Ah, the humble chicken breast. No cut of meat is more sought after and yet so poorly treated. As chicken breasts are often readily available, affordable, lean and easy to cook, it’s a freezer staple. But its accessibility comes at a price, as chicken breasts easily dry out and can become a bit bland. We’re here to help you get over your love-hate relationship by showing you how and why it really is one of the best cuts of meat around.
Why they deserve more respect than we give them
If you’ve ever cooked with chicken, you’ll know why it’s such a popular meat. The mild flavour means it can handle nearly any flavour compositions you throw at it – be it Thai, Italian, Chinese or Spanish, and everything in between. And while most of us would put a glistening roast chicken at the top of our dream dish list, not very many would say the same of the chicken breast, and it’s understandable. Generally sold off the bone, and skinless, chicken breast lacks all of the supporting flavour that a whole chicken does. However, that just means you need to support it a little more. Think about what you love about roast chicken: fat seeps from the skin and flavour comes from the bone. Apply that to your chicken breast by adding your own fat and flavour.
The best ways to cook them
The internet will tell you the best way to ensure moist chicken breasts is by slowly poaching them – I’m inclined to agree, provided you’re poaching them properly. It’s not a case of whacking them into a pot of water and boiling them furiously – this will only result in tough, stringy chicken. Place the breasts in a saucepan, pour in just enough water to cover them, add a bit of salt and aromatics – like garlic and thyme or rosemary – and place over a medium heat. Once the pot starts to simmer, cover with the lid, and lower the heat to the gentlest simmer, then allow it to cook for 10 minutes or so. Remember, as with any cut of meat, chicken breasts require resting time, so once you remove them from the water, leave them to sit for 5 or so minutes before slicing.
If poaching isn’t your thing, you can also think of your chicken breasts in the same way you would a steak. Get a pan nice and hot, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and sear off your chicken breasts. Only flip them once they’re nicely golden, with a good-looking crust, then repeat on the other side. If you think they need a bit longer to cook through, simply lower the heat in the pan to allow them to finish cooking without burning – you can even baste them with butter during this time. Once again, leave them to rest before cutting.
Take them to flavour town
One surefire way to make a chicken breast more interesting is by marinating or brining before cooking. Pop them into a spicy or barbecue-style marinade at least 30 minutes before cooking and you’ll taste the difference. Even a bit of yoghurt can become the punchiest marinade when mixed with chopped garlic, thyme and rosemary. You can also marinate cooked chicken: simply toss it into a dressing for a couple of minutes before serving.
Think outside the box
The best thing about chicken breasts is that they truly are endlessly versatile, so embrace that by using them in all the multitudes of ways they’re perfect for. Look beyond putting them into curries (although this is one of the best ways to use them!) and try making schnitzels by batting them out slightly and coating them in flour, egg and breadcrumbs. Grill your marinated chicken over some coals or on a grill pan for a quick mid-week braai. You can even slice them up for your own chicken kebabs. Try your hand at making your own fried chicken, or cut into smaller pieces to become chicken nuggets – and resist the urge to order in.