Chicken. For the last 60 years, it has been the most popular meat in America. And no wonder. It’s inexpensive, easy to prepare, and, most important of all, delicious.
Chicken hasn’t always been a food for the masses. Up until World War II, chicken was primarily grown on small farms and were used, not for food, but for eggs. Chicken was generally only cooked when the hens could no longer lay eggs or the roosters became too old. Chicken has been called the “Gospel Bird” because Sunday was the most frequent day it was eaten. The pastor or priest would come over to the house for Sunday dinner and would be offered the best piece. After mass food production was developed during World War II, chicken became readily available to most Americans; inexpensive, and the most popular protein in America today.
Now from the history lesson to the cooking lesson…
I’ve said in many of my cooking classes that chicken is one of the great blank canvases of the culinary world. And boneless, skinless chicken breast is the blankest of all canvases. They have little flavor on their own, can be easily overcooked and dry, and, most important for many people, have little to no fat. They are easily the most popular part of the chicken.
You can remedy most of the shortcomings of boneless, skinless chicken breast with a few simple steps. Marinating them for several hours, or up to overnight, will help with flavor. Using a little olive oil will add fat without ruining whatever diet you may be on. But, if you overcook the chicken, all of the flavor you add won’t make a bit of difference.
So, here are some rather large boneless, skinless breasts. They will vary in size depending on the brand (Tyson, etc.), whether the chicken was raised conventionally, or is organic or free range:
You want to trim the breasts of any bone fragments (usually rib) , cartilage (from the keel bone) , and excess fat (usually found on the underside of the breast closest to the thigh and outer edge).
Now, a great way to add some flavor and moisture to the chicken is marinating. In this illustration, I marinated the chicken in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and red pepper flakes. But, you can use any flavor combination you like.
Another favorite in our house is a marinade of ground cumin, salt, and olive oil. It’s Provençal. And it’s delicious.
I like to take a zip bag, usually a gallon size, put in the chicken and pour in the marinade. Massage (for lack of a better word) the bag so the marinade completely coats the chicken. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can, close it, and then place it in the refrigerator. (If you have a vacuum sealer, now is the time to use it.) I like to marinate the chicken at least 8 hours. Perfect for doing before you leave the house in the morning.
Be sure to thoroughly clean the counter and utensils when you’re done. This will prevent cross contamination.
When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly coat with non-stick spray. Place the breasts on the sheet, leaving space in between the breasts. I also pour the extra marinade over the chicken.
I do an initial baking time of 20 minutes. After the initial cooking time, I use an instant read thermometer to check if the internal temperature is 140F. (When you use the thermometer, insert it into the thickest part of the breast. Be sure not to touch the baking sheet.) If it’s not, I’ll put the chicken back in the oven for 5-minute increments. It’s rare that it takes longer than 30 minutes for chicken breasts to cook. If you have hot spots in your oven, rotate the baking sheet halfway through the cooking time.
If the chicken breasts are cooked above 140F, they become dry. And that is what you are trying to avoid.
The minimum safe temperature for hot foods is 140F. At that point most bacteria is dead. However, most food safety sites recommend poultry be cooked to 165F to kill all salmonella. If this is something that concerns you, cook the chicken to 165F. The cooking time will increase to 30 – 45 minutes. But, the chicken will be powdery dry. It’s up to you.
Let the chicken rest for about 10 minutes once you’ve taken it out of the oven. This will allow the juices to settle back into the meat.
During the warmer months (which in Texas is 8-9 months of the year), I’ll serve the chicken with just a large salad. When the temperatures are cooler, I’ll serve it with a starch and a vegetable.
Hope this was helpful. Enjoy.