Cooking better breasts

Kathleen Purvis

When you need to turn out a fast, tasty and healthful weeknight dinner, it ought to be so easy to reach for skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

They cook quickly, you can do endless things with them, and while they cost a little more than other cuts, what you get is all meat, no waste.

Except for the downsides: Skinless, boneless chicken breasts can be boring. If you overcook them, you end up sawing away at a plank of compressed leather. With no bone or skin, you don’t get much to carry flavor, either. (Yes, I know — you could cook a skin-on breast and throw away the golden, crispy skin, but let’s face it: It’s golden, crispy skin. Who has the willpower to resist that?)

I decided to hit the kitchen with a big tray of naked breasts and figure out what really makes a difference in turning them into fantastic weeknight dinners.

I tasted several cooking methods, and came up with five dishes that use things you either have on hand or can grab in a supermarket on the way home — and still have a shopping basket light enough to use the speed lane.


I picked three methods for prepping the breasts and two methods for cooking them.

Now, common wisdom says that if you want a juicy breast that doesn’t dry out, you need to go hot and fast in a skillet. That doesn’t turn out to be true.

Using fresh breasts, I rubbed one with plain yogurt and refrigerated it for an hour; I wet-brined one in 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of water for 30 minutes; and I dry-brined one, simply sprinkling both sides of a breast with 1 teaspoon of salt and refrigerating it, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

While yogurt makes a great breast if you’re going to grill or roast it, it’s not the best for pan-searing. It’s messy and doesn’t get that great golden color, plus the yogurt can clash with other ingredients in a recipe. Wet-brining is fine, but it’s messy, too, and it can make the cooking juices too watery.

Hands down, the best method is dry brining: It’s simple, and it gets quick results. While you can salt and refrigerate breasts in the morning to cook that night, even doing it for 30 minutes results in a noticeably juicy and flavorful piece of chicken.

Next, I tried two cooking methods. One, on, gets a lot of recommendations. You flavor the breasts with salt, freshly ground pepper and Italian seasoning or herbs (those are optional), then heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Place the breasts in the pan and cook for 1 minute, then turn them, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Finally, you turn off the heat and let the chicken stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

While it did make a juicy breast, I had trouble getting it cooked through. Breasts vary so much in size that a large breast was still pink in the middle. While it was definitely juicy, it didn’t get that golden appearance, either. It would make good chicken salad, but it wasn’t the best overall method.

The second cooking method was developed by food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt of and the author of “The Kitchen Lab.” While some of his methods can be complicated, this is as simple as it gets: You pat the breasts dry with paper towels, then dry-brine, sprinkling them with salt and pepper (1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper for 4 breasts). Refrigerate them, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Pat them dry again before cooking.

To cook them, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium-low until it shimmers. Place the breasts in the skillet, smooth side down. Cook for 9 minutes without moving them, until they’re pale gold underneath and release from the pan without sticking. Add 1 teaspoon butter and swirl it around a little, lifting the breasts to get it underneath, and cook 1 minute. Turn the breasts and cook 6 minutes or until the center registers 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and let stand for 3 minutes.

Now, that’s a great skinless, boneless chicken breast: Golden brown and appetizing, flavored all the way through, and as juicy as I’ve ever had.

Now that you’ve got a great breast, you can use it as a main dish or take it a little farther with these recipes. We’ve got five, enough for a whole week of dinners.


No matter which method you use, these are always worth doing to cook the best skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

Pound: Breasts tend to be uneven, with a thick end and a skinny end, which makes it hard to cook the thick end without overcooking the thin end. To cook them evenly, it’s worth the extra step. Place them on a sheet of plastic wrap, cover with another sheet of wrap and give them a few whacks with a kitchen mallet, focusing on the thicker end. You don’t have to beat them as flat as paper, just even them out a little.

Pat dry: You’ll get a much better sear and a better chance of getting that nice golden color. It sounds like a contradiction: You want them moist, right? But you’ll get that if the meat is dry on the outside so it develops a better sear, sealing the moisture inside where you want it.

Use a thermometer: An undercooked breasts isn’t safe, but an overcooked one isn’t tasty. Use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the thickest end gets to 155 degrees. Carry-over heat will take it to 165 degrees, which is safe, without drying them out.

Thaw smartly: Skinless, boneless chicken breasts can be expensive, but there’s no waste. If you buy them frozen and you don’t have time to thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, take out the number of breasts that you need, put them in a resealable plastic bag and put them in a sink of cold water. They’ll thaw in 30 minutes. Make sure you pat them dry before you cook them.

