Does achieving a flavorful, golden brown crust on a boneless, skinless chicken breast seem impossible, especially when cooked over medium-low heat with the simplest of ingredients? This fool-proof technique might just change your mind.
Chicken. There are countless ways to cook this versatile protein. Some methods are complicated and some straight-forward. Some techniques are speedy, while others are slow.
When prepared well, chicken can be a juicy, flavorful centerpiece on a dinner plate. When not done so well (which often means “done” too well!), it can be tough, dry, and rather uninspiring.
And think of all of those “easy” recipes that call for cooked chicken. They are far easier when we happen to have leftover chicken on hand – or if we have a go-to method that can be pulled out of our proverbial back pocket whenever needed.
So, when it comes to quickly cooking a lean piece of boneless, skinless chicken breast on the stovetop, what is the best way?
After much experimenting, I have come up with my favorite approach. Though basic enough to meld into other recipes calling for cooked chicken, these golden breasts truly stand on their own and make “plain” chicken something to savor.
The foolproof method is also perfect for all those nights we find ourselves feeling unmotivated in the kitchen but, as luck would have it, have a package of chicken that needs to be used.
One tricky thing about chicken is that the size of a boneless, skinless chicken breast half varies immensely, from a petite 5-ounce fillet to a whopping three-quarter pounder. For the sake of consistently reliable results, I have included a few tips.
If you don’t have a kitchen scale, take note of the weight on the package. The recipe is meant to be easy (that is to say, no messy steps like pounding), but if your chicken breasts are two or more ounces heavier than the stated weight, I recommend flattening the thick end to ensure even cooking in the stated amount of time. (When necessary, I do this between two pieces of parchment paper and whack with my rolling pin. An actual meat tenderizer works, of course－use the flat side－as does a soup can, a heavy skillet, or the base of a bottle of olive oil!)
Also, a quick-read thermometer will make up for any stovetop variances and ensure juicy perfection when weights do vary.
A few other tips like patting the chicken dry and refrigerating the uncooked chicken, uncovered, for up to two hours before cooking will encourage a nice sear and a lightly crusty, golden brown exterior that locks in flavor and moisture. Conveniently, a dryer chicken surface also means fewer splatters when cooking.
As an added bonus, the simple recipe may be scaled to accommodate any number of diners, from one to many.
Plus, the golden breasts look amazing－and when our meals appeal to the eye, they somehow always taste better, too!
Served alone, the chicken may very well be the star of the plate. And if you make enough for leftovers, dinners calling for already-cooked chicken (like Chicken Chip Bake or Easy Chicken Burrito Bowls) will feel almost effortless another night.
You can also put the method to use for easy chicken salad, a loaded baked potato, as a protein-rich salad topper, or whenever a recipe calls for rotisserie chicken.
The flavor will complement virtually anything, although in the name of simplicity, I often serve the chicken with some of our favorite roasted vegetables or a hearty salad. I’ve also used the technique with other chicken recipes like my Smoky Skillet Chicken.
Once you have this reliably mouth-watering method for cooking chicken in your arsenal of recipes, dry, tough, uninspired chicken will be a thing of the past.
All you need is chicken, salt, pepper, olive oil, and a pat of butter. So, grab your pan and let’s get started!
Quick overview: You dry the chicken, season it, let it dry a little more, cook over medium-low heat for 9 minutes and then add a pat of butter. Allow the melted butter to flow under the chicken, and then cook for an additional minute before flipping and cooking for 6 more minutes. Let stand for 3 minutes. Done…and delicious!
- 4 (6-7 ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon butter
Step 1: Thoroughly dry the chicken with paper towels, and season on both sides with the salt and pepper. Place the chicken on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate, uncovered, at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator; pat dry again. (Tip: if you don’t have time to do this, pat the chicken dry as much as possible and proceed, although even a quick 15 minutes of this dry salt-and-pepper brine will enhance the chicken.)
Step 2: Heat the oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet or sauté pan over medium-low until the oil shimmers. (A drop of water should sizzle.) Place the chicken in the pan, smooth side down. Cook, without moving, for 9 minutes or until the bottom side is golden and the chicken releases easily from pan. Add the butter and swirl to coat, lifting the chicken so the butter flows underneath. Cook for 1 more minute or until the bottom side is deeply golden brown. Flip the chicken and cook 6 minutes more or until a thermometer inserted into the center of breast registers 155°F. Remove pan from the burner (the internal temperature will continue to rise once removed from the heat) and let chicken rest in the pan for 3 minutes. Enjoy!
If your chicken breasts are larger than stated, lightly pounding the breasts to achieve uniform thickness will help the meat cook more evenly and within the stated timeframe. Using a quick-read thermometer at the end will ensure perfect results.
Recipe lightly adapted from Cooking Light October 2016
For those who enjoy insight into my recipe testing process, here are a few additional notes:
When testing, I once followed a recommendation to let the patted-dry chicken breasts sit in the refrigerator overnight. The idea took the drying step I do consider important to a new level. Though it went against my better judgment, I had to try. Perhaps I’d be pleasantly surprised with, as the source claimed, greater heights of locked-in flavor and golden brown appeal?
The end result? The chicken was tougher than it should have been. Ultimately, I’d say that an overnight, uncovered stint in the refrigerator borders on too long when the chicken is skinless. (For the record, I do have recipes for skin-on poultry – like my Crispy Buffalo Wings and various turkey recipes – that greatly benefit from an overnight airing, so to speak. The skin ultimately becomes crispier, but that skin also serves as a barrier and holds moisture in the meat.
Finally, while medium-low heat might seem too low to achieve that lovely golden brown exterior, it beat higher heat levels when it came to delivering tender, juicy heat without overcooking. And as you can see by the photos, it provided enough heat to create the desired golden crust.