Perfect Pan-Seared Chicken Breast

Part one of an extended series on cooking your proteins to perfection every time.

Why Chicken Breasts?

Many of the culinary blogs you might have come across before will tend to favor thighs over breasts when cooking chicken for two reasons:

  1. Chicken thighs have a more ‘chicken-y’ flavor that remains strong even when other flavors are added.
  2. The thighs also resist drying out, meaning it is (almost) impossible to end up with an overcooked piece of chicken.

This said, the texture of chicken thigh isn’t everyone’s favorite, and this can lead to recipes that may fall short of your expectations. For those of you this applies to, I completely understand.  Thighs can still be great when shredded, fried or barbecued (methods that change the texture), so don’t write them off completely, but chicken breasts are actually a great protein source when cooked correctly:

  1. The breasts don’t have a lot of inherent flavor, so they easily absorb whatever spices, herbs, marinades, or sauces that you want to use with them. Great when working with strong flavor profiles like Latin, Indian, and Mediterranean cooking.
  2. The quick cook time of a chicken breast, especially when butterflied, can mean dinner is on the table significantly faster than it would be waiting for the thighs to cook through.

Pan-searing your chicken: Don’t cook it too high

This is my go-to method of cooking chicken on any given night. The entire process takes about 15 minutes, and once cooked, it can be added to other recipes or stored away for other meals in the week without risk of the chicken drying out or getting tough.

When pan-searing chicken, the mistake most people make is having a pan that is too hot which will finish cooking the outside before the middle has the chance to get warm. Then (rightly) not wanting to eat raw chicken, you continue to cook it, drying out the exterior and making the whole meal inedible without tons of sauce.

What to do instead: Preparing the chicken

To get a nice even and juicy cook on your chicken, you want it to have a fairly uniform size across the entire piece of meat. If you have thick chicken breasts of an inch or more, cut them in half to give you two thinner pieces.

The best way to do this is the butterfly method, where you firmly press down on the chicken with one hand and slowly slice through the middle of it, allowing your knife to do the bulk of the work here. When butterflying, you’re meant to keep the two halves together, but you can also finish the cut to give you two separate pieces and make it easier to fit it all into your skillet.

Hold the cutlet firmly between the palm of your hand and the cutting board, moving your knife up and down to slice the chicken lentghways
Either cut all the way through or stop about 1-2 centimeters from the end and unfold for a real butterfly cut

Add your seasonings of choice to both sides, but keep in mind a few things when choosing them:

  1. Use salt and pepper – an even sprinkling on both sides – every time so you don’t end up with a slab of something flavorless.
  2. A marinade can make the outside of the chicken too wet to get a hard sear in the pan. This is fine if you are going to be using the chicken in another recipe once it’s cooked, but isn’t recommended if you will be eating the chicken as is. Grilling and baking are better methods for a marinated chicken.
  3. Herbs can burn quite easily in a pan, so make sure you have plenty of fat (butter or oil) on the chicken itself to keep the herbs from turning bitter.
  4. Try to avoid pre-made spice packets which have a lot of extra salt and sugar. The jarred blends that are sold with the rest of the spices are usually not as bad for this, though, and you can always make your own blend, of course. The added sugar can be especially unpleasant for cooking as it will tend to caramelize quickly and end up burning, leaving a sticky and bitter black mess on your food and in your pan.
Seasoned with just salt and pepper. I’ve cut these pieces into smaller fillets as I’ll be using them in several small meals throughout the week.

The cooking process: Start hot, then lower

Place a large skillet on your stove with a drizzle of oil and turn it up high (7 out of 10) for about a minute or until it is hot (this may take a bit longer for electric stoves). The initial heat will seal the juices in and the oil helps keep your seasonings from burning. You should be able to hear a sizzle as you lay the chicken in – if you don’t, then the pan is not hot enough. If this is a tricky thing for you to tell, tilt your pan and watch the oil move – if it moves quite slowly then it is not hot enough, but if it moves more like water then it is ready.

As soon as all the chicken is in your pan, reduce the heat to medium (5 out of 10) and don’t touch your chicken for 5 minutes (it’s tempting, I know, but stay strong). Use this time to thoroughly wash your hands, knife, and cutting board as raw chicken is not safe.

After your 5 minutes are up, use your tongs or a fork to gently lift the pieces up and check that the bottom has transitioned to a slightly golden brown. If you are using a heavier spice mixture, just make sure the spices are not turning black. If it is still all white, leave it for another minute and consider cooking it one notch higher the next time.

The white from the bottom is beginning to spread around the edges of these pieces, signalling me to check their progress. Fun fact: the same trick also works on pancakes.

From the side, you should be able to see the white about halfway up the side of the chicken. Begin turning them over and raise the heat slightly to a high medium (6 out of 10). Leave it for another 4 to 5 minutes.

If you are making a sauce with your chicken that needs to reduce (like in our Honey Garlic Chicken recipe), you will want to add it to the pan right after the chicken is first turned over. This lets your chicken cook in the sauce to give it more flavor, but retains the sear on the top for color and texture.

When you first start to cook, I encourage you to check the doneness of your meat by taking your thickest/biggest piece and making a cut into it to check that there is no pink left. If you have a thermometer, this is 160F / 74C. As you get more comfortable you may only need to pierce it to see if the juices coming out of it are clear (done) or still pink (not done). Eventually you will be able to tell by the firmness of the chicken itself, though this only comes with practice.

Finishing up

Another mistake people make with chicken is that they don’t allow it to rest. Just like other meats, the chicken should be allowed to sit off of the heat for a few minutes before cutting into it or serving. This helps the juices and heat redistribute through the meat to make for a tastier bite and a cleaner plate.

Note that this is a different cutting board than the one where we prepared our chicken. This prevents the cooked chicken from getting recontaminated by the raw juices.

Now at this point, you can serve your chicken as is with a side (or on a salad as I have planned); slice it up and add to pasta, fajitas, or pizza; or shred it for use in enchiladas, chicken salad, or soup. As stated before, I will often cook up much more than I need and use it throughout the week to add to my lunches or other quick dinners. Because it is still quite juicy, it isn’t at risk of overcooking if I add into another recipe or even just reheat it in the microwave.

Next up: Perfect Oven-baked Chicken – the set and forget method.

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