Cooking chicken perfectly

“...I’m talking about dry chicken breasts, and it’s time for us to Just Say No.”

Skillet-braised Chicken with Tomatoes, Olives and Capers. (photo credit: J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT)
Skillet-braised Chicken with Tomatoes, Olives and Capers.
(photo credit: J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT)
‘There’s a terrible problem sweeping this country, an insidious one that has managed to work its way into nearly every household,” wrote J. Kenji López- Alt, author of the award-winning book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.
“...I’m talking about dry chicken breasts, and it’s time for us to Just Say No.”
López-Alt’s mission is to help people understand cooking techniques. He describes himself as “a nerd in the kitchen” who focuses on the science behind popular American dishes.
“Once you understand the basic science of how and why a recipe works,” he wrote, “you suddenly find that you’ve freed yourself from the shackles of recipes. You can modify as you see fit, fully confident that the outcome will be a success.”
Unlike most cookbooks, The Food Lab is organized by cooking techniques. One chapter, for example, is called “Chickens, Turkeys, Prime Rib, and the Science of Roasts”; another is “Steaks, Chops, Chicken, Fish and the Science of Fast-Cooking Foods.”
López-Alt, who has a degree from MIT, a top engineering school, spent years cooking at fine restaurants in the US. He reexamined classic recipes and tested them meticulously. For his roasting chapter he roasted “well over 60 birds, no two the same way.” “Home cooks can achieve far better results using new – but simple – techniques,” he wrote.
“There are few things in life I hate more than skinless, boneless chicken breasts,” wrote López-Alt. “Rule Numero Uno for great chicken is to start by buying the skin-on, bone-in chicken.... Pretty much any recipe that calls for boneless, skinless chicken breasts will work just as well and taste far better if you start with bone-in, skin-on chicken. Both the rib cage and the skin act as insulators, allowing the meat to cook more gently and evenly.”
Before roasting a chicken, dry its skin well with paper towels, advised López-Alt, to ensure that it will become crisp and golden. Because chicken breasts should be roasted for less time than legs, roasting pieces instead of a whole chicken makes it simple to have all the parts roasted evenly.
For roasting the pieces, López-Alt uses two oven temperatures. First he roasts them at a gentle heat to maximize even cooking. He removes the breasts from the oven when they reach their desired temperature, and continues cooking the legs. To determine whether the chicken is done, he recommends checking the temperature with a digital instant-read thermometer. After allowing the pieces to rest for 10 minutes, he returns them briefly to a 260°C (500°F) oven to crisp the skin.
A faster way to cook chicken pieces is to pan-roast them. López-Alt first cooks them skin side down in a hot skillet, then flips them over and finishes them in a moderately hot oven. With the pan juices you can make a sauce, such as mushroom Marsala sauce. (See recipes.) If you want chicken cooked in sauce, make skillet- braised chicken, such as López-Alt’s chicken with white wine, tomatoes, capers, olives and fresh coriander.
“The key to really great braised chicken is in the browning,” he commented. “You’ve got to brown the skin in the skillet until it’s deeply golden brown and extraordinarily crisp, then make sure that the skin remains above the level of the liquid the entire time it’s cooking so that the crispness remains. What you end up with is fall-off-the-bone-tender meat deeply flavored with sauce and the crisp skin of a perfectly roasted chicken.” (See recipe.) López-Alt’s hefty, 958-page book seems complete (except for desserts, which do not interest him), but he insists that the book is “nowhere near comprehensive...because the whole point of science is that it’s a never-ending quest for knowledge.” 
López-Alt seasons his chicken generously with salt before cooking it, but recommends omitting the salt if using brined or kosher chicken.
Serves 4
■ A 1.8-kg. (4-lb.) chicken, cut into 8 serving portions, or 1.36 kg. (3 lb.) bone-in, skin-on mixed chicken pieces (thighs, drumsticks, breast quarters)
■ Coarse salt (optional) and freshly ground black pepper
■ 2 tsp. vegetable oil
■ Mushroom Marsala pan sauce (optional; see next recipe)
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Season chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a 30.5-cm. (12-in.) heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat until wisps of smoke appear. Swirl oil to coat pan, then remove from heat and carefully add chicken, skin side down. Return to heat and cook, without moving chicken, until skin is a deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Flip chicken and continue to cook until second side is lightly golden, about 3 minutes.
Transfer skillet to the oven and roast until thickest part of chicken breast registers 66°C (150°F) on an instant-read thermometer (see note), and thighs and drumsticks register 79.5°C (175°F); remove pieces to a plate as they reach their temperature and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Let chicken rest for 10 minutes; meanwhile, make a pan sauce if desired.
Note: Instead of the usually recommended 74°C (165°F), López-Alt prefers 66°C (150°F) because the breast meat comes out pleasant to eat and not dry and is just as safe if it is held at 66°C (150°F) for at least 2.7 minutes. During the resting time, the chicken’s temperature increases.
López-Alt uses butter in this sauce, which goes with the pan-roasted chicken; I have substituted margarine to make it kosher.
