12 Tips to Keep Chicken Tender and Tasty
Last Updated: Jan 30, 2017
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Chicken is one of the most popular foods on plates in the United States today. In 2016, the average American consumed nearly 90 pounds of chicken! Poultry’s popularity is not surprising, due to its pleasing taste and versatility. Many forms are readily available, from comforting nuggets to healthful rotisserie-style chicken. What’s more, chicken contributes significantly lower greenhouse-gas emissions than beef, so it’s generally a preferred pick by the environmentally conscientious. There are plenty of preparation and cooking methods from which to choose too. Try these 12 top tips and tricks for tender and tasty chicken!
FRESHEST IS BEST
The fresher the chicken, the better-tasting it can be. For the best quality, cook with chicken that you pick up fresh on the day that you’re planning to prepare it. But if that’s not realistic for you, store fresh chicken in the coldest part of your refrigerator for up to two days. If it’s frozen, whole chicken can keep its quality for up to a year (chicken parts for nine months) when properly wrapped. Before using frozen chicken, be sure all parts of it are completely thawed in the fridge for the most even cooking results. And when ready to prepare any chicken, don’t let it hang out too long at room temperature. The safest bet is to cook it within one hour of it reaching your countertop for meal prep. Set a timer so you don’t forget.
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COOK TILL DONE, NOT OVERDONE
Due to concerns about salmonella, a foodborne illness associated with raw or undercooked chicken, some people tend to overcompensate. They may actually cook chicken so long that it becomes dried out, losing it natural lusciousness. Since chicken is lean, this can happen in just a few minutes of overcooking. So to make sure chicken is well done -- not under- or overcooked -- use a meat thermometer. The safe minimum internal temperature for chicken is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you don’t have access to a meat thermometer, gently poke chicken with a fork: The juices should be clear, not pink.
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CHOOSE THE RIGHT COOKING METHOD FOR THE CUT OF CHICKEN
Chicken is a multitasker, so many cooking methods will work quite well with it. But some cuts lend themselves best to specific techniques. Dry-heat cooking, such as grilling, broiling, sauteing and roasting or baking, will give chicken a lovely brownness, which makes it extra tasty. But if you’re using a boneless, skinless chicken breast, skip the roasting because it may strip away its juiciness. Moist-heat cooking, such as poaching and stewing, can bring out full chicken flavors and keep it juicy. It works with most chicken parts, however, you might want to skip it if using whole chicken or wings. When it doubt, grill chicken. Grilling works with all cuts, with or without bones and/or skin. What’s the most versatile chicken part? The thigh -- it’ll be tender and tasty using any technique!
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PRACTICE THE THREE PS OF GRILLING: PREPARING, POUNDING AND POLITENESS
First, prepare the grill, lightly rubbing the grates with oil to help prevent lean chicken from sticking. Then heat the gas, charcoal or electric grill to medium-high for most chicken parts. If possible, plan to keep part of the grill at low heat. This area can ideally be used to place any pieces that have developed deep grill markings on the outside, but still need a little extra cooking on the inside. While all chicken parts are suitable for direct grilling, a favorite pick is boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Lightly pound them using a kitchen mallet to assure they each have the same thickness in all parts of the breast (this will prevent overcooking of the thinnest areas). Finally, don’t get carried away with too much flipping, squeezing or smashing chicken on the grill. This can lead to loss of juices, which ultimately causes dry chicken. Simply be polite to your poultry.
SEASON INSIDE, OUTSIDE AND UNDER THE SKIN WHEN ROASTING CHICKEN
Roasting is a dry-heat cooking method that results in well-browned chicken with a tender, moist interior. Even if you don’t eat the skin, leave it on during roasting to keep the chicken succulently moist. Roasting isn’t ideal for boneless, skinless chicken; it’s best for bone-in chicken with skin, especially whole chicken. You don’t need a formal recipe. The key is to season it every which way! Place a whole (four-pound) chicken in a roasting pan. Pat dry with unbleached paper towels. Stuff the chicken cavity with a few garlic cloves and rosemary or other herb sprigs. Rub the skin with extra-virgin olive oil and squirt with the juice of a lemon. Place lemon peels in the chicken cavity. (Hint: For extra flavor, especially if not planning to eat the skin, gently loosen the skin and lightly rub under it with a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, minced rosemary or other herb and salt.) Then season the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. Tuck wings underneath the chicken and roast in a preheated 425 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes. Reduce to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and roast until well done (about 45 minutes more). Let stand for 15 minutes to allow the juices to settle.
PROPERLY BREADING AND BAKING LEADS TO SUCCULENT CHICKEN BREASTS
Technically, roasting and baking are the same. But when breading chicken and cooking it in the oven, it’s generally termed “baking.” Traditional roasting is not ideal for boneless, skinless chicken breast. Luckily, breading and baking creates a delicious result. There are two important steps: 1) Use chicken with even thickness (if it’s boneless), and 2) use a three-step breading process. For boneless, skinless chicken, pound with a kitchen mallet to create an even thickness. For three-step breading, arrange the following in separate shallow bowls: (1) flour, such as whole-wheat pastry flour; 2) a mixture of eggs, a splash of cold water and seasonings (i.e., salt, pepper and minced garlic); and 3) a mixture of whole-grain breadcrumbs and a little salt. Season uncooked chicken, then dip each piece into the flour, egg and then breadcrumb mixtures. Shake off excess between steps. (Hint: Reserve your right hand for dry and left hand for wet ingredients.) Spritz breaded chicken with natural cooking spray and bake in a preheated 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven until done (about 20 minutes).
