9 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Chicken, According to Chefs

Say goodbye to dry, stringy chicken with chefs' top tips for keeping it juicy and crisp-skinned.

While there are whole schools of thought on cooking steak, chicken, for whatever reason, hasn't inspired the same fervor. No one gets as geeky 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 connective 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, unlike steak, which can be finished rare. This can make it harder to get a juicy piece of chicken, says Angelo Auriana, chef at BRERA Ristorante in Los Angeles.

Here are some mistakes that Auriana and other meat pros avoid when it comes to purchasing and cooking chicken.

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, sous chef at Middle Eastern restaurant Bavel in Los Angeles.

"I'm sure there are grocery stores that are overstocked on product, and if they don't want the chicken to spoil, they might freeze it to extend its life," he says. There are probably higher-end brands of poultry that you can trust, but Wilschke 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 Chef Sloan. We know, this seems like a paradox because we just said that water is important for juicy chicken, but brine-injected chicken can actually have compromised texture and flavor, because industrial brining helps mask deficiencies in both. It's much better to purchase a higher-quality chicken, if your budget 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," he says. "The diet is what gives the chicken a certain taste and texture."

Passing up bone-in chicken thighs

Boneless chicken breasts may be the least intimidating for cooks, 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. 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 The Strand House in Los Angeles, maintains that chicken thighs are best for newbie cooks. "They're the least likely to dry out, and they're also the most flavorful cuts on their own," he says.

For those who prefer chicken breasts, Wilschke says butterflying them is the best method. 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.

Here's how to do that, according to former executive chef Michael Kornick of Marshall's Landing in Chicago: "Trim the rib meat, then 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 tenderloins 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.)

Roasted Chicken
istetiana/Getty Images

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 change."

Not brining

This one is super important. 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 also going to help the meat retain moisture when you cook it."

Sloan agrees on the virtues of brining. "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 suggests soaking it for five to eight hours.

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 advises air-drying the meat out of the package in the fridge for up to four hours, 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 soaks up a lot of that moisture from the meat, which allows for a crispier 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, instructs Wilschke. 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 of the refrigerator 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, do so 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 smoke 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, flip it once. Then lower your heat to medium, Wilschke suggests. For extra juiciness, add some fat — a pat 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've 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. This process allows for the collagen to thicken the juices, resulting in the moistest possible piece of meat.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles