Monday, August 17, 2009

A Dissertation on the Chicken Breast

I (and most everyone I know) have a lot of trouble preparing chicken breast on the grill. The fear of undercooking always leaves me with dry, overcooked, flavorless chicken. I never see chicken used that much during demos or shows, so there aren't tons of dishes or ideas floating around that I can think of to make. Do you have pointers on how to make a moist properly cooked and flavorful chicken breast on the grill?

This is a common question, and I'll tell you that even as an experienced cook, I loath the chicken breast. It dries out quickly, and doesn’t do much to take on or give off great flavors. So before I go into this, let me say that I personally will typically stick to legs and thighs, especially when entertaining. They have a little more room to mess around. That said, there is hope for the chicken breast.

Grilling in general can be tricky because the heat within a closed grill can be so uneven, you wind up with unevenly cooked meats. I think we've all cut into that steak that is half perfect, half well done. So let's start with the technique. If you have a gas grill, start with part of it very hot, the other low. For a wood-burning grill I'll build a lopsided charcoal pile for the same effect. You'll start by "searing" your chicken. Look for nice browning (without burning) and grill marks, that's where your grilling flavor comes from.

Once your Chicken is sufficiently browned move it to the low heat, cover your grill, and let it slowly "bake" until it's done. This method allows the chicken to cook with out rushing the process, and drying out the chicken.

There are a few ways to test doneness. You can simply cut into it . . . no pink and it's done, right? WRONG!!!!! If you cut into chicken sitting on a grill and it's done, then it will be over done by the time you eat it. If you cut into there should a glistening surface (that means juicy) and the slightest hint of pink is not a bad thing, it means you're bird is almost done. After a few minutes resting in tin foil, a new slice should reveal perfectly cooked chicken.

(this is how the chicken should look straight off the grill, after a few minutes resting in foil she will be perfect)

If you're a little more technical, get a thermometer. According to the FDA the chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, but factoring carry over and the fact the FDA is very conservative, I would pull it at around 158ish and wrap it in tin foil. There is also the poke technique, in which a small knife or skewer is inserted to release liquid. If it's pink, you need a little more time, if the juice is clear you're good to go, if there is no juice, you’re up a chef creek. Always keep in mind when grilling chicken pieces that the breast meat cooks considerably quicker than the legs and thighs and if you cut into meat that isn’t cooked enough for your own taste, just throw it back on the grill.

I'm not mentioning cooking times here because grills can vary so much. It's up to you to discern the difference. Pay attention to what happens. If the meat browns quickly, know that residual heat hasn't penetrated very far, requiring longer "baking". Inversely, if the meat is browning slowly it will be "baking" too. So the solo "baking" time will be shorter.

I have a few more tricks up my sleeve to make it a little more foolproof. The first is to simply butterfly the breast. This accomplishes a few things, 1. It increases the surface area meaning a better grill flavor to meat ratio. 2. It shortens the cooking time it, making it possible to grill it completely through before the proteins seize up and squish all the moisture out.

Another option is soaking your chicken in a salty (and sugary) solution. An overnight bath, in addition to adding great and even seasoning, will denature proteins in the bird, naturally allowing it to take on and retain extra moisture; Resulting in juicier chicken and giving you a bigger window within which to work.

This is a simple and general recipe, calling for water, salt and sugar. But there are many variations on the theme. Water can be substituted with more flavorful liquids like cider, wine, or stocks (buttermilk is great when frying). In lieu of salt, soy or even fish sauce can be used, but not always in equal amounts due to varying sodium levels. And for sugar, the possibilities go on, honey works very well, sorghum or molasses, even brown sugar can add a nice depth of flavor. Lastly, any number of herbs and spices can be added to this brine, loads of black pepper, cinnamon, toasted cumin and coriander, a splash of spiced rum, the only limit is your imagination.

Simple Brine

2 cups Water
2 tbsps Salt
1 tbsp Sugar
2 cups Ice (crushed if you have access to it.)

1. In a small pot, heat the water, sugar and salt to dissolve. (you may want to simmer or steep for a few minutes if you are adding spices)
2. Transfer the hot liquid to the brining container and add the ice. Allow it to cool completely. (it should be like ice water when you add it to the chicken)
3. Add just enough brine to cover the meat, making sure the surfaces are in contact with the liquid. Soak the chicken for at least five hours or up to two days.

Good luck with your chicken!

Disclaimer: While most food born illness is generated from improperly handled prepared food. Freshly cooked fare can have it's risks. Make absolutely sure you are getting your chicken from a reliable source and if you are concerned or uncomfortable that your chicken is undercooked, then cook it more.
We don't want anyone getting sick!
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