Help a novice cook
July 24, 2011 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Why do I keep burning my chicken breasts?

I don't know how to cook. Not remotely. But I want to try to start -- and start at the very beginning.

So I'm trying to sautee boneless/skinless chicken breasts in a bit of butter and olive oil. It seems easy and tasty, and because it should take just a few minutes on each side to cook through, also fast. (This last is a big plus.)

But even though the chicken breast clearly needs multiple minutes to cook through, after just thirty seconds or so, the chicken is turning black and charred! I salvage it by cutting the breast in half and putting the raw middle face-down -- but why is the chicken breast burning so quickly? (It doesn't seem to do so in others' YouTube videos!)


By the way -- any other quick, simple, easy, big-portioned, and meat-y cooking suggestions would be very much appreciated. (I can't afford to eat at Subway twice a day. Nor should I!)
posted by lewedswiver to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
My guess is that the heat is too high. Is your stove going full-blast? Maybe medium heat will work better for you.

Heres a link.
posted by tjenks at 2:51 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like the problem is your pan. Have you tried cooking with a thicker bottomed pan/skillet?
posted by MuffinMan at 2:51 PM on July 24, 2011

It sounds like your pan is way too hot. Is your oil smoking? What sort of pan are you using? Are the breasts frozen or thawed?

I too am a real advocate of the old pan-fried chicken breast and I usually do it slightly more slowly over a more medium level heat. If you're new to this you may need to cut through the chicken to make sure it's all cooked [or use a meat thermometer] but you should get a more even cooking on it. Alternately, you can do the "wrap in tin foil with some herbs and butter and cook in an oven" thing which is a lot more foolproof though it does heat up your kitchen more than you might like.
posted by jessamyn at 2:51 PM on July 24, 2011

1) Lower the temperature next time; medium high is plenty. This is no steak. Perhaps use more olive oil and somewhat less butter.
2) Chicken breasts consist of one large and one small muscle per side. The large ones are too thick for pan-frying; when they're done in the middle, the outside is dry. Slice them in half, horizontally (yes. You need a sharp knife for this), so you end up with three approximately even-sized bits.
3) Do not overcook. Dry boneless chicken is horrible.
posted by Namlit at 2:52 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Butter has solids in it that burn at a relatively low temperature, and olive oil has a relatively low "smoke point" as well (the point at which the oil burns). You should use a different oil for this (canola is fine, for example).
posted by madmethods at 2:52 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

It does sound like your heat is high, and you might want to up your proportion of oil to butter.

If you're trying to cook the breasts whole, it might be easiest just to bake them (rub them with a little olive oil and salt/pepper) at 375. If I'm cooking chicken on the stovetop in the interest of speed, I usually cut it into smaller pieces first, more like a stir fry.
posted by mauvest at 2:55 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lower your flame and get a pan w/a heavy bottom.
posted by ACN09 at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2011

You are cooking it too hot.

It only needs to get to 165 °F all the way through in order to be cooked.
At 310 °F you will get the Maillard reaction that makes meat brown and yummy tasting.
Much hotter than that and it will burn.

With a big piece of chicken it will be difficult to get the inside up to "cooked" temperature without making the outside overcooked and dry. To overcome this you could cut it thinner, or you could cook it slowly at a lower temperature and then brown it quickly at the end.

The best thing to do is experiment! (Using an oil with a higher smoke point, as others have mentioned).
posted by emilyw at 2:58 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some combination of too much heat and a too-thin pan, I would guess. I also wouldn't use a butter-oil combo for chicken; it's fine for fish or shellfish (which will cook faster) but for chicken I would just use the oil.

Also, when you say "it should take just a few minutes on each side to cook through": what are your expectations for "a few"? If you're expecting to be able to cook them in just 2-3 minutes per side, that's too fast, unless they're pretty small.
posted by scody at 2:59 PM on July 24, 2011

Dry poaching is my favorite way to cook chicken breasts because it's so darned easy. You just set it up and leave it alone.

I really like it for when I'm making taco/burrito mea. Rub the outside of the chicken liberally with the taco spice and the flavor permeates the whole breast.
posted by phunniemee at 3:00 PM on July 24, 2011 [8 favorites]

I am with the people who say you're using too much heat. I use butter just enough butter to keep the breast from sticking and give it that nice caramel color where it's touching the pan. I also like to sprinkle a little dried garlic on it. I use boneless skinless chicken breast halves, FYI.

If you like salsa try this recipe. The acids in the salsa do something to the meat and make it super tender. It tends to dye the meat pink though, so you'll need to use a thermometer to tell when it's done instead of the pink test. I've used all kinds of salsa with great success, you don't have to use the Kraft brand.

