My youngest daughter, Celeste, once asked if she could bring her entire softball team to my restaurant, Elizabeth on 37th, for an end-of-season dinner. Of course I said yes because I’m really honored that my children are proud of my work. For this occasion, Celeste described the menu to her 25 teammates and coaches, and they chose a crispy pecan-crusted chicken breast for the dinner. Their party was a great success—the dining room rang with laughter, and the chef even got a round of applause. I’m happy to say all the plates came back empty.
I must admit, in 17 years of running my restaurant, nothing has been more popular than my chicken specialties. My technique of coating boneless chicken breasts is ideal for the home cook who lives in dread of dull and dry chicken. Marinating the breasts, rolling them in a kicky crumb or cracker mixture (or even phyllo), and roasting them in a hot oven keeps the breasts juicy inside, crunchy outside, and full of flavor. Once you’ve tried the recipes here, you can apply this technique using your own marinades and coatings assembled from pantry and refrigerator staples.
Shop for fresh chicken and stock up on pantry staples
When you’re shopping, remember that all chicken breasts are not created equal. Many have been frozen.
Choose a package of fresh chicken breasts that isn’t too “juicy”— water is a sure sign of thawing. If your grocery store carries locally raised chicken, always choose it over mass-produced chicken; it’s bound to be fresher. I look for medium-size, uniform breasts that will cook in the same amount of time.
The other ingredients aren’t exotic, and you can make substitutions. Keep your pantry stocked with crackers and nuts. You can use your favorite cracker; just keep the salt content in mind. I like Weston Red Oval wheat crackers for cracker crusts because of their nutty taste and snappy texture. Chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans, and sesame seeds are all good in these crusts, and where I’ve called for dried cranberries, any small dried fruits would work. When you have good-quality leftover bread, make your own breadcrumbs and store them in the freezer.
A marinade binds crumbs to meat; a hot oven helps keep in juices
Crumb-coating chicken is a quick four-step process.
Combine the marinade ingredients and marinate the chicken for an hour, or more if it suits your schedule. If you’re short on time, simply dredge the chicken first in the marinade and then in the coating. Because these marinades are thick, they’ll adhere to the breasts and to the coatings, providing another layer of flavor. Just don’t wipe them off.
Combine the coating ingredients. You can do this an hour or two in advance. Use a food processor or chop by hand. A processor is usually handier, but I also find that chopping ingredients by hand makes a coarser, more texturally interesting coating. Experiment and decide for yourself.
Coat each breast thoroughly in the crumb mixture. Arrange the breasts on a baking sheet or rack (a rack allows air to circulate around the breasts so they cook evenly; the direct heat of a sheet will make a crisper bottom crust). You can do this an hour or so ahead and refrigerate them until 10 or 15 minutes before you roast, if you like.
Cook the chicken in a very hot oven. The marinades for the crumbed breasts all use binders (yogurt, eggs, mustard), which allow the coating to adhere to the chicken and instantly form a crust when exposed to the hot, dry heat of a 450°F oven. Once that crust forms, the juices that keep the meat moist are trapped inside. Check the chicken after 10 or 15 minutes. If it’s getting too brown, reduce the heat to 400°F and add 5 minutes to the total cooking time.
You’ll notice that one of the recipes calls for a phyllo crust rather than a crumb coating. I like the look and papery texture of phyllo and the extra crunch of the sesame seeds combined with the flavorful marinade. No complicated work is involved here: I simply wrap strips of phyllo around the middle of a chicken breast.