Serves 4
■ 4 Tbsp. margarine
■ 225 gr. (8 oz.) button mushrooms, cleaned and finely sliced (about 4 cups)
■ 1 large shallot, minced (about ½ cup)
■ 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
■ 1 tsp. all-purpose flour
■ 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ 1 tsp. soy sauce
■ 1½ cups sweet Marsala wine
■ 1 Tbsp. lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
■ Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
After cooking the chicken, discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the skillet. Return pan to high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the margarine and the mushrooms, and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until mushrooms are well browned, about 6 minutes.
Add shallots and thyme and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add flour and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds.
Slowly whisk in soy sauce and wine. Scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan with the spoon and simmer the liquid until reduced to 1 cup, about 5 minutes.
Off heat, whisk in lemon juice and remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the rested chicken and serve immediately.
López-Alt recommends using dark meat for braising because it stays moister. You can make this dish entirely on the stove top. When you add the browned chicken to the sauce ingredients, cover the pan and cook the chicken until tender, about 45 minutes. Braised dishes have better flavor on the second or third day, although the chicken skin becomes less crisp.
Serves 4 to 6
■ 4 to 6 chicken leg quarters (drumstick with thigh attached)
■ Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
■ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ 1 large onion, finely sliced (about 1½ cups)
■ 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
■ 1 Tbsp. paprika
■ 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
■ 1 cup dry white wine
■ An 800-gr. (28-oz.) can whole tomatoes, drained and crushed by hand
■ ½ cup homemade or low-sodium prepared chicken stock
■ ¼ cup capers, rinsed, drained and roughly chopped
■ ¼ cup chopped green or black olives
■ ¼ cup fresh coriander leaves
■ ¼ cup lime juice (from 3 to 4 limes)
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Lightly season chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a 30.5-cm. (12-in.) ovenproof skillet or sauté pan over high heat until lightly smoking. Using tongs, carefully add chicken pieces skin side down. Cover with a splatter screen or partially cover with a lid to prevent splattering and cook, without moving it, until chicken is deep golden brown and skin is crisp, about 4 minutes. Flip chicken pieces and cook until second side is golden brown, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer chicken to a later plate.
Reduce heat under pan to medium high, add onions and cook, scraping up browned bits from bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon and then stirring frequently, until completely softened and just starting to brown, about 4 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add paprika and cumin and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute longer.
Add wine and scrape up browned bits from bottom of skillet. Add tomatoes, stock, capers and olives and bring to a boil.
Nestle chicken pieces into stock and vegetables so that only the skin is showing. Cover pan and transfer to oven. Cook for 20 minutes; then remove lid and continue to cook until chicken is falling-off-the-bone tender and the sauce is rich, about 20 minutes longer.
Stir fresh coriander and lime juice into sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve immediately.
For this simple, homey dish, I bake chicken pieces skin side up with the tomatoes, onions and garlic, which form a sauce while the chicken cooks. You could say it’s a cross between roasting and braising. True, the skin is not as crisp as in López-Alt’s pan-roasted chicken, but the result is delicious.
The spice blend is one I learned to make from my Yemenite mother-in-law. I add roasted peppers for the last few minutes; if you don’t have them, you can add strips of raw peppers along with the tomatoes. Instead of sweet peppers, you can add a small amount of hot or semi-hot peppers.
Serves 6
■ 1 medium onion, halved and sliced
■ About 2 tsp. olive oil
■ 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
■ 1 tsp. ground turmeric
■ ½ tsp. ground black pepper
■ Pinch of salt
■ 1.6 kg. (3.5 lb.) chicken thighs
■ 4 garlic cloves, chopped
■ 350 gr. (¾ pounds) plum tomatoes or other meaty tomatoes, diced
■ 2 roasted sweet green or red peppers, peeled (see note below), cut in strips (or roasted peppers from a jar)
■ Semi-hot or mild red pepper or paprika (for sprinkling)
■ 2 to 3 tsp. chopped fresh coriander, parsley or basil
Preheat oven to 205°C (400°F). Put onion in a roasting dish, drizzle with olive oil, and bake until softened but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes.
Mix cumin, turmeric, black pepper and salt in a very small bowl. Rub mixture over meat side of chicken, then over skin side. Put in roasting pan, skin side up. Roast chicken for 20 minutes.
Stir garlic into pan juices. Sprinkle diced tomatoes around and over chicken. Roast until chicken is tender, about 30 to 40 more minutes, depending on size; the temperature on an instant-read thermometer should be 79.5°C (175°F), or when you prick its thickest part, the juices that come out should be clear, not pink.
Put roasted pepper strips on and around chicken pieces. Roast for 5 minutes to heat them through. Taste sauce for salt and pepper.
Sprinkle chicken with red pepper and with fresh coriander and serve.
Note: To peel peppers, broil or grill them whole, turning them every 4 or 5 minutes, for a total of 15 minutes, or until their skins blister all over and most of their skins blacken in a thin layer. Transfer peppers to a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Peel peppers with aid of a paring knife. Halve peppers and drain off any liquid inside. Remove caps and seeds; do not rinse.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook and of the award-winning Classic Cooking Techniques.