Photo via Flickr member snowpea&bokchoi
Do you shudder when you hear the phrase “grilled chicken breast”? Honestly, I don’t blame you, because so often they are done poorly: overcooked, stringy chicken that is so dry it feels like sawdust in your mouth.
But here’s the thing: grilled chicken breasts do not have to be that way. Perfectly juicy and flavorful grilled chicken breasts are not only possible, but they are within easy reach. In this post, you and I will go through the process so that you can perfectly grill your chicken, every time.
What makes a good grilled chicken breast?
A perfect grilled chicken breast is a study in contrasts: a lightly crisped exterior, but a soft, moist interior. It is cooked through–no pink, uncooked chicken inside–but just so that it is cooked but not dry and stringy. Attaining this mix of a perfectly crisped exterior and a cooked yet not overdone interior can be tough, but it’s not impossible. You just need to set yourself up with the right ingredients, equipment, and technique.
Photo via Flickr member scottfeldstein
You want great, not mediocre, chicken. Chicken is delicate on the grill–here are some of the common pitfalls you might encounter while grilling.
If the heat’s too high, you’ll have indicators of doneness on the exterior chicken well before the interior is cooked. The result? A charred exterior which gives way to a pink, raw interior. Definitely not appetizing.
As you’ll see below, the average chicken breast has an irregular height which is not designed for even grilling. The tapered edges will cook long before the thicker middle, giving you burnt, blackened edges. The solution? Pounding the meat. See below for more detail.
Grilling too long
You’re hesitant to turn the heat up high, so you grill on a low-moderate heat too long. What happens? Your chicken never fully browns, but it dries out. This leaves it pale and dry–definitely not a delicious dinner.
Before you grill
Photo via Flickr member Dinesarasota
When you’ve got a licence to grill, what kind of chicken should you use?
While skin adds flavor to the chicken, it’s not always forgiving on the grill, and it’s just easier to buy boneless, skinless breasts. So make up for the lack of skin by properly preparing your chicken and soaking it in brine (see below).
It’s true: it’s always best to know where your meat is from. Buy from a reputable source, and know that locally sourced, organic chicken is always a good choice. Of course, regardless of the source, you’re going to want to cook it to a safe, edible, germ-killing temperature: according to the FDA, 165 degrees F.
Pounding the meat
When you buy it, a chicken breast is uneven in height and thickness. While this is simply nature, it’s not so good for grilling. By pounding the meat, you will lightly flatten it, which ensures even cooking. How do you do that?
There is actually a tool for just this process: a meat mallet or tenderizer. However, I would warrant a guess that it’s not something everyone has in their kitchen. It’s not necessary to invest unless you’re pounding a lot of meat–for the occasional tenderizing, a rolling pin will do.
Encase that chicken in a plastic bag with the air forced out–this will discourage spatter, and keep your rolling pin safe in case you feel like making a pie in the near future.
Your ideal thickness is probably around the height of the thinnest part of the chicken breast–typically ¾ inch or so. Resist the temptation to pound even shorter. If you have a small portion that is shorter, you can cut your losses and even out most of the breast to a consistent height. If you pound all of the chicken too thinly, it can dry out easily on the grill.
Brine / marination
It is a very good idea to brine your chicken before grilling. Wait, what does that mean?
A brine is a wet, salty, lightly sweetened mixture in which you soak your chicken (or other meats) before cooking. The salt combined with sugar reacts with the protein in your chicken, allowing it to retain moisture. In layman’s terms, this makes your chicken way more forgiving. If you overcook it slightly, the brine forms a protective moisture-retaining shield, but even if you cook the chicken just right, it makes it even better and more flavorful and juicy. Overall, brining makes the texture and moisture level better, and provides some insurance against dryness in the event of overcooking. Brine is super-easy to mix, and you only have to soak chicken breasts for about 30 minutes. It’s so worth it–your tastebuds will agree!
Photo via Flickr member table4five
Outdoor grill versus grill pan
Chicken doesn’t like a super-high heat. 500 degrees F? Leave it for pizza–it’s too hot for chicken breasts. They will dry out too quickly. Yet at the same time, too-low heat will not brown them sufficiently and the chicken breasts might be pale and slimy. The ideal temperature range for grilling chicken breasts is between 375-450 degrees F, a moderate heat which can easily be attained both on an outdoor grill and indoors, on a grill pan.
As a case for the outdoor grill, you’ll get not only the outdoor grilling sense of accomplishment but a smoky, more complex flavor. But if it’s very cold or raining outside, it’s safe to hit the grill pan.
Whether you’re grilling indoors or out, be sure that your cooking surface is completely clean, free of debris, and lightly oiled with a vegetable oil or oil with a high smoke point. This will keep the flavor clean and keep the chicken from sticking.
How long do they need to cook? 3-5 minutes, give or take, on either side. Once the chicken has browned (you can lift it lightly to check), flip it. Don’t rely on visual cues, though–insert an instant-read thermometer in the middle of the chicken breast. You’re looking for an inner temperature of 160 degrees F.
The trick to not overcooking your breasts is to remove them about when they read 160 degrees inside, if not a degree or two less. They will actually continue to cook for a few minutes after, and the interior will ascend to the FDA-approved 165 degrees F; check again after letting your chicken rest for a few minutes to make sure they have attained the safe temperature.
Once cooked, you can keep your grilled chicken breasts (cooled to room temperature before storing) in an airtight container for up to four days. Cooked chicken breasts store better than raw, because they retain more moisture. You can store your cooked chicken breasts whole or cut into pieces.
These tasty serving ideas are bound to help you work up an appetite!
Dress up your grilled chicken breast with bacon, red pepper sauce, collard greens, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. Photo via Flickr member Justin Smith
Serve with curried chickpeas for an international delight. Photo via Flickr member Jeffreyww
A grilled chicken breast sandwich satisfies on game night or any night. Photo via Flickr member avlxyz