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How-To

Dinner in a Skillet: Five Quick Chicken Sautés

Follow this fast method for a saucy sauté with moist chicken and savory vegetables

Fine Cooking Issue 53
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Everyone I know has the same weeknight dilemma: what to make that’s lickety-split yet doesn’t skimp on flavor. In my house, a favorite solution that never gets boring is a quick chicken sauté. This dish is a one-pan wonder with vegetables and golden chunks of sautéed boneless chicken, finished in a simple sauce that can take on endless flavor possibilities, from a puckery-bright lemon sauce to a well-mannered sherry cream sauce. By following my method, you’ll avoid the usual problem of dry, overcooked chicken. And every version of this dish can be prepped and cooked in the time it takes to prepare a simple companion starch, like noodles, rice, polenta, or mashed or roasted potatoes.

Cook in batches to sear the food, not steam it

For these sautés, I cook the vegetables and chicken separately so that each can have plenty of room in the pan. If I piled everything in together, the food would just simmer rather than quickly sear and stay juicy. I start with the vegetables and then set them aside. The next step is sautéing the chicken, and this is the key to the dish’s success.  Little chunks of skinless chicken breast love to stick to the pan, so it’s important that the pan and the oil are good and hot before you add the chicken. Even then, the chicken will stick—but it will also begin to brown. That’s good. This way you’re sure to get little caramelized nubs (the French call this delicious brown stuff fond) that will ultimately dissolve into the pan sauce, giving it a savory richness.  

Don’t use a nonstick pan, but do let the chicken sit undisturbed in the pan for about a minute. Once the chicken pieces take on a golden-brown crust, shimmy the straight edge of a metal spatula under them to loosen and flip them without tearing.

Since the chicken is cut into 3/4-inch pieces, it takes just a few minutes to finish cooking. It’s important not to let the chicken overcook, as it would dry out and become chewy. To check for doneness, I just cut a good-size piece in half. The chicken should still be faintly pink in the center—mere moments from being cooked through—when it gets pulled from the pan. The chicken will actually continue to cook through from its residual heat.

As the last step, add your sauce ingredients to the pan after removing the chicken. To keep this dish quick, I don’t reduce the pan sauces dramatically—just enough to thicken them and let the flavors connect. Depending on how much body I think the sauce needs, I might add a bit of cornstarch.

Once the sauce has simmered for a few minutes and any caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan have been scraped up and dissolved into the sauce, I stir the chicken and vegetables back in, but only to coat them with the sauce. If you were to continue cooking the chicken, it would toughen and dry out. By this point, your pasta or rice should be just about ready. Perfect timing—in no time at all.

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