Behold: The boneless, skinless chicken breast. A completely blank canvas that's at your service to add lean, affordable protein to any meal. An ideal weeknight go-to. But, as perennially popular as chicken breasts are, cooking them perfectly is still a challenge. But not any longer. Tonight's the night you make the perfect baked chicken breast: moist, juicy and ready to blow your mind.
Here's the deal
That very same negligible fat content that makes the chicken breast a staple on so many tables is also what makes them hard to cook. Meats that are higher in fat are more forgiving, so it’s no big deal if you overcook your chicken thigh a little. But take a chicken breast a few degrees too far? Your protein is now a dry and rubbery mess. Sad.
Conquer the dryness: A juicy science lesson
To understand what makes meat dry and tough, let’s pause for a brief chemistry lesson. I learned about why chicken becomes dry from food science guru Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise and BakeWise.
"The proteins in raw meat exist as a network of individual springlike coils. Each coil has bonds that keep it tightly compacted. As soon as you apply heat, the bonds that bind the protein coils break, and the coil straightens out. These straightened proteins then begin to link together in a loose mesh. The longer you cook the meat, and the higher the temperature, the tighter the mesh becomes, squeezing out more and more of the liquid within it. That’s why overcooked meat is tough and dry."
So the real secret culinary technique to the perfect baked chicken breast is all about controlling the temperature and time.
Tips for keeping it moist
- Let the chicken come to room temperature before you cook it, or else you’ll end up with meat that’s overcooked on the outside and raw in the middle.
- Set the oven at a moderate temperature. 350 F is ideal.
- Use a meat thermometer. This inexpensive tool is hands-down the best way to ensure that every piece of meat you serve is cooked to perfection.
The ultimate baked chicken breast recipe
With a pack of chicken breasts in the fridge and a few seasonings in the cupboard, you’re well on your way to a delicious meal. What's even better is that you can make a big pan full of chicken, and you’ll be set with days of easy lunches and dinners.
This is not so much a single recipe but a series of recipes — the magic formula for endless easy weeknight dinners. Here are some of my favorite seasoning combinations for chicken breasts and ways to serve them. Scan your spice rack and your condiment shelves and you’re bound to come up with some inspiration of your own.
Step 1: Choose your seasoning combo
- Seasoning: chili powder + cumin + cayenne + paprika
- Use in: tacos, burritos, enchiladas or taco salad
Sweet and spicy
- Seasoning: Sriracha sauce + honey
- Serve with: rice or garlic sautéed broccoli
- Seasoning: Dijon mustard + maple syrup
- Use in: sandwiches, Cobb salad
- Seasoning: minced garlic + olive oil + sun-dried tomato paste
- Serve with: pasta, chopped tomatoes and Parmesan cheese
- Seasoning: gochujang (Korean chili paste) + mayonnaise + sesame oil
- Serve with: Brussels sprouts, kimchi, rice
- Seasoning: apricot jam + minced ginger + lemon juice
- Serve with: couscous, carrots
- Seasoning: Thai curry paste + coconut oil
- Serve with: rice noodles, cilantro, shredded carrots and cucumber
- Seasoning: miso paste + minced garlic
- Serve with: asparagus, soba noodles
- Seasoning: barbecue sauce
- Serve with: mashed potatoes, green salad OR use on: pizza, sandwiches
Step 2: Gather your other ingredients
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (as many as you want)
- Olive oil, salt, and pepper or the seasonings of your choice (see above for suggestions)
Step 3: Prepare the chicken for the oven
Arrange the breasts in a single layer on a foil-lined baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, or season liberally with the flavors of your choice from the suggestions above. Allow chicken to reach room temperature (about 20 minutes) before baking. While you're waiting, preheat the oven to 350 F.
Step 4: Bake it to perfection
Bake chicken in preheated oven for 25 to 40 minutes. The cooking time is broad because there are all shapes and sizes of chicken breasts, which can vary from petite to monstrous. This is why you really need a meat thermometer here. Inserted in the thickest part of the chicken breast and it should read 150 degrees F when you're done.
Allow chicken to rest 5 minutes before slicing. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for at least three days.