What are you having for dinner tonight? Chances are, it’s chicken. According to the USDA, chicken is the number one protein consumed by Americans. We eat this little bird grilled, sautéed, deep-fried, roasted, poached, skewered, in a sandwich, and in salads. And what’s not to love? Chicken is lean, inexpensive, very readily available, and packed with protein.
Since chicken is the most popular protein in the U.S., I’m sure that you, dear reader, have had at least one bad experience with said protein. These bad experiences could be tough chicken you can barely chew, dry meat that leaves your mouth feeling like a desert, or the terrifying bite you take just before realizing the center of the chicken breast is still pink and soft. So how can you be sure your chicken is done and safe to eat every time? And still, be guaranteed it’ll be juicy and delicious? The keys are time and temperature.
Chicken is not a meat that can be prepared medium rare, it must reach 165ºF to be safe enough to eat. Most of us are guilty of overcooking chicken because we fear undercooking and serving helpings of food poisoning for dinner. With a few simple steps and the right tools, you can prepare perfect chicken every time.
In our testing this week, we chose to carefully track the grilling of eight boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We were looking for critical control points in temperature and other keys to tender, moist grilled chicken.
All the chicken breasts were salted, patted dry, and oiled lightly before hitting the grill. Half were pounded, and half were left in their natural shape. To test carryover cooking and determine pull temperature, ChefAlarm® probe thermometers were initially set to three different pull temperatures: 150ºF, 155ºF, and 160ºF.
Here’s what we found…
The Three Keys to Grilling Chicken
Key 1: Use a Thermapen!
As soon as the chicken hit the grill it was time to place the ChefAlarm probes. A Thermapen® is essential in finding the lowest temperature in the meat. We’ve found through our kitchen testing so far that visually gauging the thickest area of the meat won’t necessarily be the lowest temperature in the mass.
The finished product will only be as safe as the temperatures you monitor, so finding the lowest temperature is critical. The lowest temperature can be a very small area, and the Thermapen found it quickly. I found the coolest spot in each chicken breast and placed the ChefAlarm probe in the same spot where it had the same reading as the Thermapen.
Key 2: Pound Your Chicken!
Though this step is often ignored, one of the keys to moist juicy chicken breasts is to pound the breasts flat before cooking.
In our testing, the thinner, flattened chicken cooked faster than the thicker meat by about 4 minutes, and the temperature gradient was more dramatic with the thicker chicken. In testing the temperature in different areas around the meat, the greatest temperature difference (gradient) between the lowest and highest reading was 19 degrees with the flattened, and a whopping 53 degrees without. The thin edges of the unflattened chicken breast will certainly be overcooked by the time it’s safe to eat. The more even the thickness of the meat, the more uniform the heat transfer rate will be. The result is a more homogeneous final temperature. Flattening out the meat is a step that just makes sense and has a real impact.
Kenji with seriouseats.com has done extensive research on how flattening chicken breasts yields a superior finished product, and these are his reasons why:
- Even Cooking: With an even, uniform thickness, the meat will cook more uniformly and the meat will come up to temperature more closely at the same time. You’ll avoid overcooked edges that have contracted, squeezing out moisture.
- Faster Cooking: You can reduce cooking time considerably by getting rid of the bulky end of the meat. The heat doesn’t have to travel through as much mass on either side to bring the center up to temperature.
- Moister Meat: With less mass for heat to travel through, and more even cooking with less temperature gradient throughout, less moisture will be expelled from the protein fibers leaving you with uniformly moist chicken.
- Tenderizing: Pounding loosens up the bundles of protein fibers and makes the meat more tender.
Key 3: The Perfect Pull Temp for Grilled Chicken
Chicken must be thoroughly cooked to 165ºF to be safe to eat. We know that carryover cooking during the rest phase will still cause the temperature to rise, and it’ll become dry and tough if it’s overcooked for fear of undercooking.
The chicken breasts pulled at 150°F and 155°F increased in temperature by 5-6 degrees (too little carryover), while the chicken pulled at 160ºF had a final temperature of 168.6ºF (too much carryover). A second test was conducted and the pull temperature was adjusted to 157ºF. This yielded the 165ºF final temperature we were looking for—a 7-degree rise in temperature. Finally, chicken that’s safe to eat and not overcooked; but how did it look?
We wanted a caramelized exterior, so we started with high heat on the grill to sear the meat before moving it to a cooler area of our grill. We also turned the chicken frequently. Turning frequently helps avoid overcooking while the meat comes up to the target temperature (as documented by Kenji at seriouseats.com in his How to Grill Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast).
Final Presentation of our Grilled Chicken Breasts
Both of these grilled chicken breasts were cut in areas where they had a similar thickness. The one on the left was not pounded, and the one on the right had been pounded. You can see that the one on the left still has a small inward curve to the shape on the bottom edge, while the one on the right is flat. The grain of the meat looks looser on the left, tighter on the right. The naturally shaped chicken also appears to have a more jagged texture while the one on the right appears smooth and moist. The chicken that had been pounded did indeed have a more tender, smoother texture that you could feel while chewing.
Hopefully, you’ve found a tip you haven’t tried before so you can put these tested methods to use! It really is amazing how greatly you can improve your cooking, and how easy it can be, when you’re armed with the knowledge of what’s happening to your food, and you have the right tools for the job.
More on Cooking Chicken and Key Temperatures: