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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.

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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.

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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.” Keep in mind these tips to tell if your chicken is fresh. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. Here is how long cooked chicken lasts in the fridge.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Mistake #11: Boiling it in a sauce

“It’s a mistake to boil chicken in a sauce when a gentle poach will keep the chicken tender,” says Waldy Malouf, food & beverage operations senior director for The Culinary Institute of America‘s campus restaurants. Though it may be tempting to boil your chicken in a sauce, a little patience for poaching will result in a tastier finished product.

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Mistake #12: Slicing chicken breast along the grain of the meat

“You have to cut the chicken breast against the grain so it remains tender,” Koeppe says. “Look at the grain direction of a chicken breast. Everyone, when they slice a breast, starts at the pointy end and cuts right along the muscle fibers. Don’t do that. Instead, cut slices against the grain (through the middle) and help put an end to dry, stringy chicken.”

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Mistake #13: Slicing chicken as soon as it’s done cooking

“After your chicken has finished cooking, give it a chance to rest before cutting,” Moyer says. “This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, helping to retain the flavor instead of releasing all of it onto your cutting board.” This goes for other meats, too.

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Mistake #14: Reusing marinade

“Continuing to put the marinade on the bird once it’s done can lead to Salmonella or cross-contamination,” Koeppe points out. “Have fresh sauce ready for your done bird.” That way, you won’t have to worry about whether the marinade is carrying bacteria or not.

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Mistake #15: Not letting the oil heat up enough before frying

“People don’t let the oil get hot enough when deep frying and/or shallow frying chicken, which is key in keeping things crispy,” Sidoti says.”Throwing a few breadcrumbs in is an old cook’s trick. If they sizzle, then the oil should be hot enough. For shallow frying, another good visual is to look for shimmering oil in the pan. This is another sign that the oil is hot enough.”

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Mistake #16: Only grilling it on direct heat

“If the grill is too hot, the outside is going to burn before the inside is fully cooked,” Sidoti says. She recommends starting the chicken on indirect heat, then transferring to the direct heat side towards the end. “This is helpful if you have a spice rub or barbecue sauce containing sugar because the sugar is what tends to burn the fastest. It’s also good for bone-in, skin-on chicken parts which tend to need more time to cook through. While you want to get the skin really nice and crisp, going from indirect to direct heat gives you more control and will help to prevent burning and grill flare-ups.” And FYI, here are 7 tips for healthier grilling.

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Mistake #17: Not minding your cooking tools

You should never use a wooden cutting board with chicken, as the bacteria could seep into the cutting board and cause sickness later on, Nelson says. “Home cooks also need to remember that the utensils they use on raw chicken, such as knives, tongs or forks, should not be used on anything else in the kitchen during that time unless thoroughly washed between each use.” Make sure you’re avoiding these 11 other cooking mistakes that can make your food toxic.

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Mistake #18: Thinking you have to use oil or butter

Most people use oil or butter to cook their chicken, but cooking without it actually yields great results, according to Karp. “This might seem at odds with conventional wisdom, but since chicken skin has a lot of fat already you don’t really need to add more to get crispy skin. You begin by putting the chicken skin side down in a cold, dry pan and cooking it on the stove top. You’ll know it is ready to flip when the chicken doesn’t stick to the pan. This usually takes a lot longer than people expect, but once you’re able to lift it off the pan easily, you’ll see some of the best, crispiest skin on your chicken!”

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Mistake #19: Serving hot chicken on a cold plate

Nothing cools down perfectly warm chicken like a cold plate. “When you place hot food on a cold plate, the food cools quickly as the plate absorbs heat from the food,” Voskuil explains. “Using a warmed plate slows this process significantly and helps keep hot food hot.” Home cooks can heat plates using one of three methods: place in a warm oven for one or two minutes; place them in the dishwasher and run a dry cycle, or place in a microwave with a damp towel over and heat for 30 seconds.

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Mistake #20: Choosing the wrong chicken

Even super talented chefs can’t make poor quality chicken taste good. “When buying chicken, try to look for recognizable name brands or choose chicken that’s advertised with no hormones or steroids,” says Vincent Quinzio, corporate executive chef of the Hofbrauhaus. “When it comes to poultry of any kind, it’s worth it to spend a bit more money for a superior product and a trusted name brand.” Lastly, always check the expiration date of the chicken. Read on for 50 more kitchen mistakes you’re probably making—and how to fix them.

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff is an editor and writer based in Madrid, Spain. She most recently served as Senior Fashion Editor at Shape Magazine in New York City, and has worked at various other titles including Redbook and MORE. Right now, she writes health, fitness, fashion, celebrity and lifestyle content.