I also like chicken breasts on the George Foreman grill. I'll set a bunch of them soaking in Italian dressing the night before (again, the acids tenderize) and then cook them all the next day. I'll eat some then over rice with veggie sides and slice up the rest for use as salad toppers or to add to recipes that call for chicken pieces.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:02 PM on July 24, 2011

Silly question I'm only asking because you stated you didn't know how to cook: is the chicken fully thawed?
posted by pecanpies at 3:08 PM on July 24, 2011

The most foolproof way for us is to put the meat in the oven with herbs and olive oil and whatever else. Skin side down for 10 mins at 425 then the rest of the time at 350 (about 20-30 mins depending on thickness). Sometimes we pan fry it at the end to brown the skin and cook away the residual fat on the edges.

This works with just about any cut - but roasting a whole chicken in the same way is fast and easy. Put the whole thing in a pan and cover the breast area with bacon. Salt + pepper + herbs +olive oil. Same temperatures as with the breast but longer cooking time (15 mins on 425 and 45 mins on 350). Remove bacon in the last 30 mins to encourage skin browning.

And get a good thermometer. That will take the guess work out of cooking chicken. You want 160 for white meat and 175 for dark meat.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:13 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

At Trader Joe's you can get "chicken breast tenders," which are the breasts already trimmed down to uniform size. An easy way to cook those: marinate for an hour or two (or overnight) in soy sauce + garlic; then cook in a George Foreman grill for just two or three minutes. I do a big batch at once so I've got cooked chicken in the fridge ready to go.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:14 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestion to turn down your heat, and if they are ridiculously large American breast-augmentation surgery breasts, to also consider Namlit's suggestion to slice them in half.

Also, unless you have a particular reason to avoid them, boneless/skinless chicken thighs are easier to pan cook than breasts, and tastier to boot!

Another suggestion easy, inexpensive meaty thing to have in your repertoire is pork loin, sliced into chops and pan fried. A half pork loin should weigh 3-4 lbs; you can slice it into slices about 3/4" thick and freeze most of it in ziplock bags with 2-3 chops per bag.

Defrost before cooking, if frozen. Heat the pan to medium high and swirl a tablespoon of oil in the pan. Pan fry on medium high for a couple minutes, flip and do a couple minutes on the other side (nice sear, super tasty), then turn down to medium low and do both sides for another 5 minutes or so.

They're actually quite good seasoned with just salt and pepper, or you can try a seasoning mix like Cajun or Montreal steak seasoning, and things can just get fancier from there. If you cook 2 or 3, the leftover one makes a tasty sandwich for the next day.

Protip about pork chops and other meats: you can check for doneness by how firm the meat is to the touch--the muscle fibers tighten up the more they cook. Pork and chicken should be cooked to "well done" on this scale (pinkie to thumb).
posted by drlith at 3:15 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have a gas stove or electric stove? If it's electric, you'll want to use a medium heat setting and give the pan and burner time to stabilize in temperature. You'll also do much better if you have a nice heavy pan - I'm guessing you don't, unless you were gifted one.

(I'm visiting friends and trying to get accustomed to their electric stove and thin pans, so this was on my mind.)
posted by WasabiFlux at 3:15 PM on July 24, 2011

Response by poster: The chicken is fully thawed. And I'm expected 4-5 minutes per side most likely.

Thanks for everyone's advice about turning down the heat. Will do!
posted by lewedswiver at 3:15 PM on July 24, 2011

Best chicken breasts I've ever cooked myself - cut into thirds lengthwise so you've got three long thin bits. Fried in reasonably hot oil for about 5 mins. Just the right size to be reeeally juicy inside at the same time that the outside was cooked.
posted by penguin pie at 3:17 PM on July 24, 2011

If you are worried about them cooking through besides cutting into smaller pieces you can put each breast between 2 bits of plastic wrap and pound them thinner with a meat hammer. But I cook chicken breasts in the oven most of the time because its really hard not to get them dried out.
posted by wwax at 3:18 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

To make sure the pan is at the right temperature, I use the water drop test outlined in this video, as well as chicken breast no thicker than an inch.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:19 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

FWIW I've stopped buying chicken breasts except to dehydrate them to make dog treats. They are too lean. Try picking up some chicken thighs - they grill and bake excellently and are cheaper than the breast cuts.

But yes, Nthing everyone's comments about your heat being too high. You don't need to sear chicken.

