How to Cook Chicken Breast, Plus 20 Ways You Don’t Realize You’re Cooking Chicken Wrong
Everything you *shouldn’t* do, whether you’re learning how to cook chicken breast, roasting a whole bird, or frying up some wings.
Mistake #1: Washing your chicken
This is totally unnecessary and yet home cooks still do it all the time, especially when cooking a whole bird. “There is no need to wash the chicken in the sink,” says Hari Nayak, culinary director at Café Spice in Hudson Valley, New York. “You are most likely spraying water loaded with bacteria all over your kitchen counter near your sink, where it will sit and multiply.” Skip this step and ensure you wash all surfaces, plates, and hands after processing raw chicken, he recommends. Need some inspiration for how to cook chicken breast? Start with this irresistible homemade chicken.
Mistake #2: Defrosting it on the counter or in the microwave
Both of these methods are surefire ways to encourage bacteria growth, Nayak says. “You do not want to let poultry be in the temperature that is considered within the ‘danger zone.’ Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.” By putting your chicken in the microwave to defrost (even on the defrost setting), you’re basically just encouraging bacteria growth.
Instead, plan ahead and give it enough time to thaw in the refrigerator: Whole chickens may take up to two days to fully thaw in the fridge, while boneless breasts should thaw overnight. “Once the product thaws, it should be kept in the refrigerator no more than a day before cooking it,” Nayak notes. “And no refreezing. Once it’s thawed, use it within a day or toss it.”
Mistake #3: Not patting it dry before cooking
“Whether you’re searing, roasting, or grilling your chicken, you should always pat it dry first with a paper towel,” says Claudia Sidoti, head chef at HelloFresh. “This prevents the chicken from steaming while cooking because if it’s not dry, it will release more moisture throughout the cooking process.” The final result will be a crispier, tastier chicken with just the right amount of moisture. Skinless chicken breast is one of the best meats you can eat. Here are the 4 other best meat types to eat—and 2 to avoid.
Mistake #4: Using a timer to determine when it’s done
Asking how long to cook chicken breast (or any other part of the chicken, for that matter) is the wrong question, according to Chris Moyer, executive chef at Perdue Farms. “Ditch the timer and grab the thermometer,” he advises. Chickens vary in size and shape, which means they all cook differently. “The correct approach is to cook by temperature, not time. A piece of boneless chicken breast is safely cooked at 165 to 170 degrees internal. For bone-in chicken, cook it to at least 180 to 185 degrees internal. This ensures that the bone marrow is cooked through, preventing an undercooked appearance. If you’re below these temps, you’ll have an undercooked meal.”
Mistake #5: Cutting into it to see if it’s done
“This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re learning how to cook chicken breast,” says Elana Karp, head chef and culinary co-founder at Plated. “Understandably, the reason people do this is to check to see if the chicken is fully cooked. However, cutting into the chicken allows the juices to run out leaving you with dry chicken, instead of a dish that’s moist and flavorful.” Instead, invest in a meat thermometer. Here are 15 kitchen products people can’t stop buying from Amazon.
Mistake #6: Storing it anywhere it can fit in the fridge
“Chicken should always be stored on the lowest shelf possible,” says Matthew Nelson, Chef de Cuisine at Mission Point in Mackinac Island, Michigan. That’s because cold air sinks, so the lowest shelf is generally the safest place for storage. “Storing chicken properly helps prevent cross-contamination and the growth of bacteria,” Nelson adds. You’ll also want to make sure it’s wrapped up tightly to avoid any drips of thawing byproduct.
Mistake #7: Only cooking chicken breast
“When trying to stay healthy, I find most home cooks stick with chicken breasts,” says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., private chef, and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. But the truth is, eating the other parts of the chicken can be healthy, too, even if most people only know how to cook chicken breast. “Dark meat chicken is still relatively lean as long as it’s not deep-fried, yet it stays moister and is more forgiving during cooking due to its higher fat profile,” Newgent says. “Plus, ounce for ounce, it has more iron and zinc than white chicken meat. Don’t be chicken; eat all chicken parts.”
Mistake #8: Not testing the pan before searing
“Home cooks usually don’t heat a pan enough to get a good sear,” says Matt Voskuil, executive chef of The Chanler at Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island. You can easily test the pan by sprinkling the surface with some water. “If it sizzles and evaporates immediately, it is hot enough for searing. To properly sear chicken, heat the pan without oil and once hot enough, add the oil and then the seasoned chicken. This step is especially important if you are cooking breasts or thighs with skin. The skin will never attain the golden brown color and delicious, crispy caramelized flavor without starting in a hot pan.”
Mistake #9: Overcooking it
“Overcooking chicken is a mistake that even experienced home cooks can make,” Karp says. “Because no one wants to have undercooked chicken, people tend to overcompensate in the other direction.” By learning how to cook chicken breast (and whole chickens, too!) with a thermometer and trusting what it says, you can avoid this common pitfall. Make sure to avoid these 8 dangerous mistakes you might be making with raw chicken.
Mistake #10: Not marinating it
“Marinating chicken adds flavor to a blank canvas. It’s overlooked for white meat sometimes, but it’s a great vessel for new flavors and interesting tastes,” says Lauren Koeppe, celebrity chef and founder of Create Hospitality. Koeppe’s top picks for marinating are fresh or dry herbs like thyme, sage, oregano, or rosemary, along with fresh garlic and a dash of citrus.