Chicken is a popular protein, but it’s also one of the most finicky. Because it’s so lean, it can easily overcook, turn flavorless, and become stringy and dry. Here, a dozen ways to fix your chicken-cooking techniques for better meals.
Chicken seems to be among the easiest protein choices for meals, especially the uber popular boneless, skinless chicken breasts. With veggies, it’s a quick stir-fry. With some lettuce, a salad. Have half a pita? You have a sandwich.
However, because the meat is so lean (those same breasts, in particular) it’s actually quite hard to get right. These tips and techniques may help you turn your sad slab of chicken into one of the most delicious meals you make.
#1 You rinse your chicken
Keep your kitchen clean, and skip the bird bath. Chicken does not need to be rinsed, soaked, or washed before you cook it. You will not kill any bacteria. In fact, you just might spread the potentially illness-causing bacteria, such as salmonella, around your sink, to your workspace, and even onto nearby foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says chicken bacteria-laced water can splash up to three feet from your sink.
The solution: Chicken does not need to be washed. Period. It can go from package to pan. It’s the heat that kills germs, not water.
Watch: How to Break Down a Chicken
#2 You don’t dry your chicken
If you like washing chicken just so that you can dry it, you have our permission to skip the wash (see: #1) and just pat the chicken dry with a paper towel. Removing moisture from the skin will help you get better browning when the chicken goes into the pan, too.
The solution: Use an absorbent paper towel to dab off as much moisture as you can. Toss the towels straight into the trash. You’re ready to cook.
If you have more time, you can place the chicken onto a wire rack that’s sitting inside a roasting pan, and put the pan of uncovered chicken in the fridge. Exposure to air will wick away the moisture for an even drier skin and meat surface.
#3 You only use boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Where boneless, skinless chicken breast is adored for its virtually flavorless profile (and its adaptability to every cuisine, from Italian to Indian), chicken thighs are richer and more flavorful, thanks to the dark meat and extra fat. Wings and drums are also more flavorful than basic breasts. Even bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts give their skinned compatriots a run for their money.
These chicken cuts retain the bone and skin, so they retain moisture and pick up more flavor from the skin as it cooks. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are available, and though they’re not as fatty and rich as the bone-in, skin-on kind, they have more flavor than the breasts.
The solution: Don’t be afraid to branch out. Chicken cuts with the bone are more forgiving and don’t dry out as quickly, so they’re actually easier to cook. Just be sure to use an instant-read thermometer so you don’t go above 165°F and risk drying out these cuts, too
#4 You remove the chicken skin before you cook
You may not like the texture of chicken skin. If it doesn't get extra-crispy in a hot skillet, it can be quite rubbery. But for the sake of your chicken’s flavor, leave the skin on when you cook. As the chicken cooks, the meat absorbs a lot of delicious flavor from the melting fat. The skin also helps prevent moisture loss, leaving you with a juicier final product.
The solution: Resist the urge to remove the skin before you put the chicken in the pan. If you don’t want the skin (or your doctor has told you to avoid it), remove it just before eating.
#5 Your pan isn’t hot enough
If you put chicken into a cold or only slightly heated pan, your chicken won’t brown. Browning isn’t just for visual appeal—that delicious Maillard reaction is responsible for the umami-rich flavor you associate with perfectly-cooked chicken That first hot pan-to-chicken sear is vital for getting this delicious browning. It also helps seal in juices so your chicken stays moist and tender.
The solution: Put your skillet on an eye, and turn it to at least medium heat. Pull the chicken from the fridge, and let it warm up a bit while the pan warms too. When you’re ready, add a teaspoon or two of a high-temp cooking oil like canola or coconut, and turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil shimmers, the pan is hot and ready. Place the chicken skin-side down into the pan, and revel in the sizzle.
#6 You overmarinate the chicken
If a little bit of time in a flavorful marinade is good for chicken, a long bit of time has to be better, right? Wrong. Indeed, marinades with citrus juices like lime, lemon, and orange can actually break down the chicken meat, leaving it mealy or mushy when it’s cooked. Buttermilk and yogurt can make the meat soft, too, but these ingredients are slower acting.