“FLASH-FRY” TO GET FRIED SATISFACTION WITHOUT EXCESS CALORIES
“Flash-frying” is not a standard cooking technique; it’s a combination method (I crafted it for my book, “1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes”). However, it’s one way to get deep-fried satisfaction for fewer calories. Try it for any chicken part, including chicken fingers. Here’s how: Marinate one pound (about 12 strips) of boneless, skinless chicken breast in a mixture of three-quarters of a cup of buttermilk, a couple of minced garlic cloves and half a teaspoon of salt in a bowl for 30 to 45 minutes. (Note: Buttermilk is a natural tenderizer.) One at a time, shake excess marinade off the chicken strip, then coat with a seasoned whole-wheat breadcrumb mixture (three-quarters of a cup total). Fully heat two or more cups of refined sunflower or safflower oil in a large skillet over high heat. In two batches, submerge chicken and fry for just one minute to nicely brown the coating. Then place undercooked fingers onto a rack set on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 425 degrees Fahrenheit oven until fully cooked, about seven to eight minutes. Only a little oil actually ends up in the entire batch of these crispy chicken strips.
LESS OIL IS BEST WHEN SAUTEING AND STIR-FRYING
Sauteing and stir-frying are actually considered dry-heat cooking methods. They work well with lean chicken pieces since they involve cooking over medium-high or high heat to seal in juices, protect flavor and impart a lovely brownness. Follow these helpful tips for the best finished chicken dish. First and foremost, don’t go overboard on oil. This is not deep-frying. You’ll actually obtain better results from using a minimal amount of oil. There will also be less splattering and potential burning. The oil you choose matters too. Pick oil that has a high “smoke point” for stir-frying over high heat (such as refined avocado or sunflower oils) and at least a medium-high smoke point for sauteing (such as refined grapeseed or walnut oils). Finally, since sauteing and stir-frying are quick cooking methods, be sure the chicken pieces are of similar size and are added at about the same time to the hot pan so all of them are done at once.
POACH IN FLAVORFUL LIQUID, BUT DO NOT BOIL
Want to make fresh chicken salad? Consider poaching the chicken. Poaching is a moist-heat cooking method that requires a relatively low temperature. If you see bubbles, your poaching liquid is too hot! Boiling chicken can actually cause dryness and a tough texture. So keep your chicken calm. What should you use for a poaching liquid? Basically, any liquid that can impart flavor. Plain old water won’t do. Add salt along with aromatics. Try cinnamon sticks and smashed garlic for a Middle Eastern flair, for instance. For fragrant intrigue and a punch of nutrition, poach in unsweetened jasmine tea or green tea. Or if calories aren’t a concern, poach in real orange juice or even white wine. For best results, add bone-in skinless chicken to cold poaching liquid till it’s just submerged, bring to a simmer and then (as soon as you see small bubbles around the edges of the pot) reduce heat to low and poach until done. In a hurry? Go ahead and cube the chicken before you poach it. It won’t be quite as tender, but it’ll be ready in minutes.
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SLOW COOKING ON LOW CAN YIELD THE MOST TENDER CHICKEN
Preparing chicken in a slow cooker blends flavors scrumptiously and easily. It works with any cut of chicken for dishes ranging from comforting soups to party-friendly pulled chicken for sandwiches. Using skinless chicken thighs -- with or without the bone -- will get you rave reviews. If you prefer chicken with the skin on, saute it first to brown and crisp the skin, then transfer to the cooker. Not sure where to start? “Wing” it without a recipe for a foolproof chicken and vegetable dish! Here’s what to do: Fill a slow cooker two-thirds full with seasonal vegetables of choice, add a generous splash of apple cider vinegar (it provides bonus flavor and tenderization), top with one to one-and-a-half pounds of chicken (i.e., boneless, skinless chicken thighs) and add salt, pepper and other seasonings of choice. Be playful: Try sprinkling with curry powder and ginger for a memorable curry! To cook, cover tightly and slow cook on low for six hours (or a little longer). Hint: Seal with foil if the lid doesn’t form a tight seal. Serve as is or over whole grains.
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MARINATING, BRINING OR CHOOSING THIGHS FOR THE MOST MOISTNESS
Consider using a marinade or brine to add flavor and boost moistness in chicken before a dry-heat cooking method. For boneless chicken pieces that can rest flat in a pan or bowl, use a marinade. You can make your own or use a bottled vinaigrette of choice. A little healthful fat is good when choosing lean chicken breast! Add uncooked chicken to the marinade and refrigerate covered for two hours before cooking (such as by grilling or sauteing). For bone-in chicken with skin, use brine rather than a marinade. For a simple brine, dissolve about a quarter-cup of salt in one quart of cold water in a large bowl. Add uncooked chicken to cold brine and refrigerate covered for two hours before cooking. Then rinse off the brine and “air chill” the chicken in the fridge so the skin dries and can crisp nicely during cooking. Don’t want to marinate or brine or just don’t want the extra sodium? Think thighs! Grill or pan-grill for the most succulent results.
DON’T FORGET HERBS AND SPICES AND OTHER THINGS NICE
Chicken has a mild-mannered flavor, but you can make it more memorable (even wild!) with just a pinch of herbs or spice. You can’t go wrong by first seasoning with salt and pepper. Chicken goes nicely with nearly any herb or spice; but some of the best herb pairings are fresh rosemary, tarragon, mint, cilantro, thyme, parsley, basil and sage. A few of the loveliest spice matches are ginger, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cumin and chili powder. If you plan to roast or grill chicken, massage your chosen dry seasoning mixture onto the chicken. This is called a “dry rub.” Try a worldly spice blend like jerk seasoning, garam masala or Cajun seasoning for taste-bud intrigue. Not a spice fan? Pair chicken with a high-flavored sauce like barbecue, tamari, pesto or miso. Use a sauce before or during cooking to add flavor and caramelization; use it after cooking for flavor and juiciness.
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