When you need to turn out a fast, tasty and healthful weeknight dinner, it ought to be so easy to reach for skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
They cook quickly, you can do endless things with them and what you get is all meat, no waste.
Except for the downsides: They can be boring. If you overcook them, you end up sawing away at a plank of compressed leather. With no bone or skin, you don't get much to carry flavor, either.
I decided to hit the kitchen with a big tray of naked breasts and figure out what really makes a difference in turning them into fantastic weeknight dinners.
I tasted several cooking methods and came up with a few dishes that use things you have on hand or can grab on the way home.
Prepping your breasts
I picked three methods for prepping the breasts and two methods for cooking them.
Using fresh breasts, I rubbed one with plain yogurt and refrigerated it for an hour; I wet-brined one in 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of water for 30 minutes; and I dry-brined one, simply sprinkling both sides of a breast with 1 teaspoon of salt and refrigerating it, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
While yogurt makes a great breast if you're going to grill or roast it, it's not the best for pan-searing. It's messy and doesn't get that great golden color. Wet-brining is fine, but it's messy, too, and it can make cooking juices watery.
Hands down, the best method is dry brining: It's simple, and it gets quick results. While you can salt and refrigerate breasts in the morning to cook that night, even doing it for 30 minutes results in noticeably juicy, flavorful chicken.
Next, I tried two cooking methods. One, on joyofcooking.com, gets a lot of recommendations. You flavor the breasts with salt, freshly ground pepper and Italian seasoning or herbs (those are optional), then heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Place the breasts in the pan and cook for 1 minute, then turn them, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken stand, covered, for 10 minutes.
While it did make a juicy breast, I had trouble getting it cooked through, and while it was definitely juicy, it didn't get that golden appearance. It would make good chicken salad, but it wasn't the best overall method.
The second cooking method was developed by food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt of seriouseats.com and author of The Food Lab: Pat the breasts dry with paper towels, then dry-brine, sprinkling them with salt and pepper (1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper for 4 breasts). Refrigerate them, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Pat dry again before cooking.
Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium-low until it shimmers. Place the breasts in the skillet, smooth side down. Cook for 9 minutes without moving them, until they're pale gold underneath. Add 1 teaspoon butter and swirl it around, lifting the breasts to get it underneath, and cook 1 minute. Turn breasts and cook 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 3 minutes.