Chicken matters to me. Chicken is cheap. Chicken is protein. Chicken is low calorie. Did I mention chicken is cheap?
But home cooked chicken usually tastes like… Well… Have you cooked it yourself? (Of course you have.) I bet it was…uninspiring.
My own attempts rate anywhere from “cardboard laying on sidewalk in the sun” to “covered in sauce so I can pretend it doesn’t taste like a sock.”
Since college, I’ve dreamt of cooking chicken as delicious as Chick-Fil-A’s without having to deep fry it. I came to believe this was impossible. But I was wrong! Making truly great, juicy, delicious chicken at home is not only possible, it is actually cheap, fast, and takes only slightly more effort than the ole “toss it in a pan until it’s probably done” technique.
Here it is. Every damn thing you need to know, in the whole universe, about making supremely delicious chicken. At home, like a normal person. Without spending a lot of money. Or time. I call this recipe The World’s Most Perfect Chicken Breast for a Normal Human Being Who Probably Has a Job and Things To To Do Besides Just Cook.
What makes something taste good? Really good?
What makes all food delicious is a combination of flavors (bitter, sweet, sour, salt, and umami, aka savoriness or brothiness), mixed with our other senses (sight, smell, touch, mouthfeel, sound, and your thoughts about the food before eating it). All of our senses coming together in pleasant harmony: that’s what we mean when we say something tastes good.
But here’s the problem. Chicken cuts have very little fat. Chicken breast has effectively zero. This means that it does not taste good on its own. It needs a lot of help. But most importantly, chicken does not retain its water content well when cooking. This is why you end up with dry chicken, with both moisture and flavor flushed out during cooking, resulting in an unappetizing, boring fillet of Bland™.
So to fix that, and to change your chicken forever, here are the four, absolutely essential steps to making delicious chicken.
- Give it moisture
- Give it flavor
- Retain its moisture + flavor during and after cooking
- Cook to temperature, not to time
Here are three commonly used approaches to give your chicken moisture.
- Buy fattier chicken cuts
- Cook with more oil
- Deep fry
Fattier chicken cuts? Makes your job easier, but it only slightly improves the result.
Cook with more oil? In the pan or in the oven, what you will have is chicken whose outside is coated in fat, but the inside of the chicken will still be dry and tough. Doesn’t solve the problem.
Deep fry? So yummy! Served with a side of obesity, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. I mean, deep fried chicken has such a great taste, don’t get me wrong. But it is not something you want to be putting in your body on a regular basis. Not only is it expensive and messy and time consuming to make, the long term health consequences for your one lifetime on earth are simply not worth eating it regularly.
Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time for (drumroll please) the big reveal. The thing that matters most. The reason for this post. The method that will make you love your chicken like your firstborn. You will give your chicken moisture, give it flavor, and retain its moisture during cooking with brining.
This method is the big secret that every restaurant and food chain around the world uses to make their chicken taste so much better than yours. Brining. It is the amazingly simple cooking method that will change how you cook meat for the rest of your life (not kidding). A brine is one of those rare things in life that is so simple it seems like a trick, yet delivers massive results.
Without hyperbole or exaggeration, I absolutely believe that brining is the most important thing any home chef can learn when it comes to cooking meats. It’s not complicated. It’s extremely cheap. It takes very little planning. The results are gangbusters and totally asymmetric. Very little effort for a huge reward.
What is a brine?
A brine is a salt water solution. When cooking, you soak meat in this solution for a period of time before cooking. (How long you brine depends on the size of your meat. We’ll get to that.)
Here’s what happens when you leave your meat in a brine:
- at the cellular level, the meat absorbs (by diffusion) lots of the water and a little bit of the salt, drastically increasing the meat’s moisture, and
- the salt breaks down the structures of the meat proteins, causing them to now hold onto water molecules during the cooking process, which prevents dehydration, and finally,
- the salt causes a noticeable shift to a much smoother meat texture.
Just from salt water and a little time, yes, you too can save the world! Or at least cook some fine chicken. (Want to nerd out? Check out these slides into the molecular breakdown that occurs when you brine.)
- Do not put poultry (that means chicken!) into a warm brine. The brine must be cold. Putting poultry into warm water is a sure fire way to disease and infection. The brine must be cold, when the meat touches it for the first time.
- For those worried about too much sodium in their diets, don’t be.
This cold brine recipe is what I do 9 times out of 10. It’s faster, without sacrificing quality at all. If you’re trying to get fancy, and infuse spices into the middle of the meat, check out the hot brine below. But for most home cooking folks who just want perfectly succulent chicken, the cold brine is the fastest, easiest way to go. It’s what I’ll be doing tonight.
The Cold Brine Chicken Breast Recipe
Part 1: Prep
- 3-4 chicken breasts, each about 1 inch thick.
- 80-90 grams of kosher salt (note: it is absolutely essential that you weigh salt, and not measure it by volume. I recommend the Ozeri Pronto Food Scale. I got one myself three years ago, and it’s still working flawlessly, on the same battery.)
- 4 cups of cold water
- In a large bowl, stir salt into water to dissolve, until the water is clear.
- Place raw, unfrozen chicken breast into brine. Chicken should be totally covered by or free floating in the brine. Cover with tin foil.
