At least one day a week, chicken factors into our dinner plans. Turns out we are not alone. Chicken is the No. 1 source of protein in the U.S. and in 2018 we ate more than 93.5 pounds per capita, according to the National Chicken Council.
Around our house, we cook most of our per capita chicken. On the occasion that I purchase fully cooked chicken, I’m usually disappointed. More often than not, it’s bland and dry.
So the weeknight chicken challenge is this: moistness and more flavor, despite little time.
Most of the year, the charcoal grill is my preferred chicken cooking method for maximum flavor and speed. However, weather and the time to set up the grill often deter.
Instead, I turn to another favorite piece of cooking equipment — a relic from early in my cooking career called a Bayou Blackener No. 1111. This heavy, rectangular cast-iron griddle heats quickly on the stovetop (or in about 10 minutes in a 425-degree oven or hot grill).
The beauty of cast iron is in how hot it gets and then how well it retains heat — meaning faster cooking and better browning. Lodge Cast Iron and other manufacturers make a variety of affordable cast-iron griddles and skillets. Nonstick skillets prove more foolproof than cast iron, but they never get as hot as, or retain the heat as well as, cast iron.
Pan selected, let’s talk chicken. Buy the best you can afford — at grocery stores and butcher shops, I seek out natural chicken, free of antibiotics. Organic chicken from the butcher counter, or sold frozen by the farmer at our local farmers market, always seems to taste best.
Chickens in general have grown in size over the years. Modern breeding, improved veterinary care and a steady supply of nutritious food mean even organic chickens are larger. Today, most supermarket chickens weigh nearly double those that I learned to cook in my chef’s apprenticeship days years ago.
I reserve roasting whole chickens, brined chicken and cutup chicken on the bone for days when I have more time to cook. For our weeknight chicken challenge, boneless, skinless breasts win hands down. For clarification, when most BSCB (boneless, skinless, chicken breast) recipes refer to a chicken breast, they actually mean half of the chicken breast — there are two pieces per bird. Think about it.
Older recipes typically call for boneless, skinless chicken breast halves weighing 4 to 6 ounces each. Somewhat thin, these small breast halves cook in less than 10 minutes. However, a super-informal survey of my area grocery stores reveals many prepackaged chicken breast halves weighing 10 to 14 ounces. So, I prefer to butterfly these huge chicken breasts to make them thinner (so they cook faster) and more uniform in thickness (so they cook evenly without drying).
To butterfly a large chicken breast half, put it on a cutting board with the thickest portion facing your sharp knife. Then slice horizontally in half about three-quarters of the way across. Open the chicken out like a book (or butterfly). Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and lightly pound the breast to a uniform thickness — about ½-inch. FYI, the pros call this a paillard — a term for a uniformly shaped, pounded thin piece of meat. You can cut the pounded chicken breast in half for easier handling.
When time is of the essence, substitute store-bought chicken breast cutlets, which are simply slices of boneless breast about ½ inch thick. If the cutlets are thinner than ½ inch, be sure to reduce cooking time by a minute or two to prevent dryness.
Please don’t be afraid to use heat in the kitchen, specifically heat under the pan. Start with the empty pan or griddle on high heat and then turn it down to medium-high for cooking. This way you’ll certainly get beautiful browning and a bit of crustiness and avoid a bland unattractive meal.
As for dryness, set the timer, don’t overcook — chicken is done when it gives ever so gently when pressed with a fingertip. Add a swirl of flavorful fat, such as olive oil or butter, to the chicken at the very end. Then serve the chicken right away — resist the temptation to keep it warm for very long.
The griddle-seared chicken can be customized to suit any taste or season of the year. In late summer, I tuck garden-fresh tomatoes into everything I cook. In the recipe here, diced ripe tomatoes and marinated mozzarella turn Caprese-style salad into a main-course offering.
In the fall, roasted diced apples, onions and butternut squash make a delicious accompaniment. So does a bath of melted butter swirled in the pan after the chicken cooks, stirred while scraping up the browned bits — try adding some canned artichoke hearts and 1 or 2 tablespoons of drained capers. I can’t resist a sandwich made with hot, freshly griddled chicken breast on whole-grain toast with a smear of avocado and a handful of arugula.
The recipes that follow can be cut in half. But whenever possible, I like to cook enough for the meal at hand, plus enough for a few leftovers to add later to salads, soups, stir-fries and rice bowls.