Alternatively, if you cut the chicken up into little pieces beforehand and cook it as part of a vegetable medley (like stir fry sort of thing) then high heat works great.
posted by carlh at 3:22 PM on July 24, 2011

I'm going to second the Rouxbe Tutorial - my husband and I have been cooking just like this (with various seasonings/marinades) ever since we watched it and it always turned out great. I think making sure that both the pan is hot enough and the oil is hot enough before you put the chicken in are the two key things. My husband finds that the chicken stays more moist if he covers it for a bit while cooking, as well.
posted by echo0720 at 3:31 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Butterfly the breasts. They'll cook faster and more evenly.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:41 PM on July 24, 2011

I learned to pan fry chicken using the method described in The Joy of Cooking. You're approach isn't completely off base. If you have a copy, try reading through their process. Basically you want to cook it as hot as possible without burning the fats; the correct setting will vary from stove to stove but is generally between medium and medium-high. Don't be afraid to adjust it as you cook. Practice makes perfect.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:41 PM on July 24, 2011

Right, butterfly the breasts. They're too thick. Marinate or rub them with spices. Start them in a medium-high skillet to establish a crust, then turn the heat down and cook them till they're done all the way through. You can add a bit of liquid near the end, but not much (wine, stock). But deglaze the pan afterward with some wine, stock, butter, herbs, capers, etc, to make a nice simple sauce. Mmm.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 3:58 PM on July 24, 2011

Either butterfly, as above, or pound them thin with a rolling pin (put the chicken between sheets of parchment or cling wrap) - it's very satisfying. See more on chicken paillard here.
posted by judith at 4:22 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

My breasts are spectacular. (Sorry, had to say that.) I use the following method and it never fails to produce a cooked, moist, tasty whole breast.

I use a heavy nonstick frypan, with a slosh of oil. I pre-heat the pan to somewhere between medium and medium-high. I put the whole breasts in and cover them with a metal pan of some sort (I have been known to use caketins when I couldn't find the proper round food cover with handle thingy). Foil is okay, but not optimal.

The breasts should sizzle slowly when added to the oil. Cover, cook for maybe 10 minutes, flip (making sure that extra flap of breast is positioned so the heat will permeate the main part of the breast more easily), cook for maybe 8 more minutes.

You may need to tweak, according to your stove/pan/breast size/etc, but I've been trying to panfry whole breasts for decades, and this is the only successful method I've found.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:30 PM on July 24, 2011

I do boneless breasts two ways:

- Pound them to an even thickness between plastic wrap (1/2" or so, you just want them even). Marinate in a glass dish with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, a healthy glug of olive oil, and some chopped fresh rosemary. Salt and pepper optional. Preheat your pan to medium high and these will cook 4-5 minutes per side. The trick is to get the pan hot before putting in your chicken. There is no way a thick chicken breast will cook in just a few minutes with out drying out the skin (or burning it).

- Leave the chicken breasts unpounded. Plop them onto a cookie sheet and drizzle olive oil on them, rubbing it around (both sides). Rub cumin and chili powder liberally over all. Cook at 375 F for 25-30 minutes. You can also use other herbs, but the powdered ones like cumin tend to stick better and well, yummy. You can fork the meat apart for chicken tacos or serve as it with a black bean and corn salad on the side.

If you want some really tasty chicken breasts, get some bone-in chicken breasts and fill a big bowl with 1/2 cup of salt, 1 cup of vinegar and 1-2 cups of water (depending on how many breasts you have, I usually have 5 or 6 from a family pack on sale). Poke the heck out of the breasts with a fork, then let them soak in the marinade for 30 minutes to an hour. Grill skin side down for about 8 minutes, then turn and let cook another 20-25 minutes with the cover down. It's probably bad for you with the salt, but it's wicked tasty. You could probably bake it for 30 minutes and then hit the tops with the broiler for a few minutes to brown the skin.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:40 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, it's generally a good idea to let meat come up to temperature for an hour on your counter before you cook it. Food safety nazis will tell you not to do this, but it does help meat to cook faster and thus remain moister. You can even, if you feel like it, toss some herbs and salt on it during this process and thus add some flavor.
posted by novalis_dt at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2011

I like to start with medium high to high heat, because I like a good crispy sear on meat. I get the pan hot, sear and then turn the heat down to let the meat cook. I often add a bit of wine or stock to deglaze the pan or give some moisture.

