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Originally published March 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 12, 2008 at 6:33 AM

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Cooking School

Chicken to crow about

"Not chicken again! " It's a common complaint aimed at the ever-present boneless and skinless chicken breast found on the dinner table. Fair enough. But the problem...

Seattle Times Food staff

"Not chicken again!" It's a common complaint aimed at the ever-present boneless and skinless chicken breast found on the dinner table.

Fair enough. But the problem may not be with the bird. It may be time to put away those same tired recipes and expand the vocabulary with a few new preparation and cooking techniques.

Let's take a look at the possibilities.

Preparation techniques

Quick brining is a good way to infuse boneless and skinless chicken breasts with moisture and flavor. Dissolve 6 tablespoons kosher salt and 4 tablespoons sugar in 2 cups water. Put chicken pieces in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and pour brine over them. Cover and refrigerate 40 minutes to 4 hours, then drain and pat dry.

Marinades that have an acid base such as vinegar, wine, yogurt or buttermilk tend to "cook" the outside of the chicken (change the texture of the protein) if refrigerated too long. A salty, oil-based marinade prevents that, while still saturating the food with flavor. Acting much like a brine, these marinades produce juicy meat and can sit in the refrigerator up to 24 hours before cooking without damaging the quality of the chicken.

If you want to experiment, try this quick-to-fix curry marinade from "The Cooks Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry" by the editors of Cook's Illustrated. For 4 breast halves, combine ½ cup olive oil with 1 ½ teaspoons good quality curry powder, 1 large clove chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons chopped mint. Marinate chicken in a covered dish in refrigerator from 2 to 24 hours. Squeeze fresh lime juice over the cooked chicken before serving.

Pounding chicken breasts with a smooth, heavy meat mallet or the bottom of a small, heavy saucepan produces an even surface for cooking. Place chicken with the smooth side up (the surface that was directly under the skin) between sheets of plastic wrap and pound over the entire surface.

For quick recipes, begin with cutlets sliced from the chicken breast and flattened between sheets of plastic wrap to about ¼-inch thickness. These cook in 4 to 5 minutes, and a sauce can be made by deglazing the pan with wine or broth and simmering until slightly thickened.

The breasts can also be butterflied open and pounded thin so there's lots of surface for adding a stuffing. The trick is to pound the edges just a bit thinner, about 1/8 inch, for easier rolling. And be sure to tuck those edges in to prevent the stuffing from seaping out when cooking.

Breading can be a bit of a challenge for those who don't like to get their hands messy, but here's a trick that may help. Set up a production line: one plate of seasoned flour, a wide, shallow bowl of whisked eggs, and a third plate of fine crumbs. Use one hand for dipping chicken in flour, then your other hand for coating in egg. Go back to your dry hand for finishing in crumbs. This method is much quicker and cleaner, and keeps hands free of gummy residue.

Cooking techniques

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Baking boneless and skinless chicken breasts can be a problem because, without the skin to hold in moisture, they tend to dry out easily. The solution is to preheat the oven to 450 degrees. The high heat sears the outside of the breast and holds in the moisture. A spicy rub and drizzle of olive oil before baking is simple and delicious, and with the variety of spice blends on the market the options are wide open. (I'm partial to the flavors of African Peri Peri Rub and Chicken Rub in Tom Douglas' Rubs with Love line.)

Poaching is the technique of choice for preparing chicken for casseroles and salads. Recently, I discovered a poaching technique from Cecilia Chiang's "The Seventh Daughter" that I've adapted slightly. Put the chicken into a large saucepan and cover with water by about 2 inches. Add seasonings and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 3 ½ minutes. Cover pan and remove from the heat. Twenty-five minutes later, the chicken is cooked through and moist.

Sautéing has a few cooking secrets that are often overlooked. Heat about 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in a 10-inch pan over medium-high heat. The oil must be very hot so that the chicken browns and seals in moisture quickly. Dredge the breasts in flour, which serves almost like a skin in protecting the tender meat. Once the chicken is dredged, it should be put immediately into the hot oil or the flour becomes gummy. Sauté about 4 minutes per side or until cooked through.

Simmering or braising the chicken in a simple sauce, perhaps a bottled marinara or Indian curry, is a technique that requires little effort for a lot of flavor. Pour the sauce into a skillet and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and spoon some of the sauce over it. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer, basting with the sauce occasionally, about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

(Editor's note: No matter the cooking method chicken needs to reach an internal temperature for 165 degrees.)

Sources: "The Cook's Illustrated Complete Book of Poultry" by the editors of Cook's Illustrated; "The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco" by Cecilia Chiang with Lisa Weiss; "The Kitchen Detective" by Christopher Kimball

Cece Sullivan: csullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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