Chicken is a fantastic product to use, and there are probably only a few households that never cook with it. But, for such a popular piece of meat, it is not always the easiest to get right. From dried out pieces of chicken breast to that unappetizing raw centre, we have all managed to make some mistakes while preparing and cooking chicken. But luckily, with a few pointers there is no reason why should ever serve a bad piece of chicken again!
Although some pieces of chicken can be quite unforgiving, others are much less so. Knowing what to do with which piece often makes all the difference, and with proper preparation techniques, you will be a chicken fundi.
Here it is important to understand that the issue is not necessarily with brine-injection itself. Rather, industrial brining attempts to mask deficiencies in both texture and flavor. With this you end up buying a lower quality product from the start, but won’t know it until it is cooked. Thus, you are better of purchasing higher quality chicken and injecting it with your own brine or marinade at home.
The two main reasons for brining chicken are to maintain moisture and to have it cook evenly. This is exactly what we want since chicken can easily be overcooked. Another benefit of brining chicken, apart from seasoning it, is that it helps to denature the proteins and therefore makes it more tender. Brining involves soaking the chicken in a solution of salt water, to which you can also add sugar and some herbs.
Unfortunately, boneless chicken breasts are difficult to cook properly. Although they are easy to cook in the sense of cooking quickly and not having much prep work, they are easy to dry out since they don’t have much bone or fat to retain moisture. Bone-in thighs, on the other hand, are much more forgiving since the bone actually helps with moisture retention. As an added benefit, the bone and fat pack a ton of flavor.
Freezing actually dehydrates meat, which is something many people don’t realize. Thus, when you cook with previously frozen chicken, you can be sure to expect dry meat. Instead, we want juicy chicken. So be sure to observe whether or not your chicken products have the label “fresh, never frozen” on it (although it even this is not always reliable). Speak with your local butcher just to be on the safe side.
If you take chicken directly out of the fridge, it’s going to need a longer time in the pan to heat up since it is so cold. This can make you overcook the piece of meat and dry it out, and can also lead to uneven cooking. Leave your chicken on the counter for about 20 minutes to come to room temperature and then use it in your dish. But be sure not to leave it out for too long. You want tender meat, not Salmonella poisoning!
We want to have a nice sear on the piece of meat, which leads to delicious caramelization. A high temperature pan is very important for this. But since you are using a high heat, avoid butter and extra virgin olive oil; they have lower smoking points compared to canola or coconut oil. Start with your chicken skin side down. When you turn it over after about eight or so minutes, then turn down the heat.
If you are cooking chicken breasts, remember that it is a lean type of meat. This means that it can dry out pretty quickly. So, if you roast whole chicken breasts, be careful not to overcook it. This can be very tricky, but luckily a simple kitchen thermometer comes to the rescue! As soon as your piece for chicken registers 165°F (74°C), it’s cooked and safe to eat. If you cook it any longer, then you will end up with a dry piece of meat.
Removing the skin off of a piece of chicken is indeed a healthier option (although the extent of the benefit debatable), but you end up compromising on juiciness. The skin will help the piece of chicken to retain more fat and moisture, and at the same time will itself become crispy. So, if you are really trying to follow an extremely health-conscious lifestyle, you might be willing to tolerate a drier piece of meat. But if you prefer your chicken juicy, then leave the skin.
This sounds strange at first glance, but the thing is this: we want to have a delicious caramelized crust on the outside of the chicken, while at the same time having it juicy inside. What makes this difficult to do when cooking chicken as is, is that moisture is the enemy of crispiness, but low moisture also means a dry piece of meat! To fix this, you first brine the piece of meat, and then dry it in the for up to four hours.
By now most us know that a good piece of steak needs to rest before we dive into it. The same is true for chicken. By having it rest for few minutes, the juices get time redistribute back through the meat, instead of just all flowing out when you cut it. This will negate all the effort you put into getting the piece of chicken so moist in the first place!