Let me begin by saying that I’ve never much liked chicken breasts. Seems to me that their main virtues—quick-cooking, mild flavor—can be as much negatives as positives. Quick-cooking often translates into dry, and mild flavor is just a nice way of saying bland. When it’s been up to me to pick the part of the chicken I want to cook, I’ve usually chosen the thigh.
I am outnumbered, however, by the other two members of my household, who both love chicken breasts. And I have to admit that I’m now glad of that fact because I recently developed a way to cook chicken breasts that I truly love, too—it’s easy and quick, but the results are moist and very flavorful.
My method is to make a super-savory stuffing and slide it under the skin. Then I sear the chicken on both sides and finish cooking it in a hot oven. The whole process takes about ten minutes longer than sautéing or broiling a plain chicken breast, but the results are a whole magnitude of deliciousness better.
A good stuffing will baste as it adds flavor
The stuffing can be made of a variety of ingredients, as long as they’re quite assertive and can be mashed into a rough paste, which is the consistency you need in order to slide the stuffing under the skin. Too wet and you’ll have a sloppy mess; too dry and the stuffing will crumble as you try to insert it.
All my stuffings contain some cheese, which helps bind the ingredients, as well as a touch of butter, which not only binds but also bastes the chicken as it cooks. In fact, most of the butter ends up melting out of the stuffing into the pan by the end of cooking, but it does a good job of adding flavor and moisture along the way.
I’ve developed three different stuffings, each with a different feeling, all very quick to make. The first combination has a slightly Italian feel to it, with prosciutto, Parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, and sage. The second is just grated Parmesan, chopped herbs, fresh breadcrumbs, and a touch of grainy mustard to give it some punch. I’ve got another that can only be described as “zesty” (as much as I hate that word): roasted red pepper (from a jar is fine), feta, black olives, mint, and a touch of orange zest—very refreshing.
You can make a double or triple batch of any of these stuffings, freeze them in small zip-top bags, and then pull them out at the last minute for a quick dinner—the small amount of filling will thaw in a few minutes by soaking the bag in cold water.
The only not completely easy thing about these recipes is buying boneless chicken breasts with the skin still on. In my market, I can get skinless, boneless or skin-on, bone-in. I tried making these dishes with bone-in chicken, but the boniness makes it hard to sauté evenly and doesn’t look particularly nice on the plate.
In most grocery stores, you can just ask the butcher to take out the bones for you. If that’s not possible (or if you like learning to bone things, as I do), buy the bone-in breast and take the couple of extra minutes necessary to learn to cut out the bones on your own. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll find it’s quite easy.
Be vigilant about preserving the skin. Pick breasts that still have a lot of skin intact, without visible holes or tears, and if you have the butcher bone the breasts, be sure to ask him or her to be gentle with the skin. Often in the package, the skin will look a bit wrinkled or scrunched off center, but you can usually smooth it into place without a problem.
The skin is attached to the breast by a very thin, transparent—but remarkably strong—membrane. When you make the pocket for the stuffing, you want to try to preserve this membrane; otherwise, you’ll end up with a flap of skin that’s suddenly independent of the meat—not much good for holding in a stuffing. But if things do get disconnected, don’t despair. Just position the skin on the stuffing as best you can and carry on. There may be a little shifting during cooking, so just be careful when you turn the chicken.
To make the space for the stuffing, start by smoothing the skin over the surface of the breast. Pick a spot along the perimeter of the skin, slide in your index finger, and move it back and forth like a windshield wiper, so that you don’t make the hole at the perimeter bigger but you-clear a space inside. When you’ve reached as far as you can from that position, find another spot and repeat the process, remembering that you want to keep the skin attached around the perimeter as much as possible.
The skin crisps and protects; the bones just get in the way
Start stuffing by taking a fingerful and pushing it into one of the spaces; continue to work it deeper into the space by coaxing it into place from the outside. Once the full portion of stuffing is under the skin, just pat, poke, and smooth the skin until the stuffing is in a fairly even layer and the skin is spread taut.
I find it works best if I freeze the stuffed breasts for five to ten minutes before I start cooking to firm up the stuffing so it doesn’t immediately melt out of the chicken in the frying pan.
Sear-roasting browns the surface but keeps the meat tender
For this sear-roasting method, which I think gives moister results than a straight stovetop sauté, you’ll need a heavy-based skillet that has an ovenproof handle and comfortably holds the number of breasts you want to cook. Too tight a squeeze will make you curse when you try to flip the chicken. When I do two or three breasts, my nine-inch cast-iron skillet works brilliantly. For a larger batch, use two skillets—just be sure you can fit them in your oven at the same time.
As with all sautéing, get the skillet really hot, add the oil and butter (I use a little butter to get the best coloring on the skin), and then add the chicken, skin side down. Don’t move the chicken one millimeter for at least a minute or you’ll risk tearing the skin. During this initial hands-off period, a crust forms that makes it safe and easy to reposition the chicken and ultimately to flip it. I cook the breasts for four minutes on the first side to get a golden surface, and then I flip them and finish cooking them in a hot oven—450°F. They cook in about ten minutes, after which they benefit from another three to five minutes of rest, so the protein fibers in the chicken relax, the juices redistribute, and the whole thing develops better flavor and texture.
This little rest, best taken under a tent of aluminum foil, gives me the time to deglaze the pan with a little white wine or lemon juice and chicken stock—canned is fine—which makes a few savory spoonfuls of sauce (see below).
A three-minute sauce captures the flavors from the pan
If you want to make a little unthickened pan sauce from the drippings, transfer the chicken to a warm spot and pour off any grease from the pan. Put the pan back on the stove over high heat and add 1/2 cup white wine and 1/4 cup homemade or low-salt canned chicken stock. Boil until the liquid has reduced to about 2 tablespoons, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve all the browned bits. Pour this sauce around the chicken (not on top of the crispy skin) and serve immediately.