The solution: If you want to use a marinade with citrus juice, leave the meat in the marinade for a maximum of two hours. If you need a longer soak time (while you’re at work, for example), look for a marinade that has less acid.
You can also make the marinade ahead of time, pouring it into a plastic bag and leaving it in the fridge. Then, when you get home, slip the chicken into the marinade and let it soak up flavors while you handle the kids and get the rest of the meal prepped.
#7 You put too much chicken in the pan
If you fill a skillet with chicken such that the meat is overlapping, don’t expect a lot of browning on the flesh. When chicken doesn’t have space around it, the heat and moisture can’t escape. That leaves the chicken to steam in its own juices.
Also, the chicken may not cook evenly if it’s sitting on top of other pieces. You risk having some pieces done while others remain raw.
The solution: Use a skillet that is large enough for the chicken to cook without touching. If your skillet is too small, cook in batches, keeping the first pieces warm while the others cook. You can also reduce the risk for steaming by patting the chicken’s surface dry before putting it into a pan.
#8 You stir-fry chicken pieces with veggies
Stir-frying in a wok or large skillet certainly invites adding all of your ingredients at once, but you do so at your dish’s peril. Cold chicken lowers the pan’s heat, and the chicken may leak some of its juices. These juices in turn steam the vegetables, turning them mushy and soft.
The solution: For the best stir-fry, the ingredients need to be cooked separately, then reunited just before eating. Cook the chicken pieces just to temperature. Remove them from the pan, and bring the pan back up to a medium-high heat. Add your vegetables, stir to cook, and pour in any sauces. Then add the chicken back and cook to heat the pieces through. This way, the vegetables are crispy and tender, the chicken is perfectly cooked, and your stir-fry is the best it can be.
#9 You’re frying chicken in the wrong oil
That expensive olive oil from California is great in vinaigrettes, swirled into soups, and sprayed onto steamed veggies, but it’s not meant for frying chicken. Not only will you have to fork up a lot of money to buy enough for frying (even pan frying requires a least an inch of the oil), EVOO will also turn bitter in the high-heat cooking.
The solution: Spare your delicious extra-virgin olive oil (and your wallet) by using vegetable or canola oil for any pan- or deep-frying step. These oils can tolerate the higher temps needed for frying chicken, and they won’t introduce any unintended flavors during the process.
#10 You mess with the chicken too much
Chicken needs a prolonged hot pan-to-meat period to form ideal browning and flavor. If you flip too much, too early, or too often, you’ll interrupt the browning, robbing you of some great flavor if you need to make a pan sauce.
The solution: Leave it be. Set a timer for yourself, if you need to, or use the spatula trick: If you slide the spatula under the chicken and it becomes hung on the skin, that’s a sign the chicken isn’t ready to flip. When the skin releases from the pan easily, you’re safe to slip and continue cooking on the other side.
#11 You don’t let the chicken rest before cutting into it
When chicken is hot and cooking, the juices are swirling continuously, helping bring every bit of the meat up to temp. If you cut into the meat as soon as you remove it from the hot pan, all of those juices will leak out. Your cutting board will be soaked, and your chicken will be dry.
The solution: The chicken’s juices need time to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. The best way to do that is to remove the chicken from the heat, let it sit on a carving board, and rest. Small pieces need three to five minutes. Larger pieces need a longer resting period. A whole chicken should rest for at least 15 minutes.
#12 You reheat chicken too often
Each time you reheat chicken, you dry it out. That risks you turning your once-moist meat into a dry, stringy ghost of its former self.
The solution: Reheat only what you need, and do so slowly. A microwave will zap your chicken in mere minutes, but it may make it rubbery if the heat goes too high too quickly. You can use reduced power to heat more slowly. You can also cover the chicken with aluminum foil, and reheat in the oven at 350°F until heated through.