Hummus-Crusted Chicken on Vegetables

Adapted from You can vary this by season, using zucchini and summer squash in summer. For a winter twist, I used diced butternut squash and onions, or you could use carrots or sweet potatoes. Just make sure the vegetables are cut up small enough that they’ll cook in 30 minutes.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 to 3 cups diced butternut squash

1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1 cup hummus (plain, or you could try a flavored one, like red pepper)

1 lemon

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the oil in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Add the squash and onions, stirring them around to coat with the oil, then spread them in an even layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then place on top of the vegetables. Cover each breast with hummus, spreading to the edges. Squeeze the lemon juice over the whole dish, then sprinkle with a little smoked paprika.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, the hummus coating is lightly browned and the vegetables are fork-tender.

Yield: 4 servings.

Pimento-Cheese-Stuffed Baked Chicken Breasts

Oh, my. The version of pimento cheese you use is important. A thick, coarse style is important so it doesn’t melt too fast. I used Palmetto Cheese in testing. Some will still leak out, but you can push it back in (and if any of it browns, who doesn’t love browned cheese?)

2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1 egg

1/2 to 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs (or panko)

2 to 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1/4 to 1/2 cup pimento cheese, prepared or homemade

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and coat lightly with 1 teaspoon olive oil.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the egg in a shallow bowl and lightly beat. Spread the breadcrumbs on a plate.

Place each chicken breast on a work surface. Holding it flat with your hand, use a sharp knife to cut into it from the side but not all the way through, opening it like a book. Spread about 2 tablespoons pimento cheese inside, then fold over the top and press to close.

Turn the breast over, smooth side down, and place in the beaten egg and then into the crumbs, just coating the top side. Place on the lined pan, crumb side up. Repeat with the remaining breasts.

Drizzle each breast with a little oil and bake for 30 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the chicken is cooked through.

Yield: 4 servings.

Apricot-Chili Glazed Chicken Breasts

Years ago, there was a very popular chicken dish with a sauce made from apricot preserves, chili sauce and dried onion soup mix. That was the inspiration here, skipping the salty soup mix for Dijon mustard and a little garlic powder. It makes beautifully glazed chicken for slicing and serving on a bed of rice.

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup apricot preserves

1/4 cup bottled chili sauce

11/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon butter

Pat the chicken dry and sprinkle with salt. If you have time, refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes (optional). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan, combine the apricot preserves, chili sauce, mustard and garlic powder. Heat over medium-low, stirring, until the preserves are melted and it’s all combined.

Heat the vegetable oil and butter in an ovenproof skillet over medium-low heat until it shimmers. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and place each breast in the pan, smooth side down. Cook for about 4 minutes, until it’s starting to brown underneath.

Turn the chicken breasts and pour the sauce over them, making sure you coat the chicken well. Place the skillet in the oven and bake about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve with the thickened sauce in the pan drizzled over it.

Yield: 4 servings.

Chicken With Goat Cheese Vinaigrette and Pasta

Adapted from

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon butter

About 6 ounces uncooked penne pasta

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 ounces (1/2 cup) crumbled fresh goat cheese

About 1 cup small tomatoes (grape or cherry), halved or quartered

Place the chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a kitchen mallet to flatten the thick end and create an even thickness. Pat dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta, stirring so it doesn’t stick, and cook as directed, about 10 to 11 minutes, and drain.

While the pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Place the chicken in the skillet, smooth side down, and cook about 9 minutes, until golden underneath. Turn the chicken and spread the tomatoes around the skillet. Continue cooking, turning the tomatoes occasionally, about 6 minutes or until the chicken is done.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil, parsley and pepper flakes. Fold in the crumbled goat cheese.

Divide between plates. Top each serving with a chicken breast and some of the tomatoes. Drizzle the goat cheese dressing over the chicken and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Creamy Balsamic Skillet Chicken

From “The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook,” by Mary Younkin (Page Street, 2016).

11/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small yellow onion, sliced

2 to 3 cloves minced garlic (or about 1/2 teaspoon bottled minced garlic)

8 ounces mushrooms (stem ends trimmed), quartered

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup heavy cream

11/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried

Cut each chicken breast lengthwise into 2 or 3 strips, then cut each strip in two. Cover with plastic wrap and pound lightly, to make small cutlets. Set aside.

In a wide skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes, then add the garlic and cook 1 minute.

Combine the flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon paper on a plate. Dip each piece of chicken and place in the skillet with the onions and garlic. Cook, turning occasionally, until just a little golden and browned but not cooked all the way through. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate and set aside.

Add the chicken broth and balsamic vinegar to the pan, then add the mushrooms and remaining salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits and turning the mushrooms. Cook 2 or 3 minutes.

Add the cream, then return all the chicken pieces to the pan, turning to coat with the sauce. Simmer about 3 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens a little. Sprinkle with the thyme and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.