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How to Cook Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

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Chicken-in-Parchment.jpg

Chicken in Parchment

Linda Larsen
Buffalo-Chicken-Salad.jpg

Buffalo Chicken Salad

Linda Larsen
Scalloped Chicken

Scalloped Chicken

Linda Larsen

Chicken breasts are probably the most popular cut of meat sold in America today. They are quick, easy, low fat, and universally popular. What are the best ways of cooking them so you end up with moist, tender, flavorful meat? Read on and learn how to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

It's nice to have a supply of cooked chicken meat on hand for many recipes, from Chicken Salads like Chicken Barley Corn Salad and Chicken Caesar Salad, to casseroles like Creamy Mexican Crockpot Chicken and Santa Fe Chicken, and sandwiches.

First oaf all, when you're buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts, beware of the size. Never buy any chicken breast halves with the bone and skin removed that weigh more than 8 or 9 ounces. Very large breasts come from stewing hens, and they will never get tender unless they are cooked in liquid.

Second, there are two basic methods for cooking: dry heat and moist heat. Dry heat methods include baking, roasting, grilling, sauteing, and deep frying. Moist heat methods include microwaving, poaching, baking in parchment, steaming, and slow cooking. This is the rule: when cooking chicken breasts with dry heat, use high heat and cook for a short period of time. When using moist heat, use low heat and cook for a longer period of time.

Now when I say longer, that doesn't mean hours. Grilled chicken breasts cook in 8-10 minutes, while poached breasts cook in about 15 minutes. And here's another tip: when cooking with dry heat, pound the chicken breasts to an even thickness so they will cook evenly.

Chicken breasts have little connective tissue; that means they can be cooked quickly because the long cooking time needed to soften those tough areas isn't necessary. They also have little fat, which means they can become dry if cooked too long. One way to ensure juicy, moist chicken is to brine before cooking. To brine chicken, place thawed chicken breasts in a solution of salt and water for about 1 hour in the refrigerator. The cells will absorb water through osmosis. Laura Dolson, About.com's Low Carb Diets Guide told me that Trader Joes pre-brines their chicken as part of the koshering process. If your chicken has been pre-brined, I do not recommend brining again.

Many experts recommend that chicken breast meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F, but others say 160 degrees F is fine. You will have moister chicken if you cook to 160 degrees F. According to Dr. O. Peter Snyder, the chicken has to reach a temperature of 160 degrees F for 5.2 seconds to kill pathogens. Now the USDA is recommending that, because of bird flu fears, chicken should be cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees F. Remember that the meat will continue to cook after it's removed from the heat; the internal temperature will rise about 5-10 degrees in the first few minutes it's off the heat.

Choose the final temperature based upon the health and risk factors of those who will be eating the meat. If you have young children, elderly persons, or those with a compromised immune system in your household, choose the higher temperature. Dr. Snyder told me that healthy people above the age of 5 have built up a tolerance to low levels of bacteria and won't get sick when served chicken cooked to the lower temperatures.

Also be sure to cool the meat very quickly if you're reserving it for later use or using it chopped or shredded in another recipe, preferably in a container placed in an ice water bath. And hold the cooked chicken in the refrigerator no longer than 3-4 days.

I was once asked why chicken had to be cooked through, while steaks can be served rare or medium rare. The answer lies in the physiology of the chicken. The meat is less dense than beef, which allows bacteria to travel throughout the muscle. And the way chicken is processed spreads bacteria. Finally, a chicken's skin is deeply crennelated, and removing the feathers forces bacteria into the crevices and into the meat. So cook the chicken to a safe internal temperature and your food will always be safe.

So buy yourself a reliable meat thermometer and get ready to always make moist, tender, and juicy boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Go to the next page to learn the methods for cooking chicken breasts to perfection and find some fabulous recipes too.

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