cooks who don’t want to deal with bones, but they’re also the hardest to get right, according to some chefs.
“The breast is one of the most difficult [cuts] to cook,” Sloan says. Chef Aaron Robins of Boneyard Bistro in Los Angeles disagrees, kind of. “[Thighs] will come out the moistest,” he says, “but cooking a boneless, skinless, butterflied breast cutlet will cook evenly and quickly.”
In a way, they both seem to be driving at the same conclusion. Even though cooking chicken breasts is more straightforward than cooking bone-in thighs—which take longer to cook and are asymmetrical, potentially complicating cooking—the latter are actually more forgiving, Sloan asserts. In other words, you can vary the cooking time by a minute or two on a bone-in thigh and still end up with a pretty juicy piece of meat because of the way the bone helps the meat retain moisture. “There’s fat in the bone that’s going to melt and keep the meat moist, and it’ll also provide a lot more flavor,” Wilschke says.
Craig Hopson, executive chef at Farmhouse in Los Angeles, affirms that chicken thighs are best for newbie cooks. “They are the least likely to dry out, and they are also the most flavorful cuts on their own,” he says.
For those who do prefer chicken breasts, butterflying them is the best way to cook them, according to Wilschke. The technique, which refers to splitting open a piece of meat horizontally and then opening it like a book, creates an even thickness for a breast that’s otherwise wedge-shaped, which makes for even cooking. Alternatively, you can use a meat hammer to even out the meat, Wilschke recommends.
Here’s how to do that, from executive chef Michael Kornick, of Marshall’s Landing: “Trim the rib meat, gently pound the fattest part of the muscle with the side of the mallet with teeth or points. This will break down the tissue a bit. Then use the smooth side to even out the muscle.” (These directions are for skinless breasts specifically; if keeping the skin on, Kornick recommends cutting off the tenders from the breasts, and pan frying them separately.)
Roasting chicken whole and skin-on is probably the absolute best way to preserve flavor and moisture, Wilschke says—as long as you truss it well, so that the meat doesn’t dry out. For the purposes of this article, however, we’re focusing on pan cooked chicken; for a wealth of roasting recipes, go here. (And for the perfect fried chicken tips, go here.)
Taking the skin off.
Whatever cut you choose, keep the skin on if you want the juiciest possible result. “The skin is going to help it stay crispy, retain more fat and more moisture,” Wilschke says. “You can keep it on unless you’re really really trying to be healthy. Otherwise, the technique doesn’t really change.”
This one is super important (and a bit controversial). Brining is one thing that home cooks usually don’t do that chefs do quite often, according to Wilschke. “It’s basically soaking the meat in a solution of salt water and sometimes sugar, sometimes herbs,” he says. “It’s not only going to season the meat inside and out, it’s going to help the meat retain moisture when you cook it.”
Sloan agrees that brining is one of the most important steps you can take. “Chicken is extremely easy to overcook, which is one of the reasons we brine all of our chicken [at Crack Shack]. We do this for two reasons: To maintain moisture, and so it cooks evenly.”
Besides seasoning the meat to the bone—versus just a surface sprinkle of salt—brining also helps denature the proteins in the muscle. This makes it more tender. For all these reasons, you want to brine your chicken for at least two to three hours, Wilschke recommends. If you’re brining a whole chicken, he recommends soaking it overnight: Five to eight hours.
Be warned: There are some vehemently anti-brining chefs as well, so get all the facts before you decide.
Forgetting to dry your meat in the fridge.
This step sounds kind of contradictory. We want juicy meat, right? So why do we dry it and take moisture out of it? Well, we want the inside to be juicy, but we want that lovely caramelized crust on the outside—and we can get both when we brine first, and then dry it.
“People want to get really crispy meat, and the general rule of cooking is moisture is the enemy of caramelization,” Wilschke says. “When you want to get meat crispy, you want the skin as dry as possible.”
He recommends air drying the meat out of the package in the fridge for up to four hours, and then patting it down with a clean paper towel to soak up any remaining moisture.
“You can even have it air dry in your refrigerator for a day or two if you want,” he says. “That’s a trick for my fried chicken. I’ll bread the chicken the night before, and the flour is going to soak up a lot of that moisture from the meat, and it allows for a lot crisper of a crust.”
Starting with cold meat.
Just like with cooking steak, you don’t want to start with an ice cold piece of meat fresh out of the fridge, Wilschke says. This can lead to overcooking and uneven cooking.
“A lot of chefs will temper their meat,” he explains, letting it come to room temperature over an extended period of time. While Robins recommends taking it out 20 to 30 minutes before cooking, Wilschke advocates for longer.
“The meat can sit on the countertop for a couple of hours, up to four hours,” he says. “It won’t go bad, nothing is going to happen in that four hours. If you throw an ice cold piece of chicken in a pan, the outside’s going to get dried out by the time the inside is cooked fully.”
Make sure to give it another pat dry with a paper towel before you drop it in the pan.
Not getting the pan hot enough.
Drizzle some canola or coconut oil in a pan and turn it up to super high heat, Wilschke advises. (Avoid butter here; if you want to add it, add it at the basting step mentioned in the next paragraph.) High temperature is important to get a nice sear and caramelization. Avoid using extra virgin olive oil, which has a lower smoking point and will start smoking by the time your pan gets hot enough, Wilschke says.
Next, lay your piece of chicken skin side down. After about eight to nine minutes on one side for your average bone-in thigh—obviously that estimate varies—flip it once. Then lower your heat to medium, Wilschke suggests. Robins agrees. For extra juiciness, add some fat—a pad of butter, more oil—when you flip your chicken and baste it, spooning the fat over the still cooking chicken. This will make for a moister final product.
Last but not least: Not letting the meat rest!
When it’s finished cooking, just like a good steak, chicken needs to rest. “Once you have hit 165 degrees, stop the heat and let it rest for few minutes before cutting, so the juices redistribute themselves back through the meat,” Robins says.
As chef Ryan Prentiss described with steak, this process allows for the collagen in the meat to thicken the juices, resulting in the moistest possible piece of meat.