- Place a baking sheet in the fridge. Put the covered bowl with chicken on the pan in the fridge. Leave for 60 minutes. (The baking sheet prevents any raw chicken juice from accidentally slipping into your fridge.)
- Take chicken out of brine, and let it sit for 30-60 minutes before cooking. (You can get away with skipping this step when pressed for time, but it does improve the meat when you let it sit.)
Part 2: Cook
- Pre-heat oven to 400° F.
- Drizzle olive oil on a large baking dish. Place chicken breasts in dish, each separated by an inch.
- Spice the heck out of those chicken breasts. I like to do a combination of Ancho Chile Pepper + Chili Pepper + light Cajun Spice + light Cayenne Pepper + Sea Salt + Pepper + Sriracha Sauce. But do whatever you fancy. And don’t forget to spice BOTH sides of those breasts!
- Cover baking dish with tin foil.
- Cook at 400 ° F in oven. Cook until the meat temp is 155° or 160° F. (After being taken out of the oven, a meat’s temperature will continue to rise several degrees. 165° is recommended for chicken.)
- I usually cook them for about 20-25 minutes, before stabbing them to check temp. Then I’ll check them a couple of more times. The closer you can get to cooking them to an exact temperature, the more delicious and juicy your meat will be.
- Let the meat sit 20 minutes before cutting into it. Don’t skip this!
- What? Why?! When meat is cooked, all of its moisture is forced to its outer edges. If you cut into it right after cooking, all of that moisture will get flushed out on to the cutting board. When you let meat sit, the moisture that is currently ballooning around the meat’s edges will reabsorb into the meat and equalize.
There it is. I swear, it is worth your effort to learn to cook chicken like this. You’ll need to hang around your home for about an hour and a half for everything. Now, if I had been told this back in my “cook everything in a stove top pan” days, I would think this all sounds like a lot of work. But it is hands down way less work. There’s no puttering around, adding oil to the pan, poking the chicken, stirring, flipping, etc. What is so amazing, is that this recipe only takes about 10 to 15 minutes of active time in the kitchen. It is a total breeze, and you won’t believe how good this chicken tastes.
How to Adapt this Recipe
Cooking more chicken? Less chicken? When brining, you have to take into consideration
- the thickness of the meat,
- the salt-to-water ratio, and
- the amount of time the meat sits in the brine.
Cooking 10 chicken breasts that are each an inch thick? Or cooking 3 chicken breasts that are each an inch thick? In both scenarios, soak the meat in the brine for the same amount of time. Time in the brine is determined by the thickness of the meat, and not how many pieces of meat.
If your chicken breasts are thinner or thicker, use these rules of thumb for how long to leave the meat in the brine, based off of the thickness of the meat:
- 1/2” thick meat: 1/2 hour
- 1” thick meat: 1 hour
- 2” thick meat: 3 hours
- 3” thick meat: 8 hours
- Thicker than that? See the bottom of this post for further reading.
A rule of thumb for your salt-to-water ratio is 5-10% salt to water. The amount of salt in the brine affects the time you’ll leave the meat soaking and the saltiness of the final product; however, for best results, most recipes sticks within the 5-10% range. You can increase the amount of salt in your brine, if you’re pressed for time and can’t leave the meat in the brine for very long, but it is risky and didn’t work out well when I tried it.
The type of salt matters. A lot. FYI don’t use Himalayan sea salt. It’s quite expensive, and is actually worse for brining than cheaper versions because of the size of the crystals. I have brined with 3 types of salt, and strongly recommend kosher salt for your brine. (If you don’t know what kosher salt is, don’t worry: every grocery store carries it. And it’s cheap.)
The Hot Brine Chicken Recipe
Do everything the same as the cold brine recipe, except these differences:
- Stir the salt into the water, and add your own spices and flavors that you would like to infuse into the chicken. Dry spices, alcohol, reductions, etc.
- Boil this solution. Stir to dissolve ingredients.
- Let it cool completely, down to room temperature, before putting the chicken in it. (The cooling down is essential, for food safety reasons.) Cooling can take quite some time, and adds about an hour to the recipe.
This allows you to be creative with the flavors. It does add a good bit of time to the process, since you must wait for the brine to completely cool before soaking the chicken in it. In general, I only do this when I am cooking for guests. It’s nice, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference that I think an added hour of time is worth it on a regular basis.
Why do I need a thermometer and food scale?
It’s not possible to cook consistently high quality meats without a thermometer. I promise. I tried, for years. It ain’t happening. Bite the bullet. Get a thermometer.
I do not recommend mercury thermometers, or the cheap Kroger/Wal-Mart brand thermometers: they’re either full of poison (mercury!) or highly inaccurate, which will mean dried out meats, or a broken thermometer in a few months. Last year, I bought the Lavatools Javelin, an instant-read thermometer, and it’s so amazing that I now pack it with me when I travel. I never traveled with cooking gear before, until I got this thermometer. The last time I visited my family, I used the Javelin to make chicken breasts for the whole family. They thought it was so good, they all asked me to make it again the next night, and two of my family members ended up getting their own instant-read thermometers for their own cooking.
And why the food scale? Salt (and, in fact, many ingredients) cannot be measured accurately by volume, with your typical cup measurements. Read more on the different weights of salts.