SC writes: “I’d like to switch over to eating chicken breast instead of just wings, with the occasional leg or thigh, but every time I make white meat it tastes like ‘nothing’ and gets very dry. No matter how I prepare it. Please help.”
There is a follow up part to the question as I have been very slow in answering, in which she reveals that she has already tried brining but that the sugar and salt involved in brining seem counterintuitive to the whole trying to eat healthier reason for the dark to light meat switch.
Tooling around on this here Intarweb, I have discovered that brining chicken and, more so even, turkeys (I have not a vessel or a refrigerator big enough to even entertain this one) is very popular among cooks who like to brag, I mean, talk about it in their blogs. One fact that someone mentioned that I was unaware of is that the brine needs to be cool so the poultry doesn’t absorb too much salt. I thought it was so you didn’t set up a perfect incubator for salmonella. I guess that makes two reasons to get the brine cold before you toss in the chicky. Bork, bork, bork.
So, what we need here is a way to cook chicken breasts without brining them that doesn’t reduce them to dried out husks of things that formerly resembled chicken breasts. I do have a few thoughts on this. And as cooking chicken breasts all damn day was the focus of Culinary II and every production exam therein, I’ve had opportunity to put some of this crazy thought to the test.
The most crucial element with any of these methods is that the chicken not be over cooked. Over cooking can turn even a brined boob into pasteboard. Chicken, to kill off any trace of the salmonella bug, needs to be cooked to 165°F. Yes, your handy, dandy insta-read cheat sheet on the thermometer says 185°F for chicken and pork. These people are primarily covering their asses. To hit that magic 165°F you need to get the chicken to come to 155-160°F and let the magic of carry over cooking take it to the final target. That way you aren’t cooking the chicken to 165°F and carry over is taking it on to 170 or 175°F, making it in the immortal words of my father, dryer than a popcorn fart.
You do not have to add sugar to a brine. You can stick with salt and amp it up with herbs that match the recipe in which the chicken will be used. You can also add dried fruit to a brine for the hit of sugar without the refined white stuff. You can also skip the brine all together and marinate the bad boys, um, girls. Granted, a marinade is usually going to contain some fat, but if you use olive or canola oil it will be the good kinds of fat with good cholesterol boosting omegas.
Another technique that is going to help with not over cooking is evening out the playing field. Chicken breasts have a thick, rounded end and a thin, pointy end. By the time the thick, rounded end has hit the 155-160°F target the thin, pointy end will be upwards of 185°F and every bit of moisture will be lost to the surrounding ethers. One way to even things out is to pound the breast nearly flat and about 1/2″ thick with a meat pounder or the flat of a heavy sauté or a straight rolling pin (the dowel kind not the handled kind). This creates, in fancy cooking terms, a paillard, which in non-fancy cooking terms is a flattened piece of protein from some sort of animal. Paillards cook quickly and evenly and because they are thin, they absorb brines or marinades quickly and almost all the way through.
Another method that skips brining or marinating and pounding things flat would be to poach the breasts. I know. Poached chicken breast smacks of Junior League “Ladies Who Luncheon” but they can be saved from the realm of pineapple rings and cold ham. The trick is getting as much tasty aromatics as possible into the water. My personal favorite is lemon grass, ginger, lime slices and fish sauce. Poaching happens at about 180°F. At this temperature, you just want to see the occasional bubble, not a swiftly moving surface as with a boil or continuous bubbles as with a simmer. Still watch the breasts for that magic temperature of 155-160°F. It is still entirely possible to over cook and dry out a piece of chicken in water. Crazy but true. Since, I am assuming there will be no hosting of the Mrs. John Whoziwotsits and Mrs. George Wotzizfaces, you can skip the next abomination that usually occurs after chicken breasts are poached involving aspic or mayonnaise swathing. They will be pale, but up against some sautéed dark leafies or some roasted red peppers, pale is nice. If you go more continental with the flavorings in the water, you can sprinkle some smoked Spanish paprika over them for some cool retro kitsch with a contemporary kick. Oh, also if you poach the chicken on the bone, you will be making a light brothy type stock at the same time. The Asian inspired one makes a great base for miso soup.
My last method for keeping the moisture in those twisted protein fibers would be to set up a standard breading station with health consciousness as the main cue. Imagine this scene: On a plate are chicken paillards, dried with paper toweling. In the first shallow bowl is seasoned flour (AP flour, salt and pepper, and whatever dried herbs and spices go with the final destination recipe of the dearly departed fowl). In the second bowl is one egg well whisked with a tablespoon of water. In the third bowl are crunchy bits of choice, mine is usually panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or home made bread crumbs made by drying out bread in the oven and pulverizing it in the food processor. To the crunchy bits you can add more of the spices or dried herbs, but skip the salt and pepper. Finally on a baking tray that will go into a 375°F oven, there is a piece of parchment paper spritzed with canola oil. Dredge, shake off excess flour, swim in egg, drip off excess egg, coat in crunchy bits, set on a rack to air dry about 15 minutes. After the egg glue has dried and your coating isn’t going anywhere, arrange the paillards on said parchment layered, oil-spritzed tray and then spritz the tops with olive or canola oil and bake for ten to 15 minutes or until golden brown and delicious. Not the least caloric method but tasty and a fine alternative to going completely Southern-fried.
Chicken breasts seem to be the bane of the modern cook. We know they are good for us. They are the most easily purchased, though not the least expensive, cut of poultry to buy. Yet, yet… they are done to death as the light option at restaurants or smothered in cheese and canned mushroom sauce as the not-light option. They are stringy and dry more often than not and eating them seems to have become a chore we all endure in the name of not getting any fatter or in the hopes of getting thinner. Joylessness should not be part of our cuisine. Try the above and see if it helps. If not, the occasional well-trimmed, skinless chicken thigh won’t hurt.