In the 1723 cookery book “The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary,” the author John Nott shares a recipe for chicken breasts, in which the skins get lifted and stuffed with grated bacon, anchovies and herbs. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s one of the first written accounts of the noun cluster “chicken breasts” in the English language. It’s also a great way to cook white meat so that it doesn’t dry out.
One major design flaw of the chicken breast is that its thickness varies significantly from end to end. This makes for vexingly uneven cooking — especially when the meat comes boneless and skinless. By the time the wide, bulbous side has cooked through, the lither, tapered side (not to mention the outer edges of the entire breast) has gone stringy, practically desiccated.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to accept that ugly lopsidedness. Take control of your life — and of your chicken.
The trick to keeping breast meat tender and juicy is to alter its anatomy completely. There are a few key ways to do this. The easiest is to carve the breast in half crosswise where the thicker end meets the thinner end. This way you can pull the thinner pieces off the heat earlier, allowing the thicker ones to finish cooking for another minute or two.
Another method is to ensure the meat retains its natural moisture. What makes a chicken breast juicy is water, not fat (after all, white meat is very lean). A simple dry brine — a mixture of salt, sugar and spices — provides that bit of insurance. It’s the salt that’s most crucial, as it draws out the meat’s water. That water then dissolves the salt on the surface of the meat and, through diffusion, the two re-enter the meat, seasoning the chicken thoroughly.
As evidenced by Volume 3 of “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” dissolved salt modifies the protein structure of meat, allowing it to hold onto water by slowing the contraction of muscle fibers during the cooking process. This contraction ordinarily “squeezes juices out during cooking,” but a dry brine rewards you with retained juiciness.
A marinade can yield similarly juicy results through different means. In this stir-fry, a group of enzymes in fresh pineapple, bromelain, breaks down the connective tissues of fibrous chicken, turning the otherwise taut meat into slackened nuggets. Watch and be amazed as this powerful potion transforms tough, plain white meat into a supple dark-meat doppelgänger.
But proceed with caution: Marinate the chicken too long and you’ll end up with gluey shreds of meat. Fifteen minutes is the Goldilocks time, which is to say, just right.
Other acidic ingredients have similar benefits. The lactic acid in sour cream tenderizes chicken beautifully and also helps crunchy, savory coatings stick to the meat. Smear it all over chicken breasts and encase them in a thick coating of buttery Ritz cracker crumbs and grated sharp Cheddar for a result equal parts moist and crisp.
This comforting chicken bake tastes best with cutlets, which are always a great weeknight option. Though you could pound a thick breast out into a thin paillard (which also breaks down the fibers of the meat), another less violent approach is to slice through the middle of the breast horizontally so you’re left with two cutlets of equal size. As with most things in life, two is better than one.