We’ve all cooked chicken before that has come out tough, dry, and chewy. But through the years, I’ve learned a couple of tips for moist and tender chicken that I’d like to share with you. If you follow these steps, you will have juicy cuts of chicken every time. I am also including links to some chicken dishes you can try your luck with.
Chicken is the go-to meat when we want to get dinner on the table fast. It’s versatile, it’s readily-available, it’s cheap, and it’s mild so it can be combined with an infinite number of flavors. Yet so many people don’t know the proper way to cook it! The most important part is not the method — it doesn’t matter whether you pan fry, deep fry, bake, grill, poach, or steam — it’s the preparation. This article is pretty wordy, but it explains why each step is important:
- Carry over cooking – Did you know that chicken (and all other meats) continue to cook even after you take them away from the source of heat? The internal temperature of a whole bird or breast or thigh will continue to rise after you finish cooking. So you should actually take your chicken off the heat source while it is still a bit raw on the inside. (Note: chicken cut into pieces is too small to allow any carry over cooking, so skip this step if you are cooking small pieces.)
- Don’t overcook – USDA guidelines recommend cooking your poultry to 165°F. This temperature is high enough to kill the bacteria in the meat. I suggest you get a good instant read thermometer and take the meat off the pan/grill or out of the oven the moment the internal temperature reaches 160°F and then let it reach 165°F during carry over cooking. If you let it cook any longer, your chicken will get hotter and drier by the minute.
- Room temperature chicken — This is probably the most important advice I can give you. Let your chicken come to room temperature before you cook it. If you put cold chicken on the pan, the heat dries out the meat on the outside before the inside is done. Room temperature meat cooks more evenly and fewer juices leak out or evaporate during cooking. Let your chicken sit out on the counter for 30 minutes to an hour before cooking. Try marinating at room temperature; it absorbs quicker. While you might marinade something for 3 hours in the fridge, it only takes about 45 minutes at room temperature.
- Similar sized pieces — If you are cooking whole breasts or thighs, make sure to either pound them to a uniform thickness or slice them horizontally into evenly-thick pieces before cooking (aka butterfly). If you are cutting chunks or strips, cut them into uniformly-sized pieces so they finish cooking at the same time. This is important because you don’t want the skinnier parts or smaller pieces of your chicken to be cooked while other parts are raw. That leads the smaller parts to dry out while you’re waiting for the thicker parts to cook through.
- Higher fat content — Higher fat equals more flavor and more tender meat. When you cook, the fat melts and moistens the cut of chicken. That’s the reason I prefer chicken thigh meat to breast meat. The breasts are too lean for my tastes. However, if you follow the other steps, you can get juicy and tender chicken breasts as well.
- Hot (but not too hot) and heavy pan – You want your pan (or oven) to be heated when you add the meat to it. This ensures the chicken will start to cook the moment you add it to the pan (or oven). If you add chicken to a cold pan, a lot of its juices will evaporate as the pan comes to temperature, leading to a dry piece of chicken. You want a heavy pan so it can retain its heat when you add the chicken. A thin pan will have a temperature drop if you add the chicken and may also burn the outside before the middle is cooked through due to uneven heating of a thin surface. If your oven or grill is too hot, you can have the same problem of the outside burning and/or drying before the middle is cooked through.
- Let it rest after cooking – A lot of juices build up during cooking. If you cut your chicken right after you take it out of the pan, those juices will leak right out. However, if you let it rest for 5 minutes (hint: you can tent it with foil to keep it warm), then those juices will have a chance to reabsorb into the meat and stay there while you cut it. This step is also where the carry over cooking happens.
Try these chicken recipes for some healthy and quick main courses:
- Chicken with Taco Seasoning (highly recommended!)
- Lemon Oregano Chicken
- Chipotle-Lime Chicken
- Orange Soy Chicken
- Tandoori-Style Chicken
What’s your favorite chicken recipe? Do you use any other methods to get moist and tender chicken?
From left to right: Lemon Oregano Chicken, Ginger Soy Chicken, and Chicken with Taco Seasoning