How to Perfectly Cook Chicken Breasts on the Stovetop
Comforting, affordable, and incredibly versatile, chicken breast is the quintessential dinnertime staple. Cooking a crispy, pan-seared chicken breast is like making a baked potato, scrambling eggs, or cooking rice—it's an essential culinary skill that every home cook can master. You hardly need a recipe—just a solid understanding of a few simple poultry-cooking techniques.
With a little practice, you'll have an easy crowdpleasing meal that you can always keep in your back pocket. A well-executed chicken breast is guaranteed to save the day in a variety of scenarios, from impressing last-minute dinner guests to feeding your hungry kids on a busy weeknight.
We’ll walk you through how to cook a chicken breast on the stove from start to finish in four easy steps. Trust us—this is going to be the best *clucking* chicken breast you’ll ever make.
Step One: How to Buy Chicken Breasts
The majority of chicken breasts in grocery stores these days are huge. Aim for about six ounces per chicken breast—and if there's nothing that size, you can always halve larger ones.
Chicken labels can be confusing, and from free-range to organic to air-chilled, it's hard to know exactly what any of the terms mean. Try not to get too hung up on the jargon—and instead stick to a poultry producer that you trust. A smaller, family-owned farm is always a good sign, as are any certifications for humane and sustainable practices. We like Springer Mountain Farms, which is American Humane Certified by the Humane Society (snag it at your local grocery store such as Publix or order through springermountainfarms.com).
Step Two: How to Prep Chicken Breasts
Before you do anything, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. You’re probably wondering, why am I using the oven for stovetop chicken? Don’t worry. We’ll explain soon. In the meantime, let’s talk about how to prep your chicken breasts for cooking. Except for seasoning, you can knock out these steps ahead of time. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Chef’s knife
- Cutting board
- Meat pounder
- parchment paper
- Paper towels
- Salt and pepper
Trim: After you remove the chicken breasts from their packaging, resist the urge to rinse them (this actually increases your chances of cross-contamination). Place the chicken breasts on a cutting board and trim any excess fat with your knife.
Pound: Next, place the chicken breasts between two sheets of parchment paper and pound to even thickness with a meat pounder—each breast should be about ¾-inch thickness. Don’t skip this step, even if you’re feeling lazy! Pounding ensures that your chicken breasts will cook evenly, so that they'll all be ready at the same time.
Dry: After pounding the chicken breasts, place them on a plate and pat dry with paper towels. The drier your chicken is before it hits the skillet, the more easily it will take on that gorgeous brown sear.
Season: Next, break out the salt and pepper. Season generously on both sides, but don’t go overboard.
Step Three: How to Cook Chicken Breasts
Now, for the fun part. Here’s a breakdown of what items you'll need—and why you'll need them—when you’re ready to cook your chicken.
Cast-Iron or Stainless Steel Skillet: Hands down, these are the two best types of skillets you can use for cooking chicken breasts. Both create a beautiful, golden-brown sear, and what you ultimiately decide to use is completely up to you. Cast-iron delivers unparalleled flavor, but it's heavy to handle and takes longer to heat. Stainless steel lacks the flavor-building potential that cast-iron has, but it heats quickly and gives off even, steady heat. Regardless of which one you choose, make sure your skillet is large enough to fit your chicken breasts without overcrowding them.
Even better, there’s no need to worry about your chicken sticking during cooking. A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is naturally non-stick, while a properly-heated stainless steel skillet will act in the same way.
Canola Oil: Choose a versatile, cooking oil with a high smoke point such as canola oil or safflower oil. Extra-virgin olive oil lends flavor, but it has a low smoke point and will burn in a hot skillet. The same goes for butter—the milk solids burn up quickly, and soon enough you have a kitchen full of smoke.
White Wine: You’ll need a dry white wine such as an inexpensive pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc (Bota Box Pinot Grigio delivers great bang-for-your-buck quality) to deglaze the skillet after the chicken sears. Deglazing is a classic culinary technique where cold liquid is poured into a hot pan to loosen browned bits that form in the skillet while food cooks. Never deglaze with a wine you wouldn’t also want to drink—in fact, go ahead and pour yourself a glass.
Kitchen Tongs: Treat your tongs like your third hand. Tongs are endlessly handy for safely flipping chicken while it cooks in a sizzling hot skillet. We love stainless steel tongs for their durability.
So, now you have everything you need—here’s how to put it all together. Memorize these steps, and you'll be on your way to perfect pan-seared chicken breasts.
1. Heat: First, heat your skillet over medium-high heat. When the surface just starts to smoke, pour in enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the chicken skin side down (if you are working with skin-on breasts) to the skillet, then reduce the heat to medium.
2. Sear: Sear the breasts on one side until golden-brown and crispy. This may take a bit of time (up to 10 minutes or more), so be patient—and leave the chicken alone while it sizzles in the skillet. Once golden-brown and crispy, flip the chicken over and sear the other side for several minutes.
3. Deglaze: Now is when you’ll start to notice those browned bits forming on the skillet. Deglaze with a generous splash of white wine, then throw the skillet into the oven to finish cooking. (Using the oven’s gentle heat to finish cooking the chicken helps prevent it from drying.) If your chicken breasts are on the smaller side, they may only need 3 to 5 minutes of cooking in the oven.
4. Check Doneness: Remove the chicken breasts from the oven a little before you think they're cooked. If you pounded the breasts beforehand, they'll be a bit too thin to a get an acurate internal temperature reading with a meat thermometer. Here's a trick we like: Place the sharp edge of a paring knife into the thickest part of the chicken breast. Hold in place for about 3 seconds, then remove the knife. Place the side of the knife edge against the inside of your wrist—if it feels hot, but not burning hot, then your chicken should be perfectly cooked through.
5. Rest: Remove the chicken breasts from the skillet to a cutting board and let rest. (Don't wash your skillet yet—you'll use the cooking liquid to make the pan sauce in a bit.) Let the chicken breasts rest for about 5 minutes. This crucial step helps the chicken lock in moisture and ensures a mouthwatering, juicy bird. When slicing, you'll know you jumped the gun if a flurry of steam pours out from the center of the breast.
You can serve your chicken breasts whole, but they're way tastier when sliced and drizzled with a quick pan sauce (like the one we're about to make!).
Step Four: Make the Pan Sauce
Sure, you can stop right here and enjoy your chicken as is, but a simple pan sauce adds the perfect finishing touch. Rich and buttery with a twang of citrus, our pan sauce is simple, straightforward, and totally delicious. It comes together in minutes and hugely enhances the flavor of your bird. We promise it’s worth the extra effort.
Eventually, you'll make this enough times to memorize the formula, but use the below amounts as a starting point for your pan sauce. (These amounts should make enough sauce for two chicken breasts.)
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted cold butter
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, chives, or tarragon (optional)
How to Make It: Add the chicken stock to the same skillet you used to cook the chicken. Bring to a boil and let reduce for about a minute, then stir in the lemon juice and butter. Turn off the heat and swirl the skillet to melt the butter, then stir in the fresh herbs. The sauce should start to thicken slightly, but don’t worry if it’s on the thin side. Plate your chicken breasts, drizzle the sauce over top, and serve.
And there you have it—perfectly-cooked, outta-this-world chicken breasts.