At a banquet last weekend, I was served a visually appealing plate with a breast of chicken and a single wing bone at its center. The salad and rolls had been delicious, the dinner conversation scintillating and fun, and I dug eagerly into my chicken meal. But alas, my dinner knife could scarcely cut the sad little bird! What had happened??
There are many enemies of a moist, tender chicken breast, but the single best way to prevent chicken tragedies is to cook the chicken for exactly the right amount of time. Once the meat reaches 165 degrees, it is ready to eat. Any lower and you are risking a trip to the ER (Salmonella is no joke). Any more, and your chicken will be a dry, sad and tasteless husk, suitable only for dog treats.
I had always thought my mom was a great cook, however when I got to college I was amazed at the deliciousness of the food in the dining hall! As my fellow students complained bitterly about the food service meals, I realized that perhaps my mother was not the culinary wizard I'd once thought. However, there were several dishes that she made really well, and one of these was "oven fried chicken breasts". Any child of the 60s and 70s will remember a time when boneless chicken breasts were very expensive, and so these oven fried chicken breasts were a special treat, perhaps something one might request for a birthday dinner. Perfect, I thought, for my first dinner party. Concerned about poisoning my guests, I cooked the chicken until I was SURE it was done and put a lovely golden brown chicken breast each plate. Imagine my shock when my friends could barely cut them with steak knives! This was my first lesson in the perils of overcooking chicken.
Crockpots can be another danger zone. What could be simpler than filling a crockpot in the morning and letting it cook all day? My first crockpot, a gift from my mother-in-law, came with an instruction book that read in part, "It is practically impossible to cook anything (in a crockpot) for too long." Let me tell you, it's entirely possible, and I've done it. You do not want to know what broccoli cooked for 11 hours looks like (well OK, I'll tell you - gray mush). If you want to use chicken in a crockpot recipe, consider boneless, skinless thighs. They have enough fat and connective tissue to stand up to a long-cooking crockpot recipe and emerge with good texture and flavor. Chicken breasts, not so much.
There are other variables that matter too: organic or conventional; bone or no bone; skin on or off; flipped during cooking or not flipped. But for a huge taste upgrade, get a thermometer and use it. You will be shocked at how much it helps.
Here is a link to a Rosle digital meat thermometer.
Here is a link to an instant read thermometer.
Here is a link to an old-school leave-in meat thermometer.
Finally, if you peer into your oven and find a dry, overcooked chicken drowning in a pool of it's own juices, call me to commiserate! And if you like, my dog Bentley will be happy to take any leftovers off your hands.