If you're going to go with higher heat you need to have a thick bottomed pan and a high heat oil. There's a chart of oils and temperatures available on this page.
posted by 26.2 at 4:53 PM on July 24, 2011

Cast Iron Chicken:

1. Prepare the skillet using a little olive oil. (Lightly; this is not fried chicken, not really.) Place in oven.

2. Preheat oven to 450F. (Note that you are heating the pan here.)

3. Sprinkle boneless, skinless chicken breasts with salt and pepper or dry rub. (Liquid is the enemy, so keep everything dry!)

4. When the oven reaches 450F, remove the skillet (hot! heavy! use two mitts!). Put the skillet on the stove at a high heat.

5. Put the chicken in the skillet. 3 minutes on one side, without moving them. Flip; 3 minutes on the other side. Don't play with it.

6. Put in the skillet, chicken and all, into the still-hot oven. Give them 7-8 minutes. Turn. 7-8 minutes more.

7. Remove skillet from oven. Remove chicken from skillet. Let the breasts rest a few.

This has worked every time for me. The chicken is thoroughly cooked and will be moist and delicious, not tough or chewy. Bonus: chicken prepared in this fashion will reheat beautifully.
posted by SPrintF at 5:08 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice to butterfly or just slice them totally so they are half thickness. This makes them cook much more quickly. I usually use butter and olive oil in a nice hard anodized aluminum skillet over med-high, with nice results (meaning juicy but fully cooked inside and nice browned crisp exterior). But I would not attempt full-thickness chicken breasts this way.
posted by jeoc at 7:10 PM on July 24, 2011

Putting a cover over stuff you're pan-frying means that surfaces not directly in contact with the hot pan will get steam heated, which helps heat get to the inside of the food and also helps keep things moist. It also limits spatter. Works well for chicken.
posted by flabdablet at 2:13 AM on July 25, 2011

You need a decent (thick-bottomed) pan, as mentioned many times above. Thick pans diffuse the heat so the temperature is relatively consistent across the pan bottom. Chintzy, thin pans can't spread the heat; they end up too hot near the flame and too cold elsewhere. Thin stainlesss steel pans are the worst in this regard; they are only useful for heating watery soup or boiling vegetables. Stainless with a laminated bottom (a thick layer of copper or aluminum) is generally pretty good. Cast iron is cheap and good but heavy and harder to maintain. Nonstick-coated solid aluminum pans are good but less durable.

Notice that the bottom of your chicken breast is not perfectly flat, whereas the bottom of the pan pretty much is. You need enough cooking fat to convey heat from the pan to the food. You don't need huge amounts of oil (or oil and butter) but it takes more than just a light film unless you're stir-frying bite sized pieces.

When sauteing anything, listen to the pan and adjust the heat according to what you hear. You generally want a light to moderate sizzle. If the pan is silent, it's too cold and the chicken will cook so slowly that it dries out. If it's snapping, spitting, spattering and generally making a racket, it's too hot and will burn the outsides of the food before cooking the insides.

Don't use a clock to tell you when it's done. Look at the food. Touch the food. Smell it. It's done when it's done.
posted by jon1270 at 4:44 AM on July 25, 2011

Butter is one of the fastest-burning fats out there, i.e. it starts to smoke at a lower temperature than many other oils. I would try using refined oils (like canola) to see if that helps; olive should also be fine, though the fancy, flavorful, greenish-colored types are smokier than the more boring refined types. Basically, the flavor in your chicken should not be coming from the fat you cook in, as flavorful oils burn easily. Also, flavoring the chicken with sauce doesn't work well for pan-searing; you should stick with either marinades that leave nothing on the surface, or dry spice rubs.

(also, I'm a big fan of pounding the meat out to a more even thickness, 0.5-0.75 inch.)
posted by aimedwander at 8:00 AM on July 25, 2011

Depending on the thickness of the chicken, it seems likely that you'll want to finish cooking in an oven where the heat is less direct. Alternately, you could hack them up a little. Covering the pan may help if you're not worried about de-crisping the skin. You are cooking with the skin, right? And salting both sides?

In any case, you don't want your pan to be too hot but you don't want to put your fat in the pan until the pan is hot. As jon1270 notes, don't be stingy with the fat either. Then, you don't want to put your chicken in the pan until the fat is hot. Not smoking, but you can tell when it gets to the point where it's about to start smoking. Once you put your chicken in the pan, try to bother it as little as possible. It will be stuck to the pan until it's nicely seared at which point it will release and you can flip it without any difficulty.
posted by stuart_s at 1:49 PM on July 25, 2011

Cooks Illustrated are big fans of brining. Along with the cooking techniques here, will help prevent dry, overcooked meat.
posted by jefftang at 7:59 AM on July 26, 2011

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