Dear Lisa: We are trying to eat more lean and healthy, but I cannot seem to master chicken breasts that are not dry. Do you have any advice for cooking chicken breasts so that they are not dry? Is it better to use the individually frozen chicken breasts or the fresh ones? Thank you! -- Elizabeth L.
Dear Elizabeth: The best advice I can give is to avoid overcooking the chicken.
When any protein is exposed to excessive heat for an extended period of time, the outcome is always tough and dry. The secret to cooking moist, tender chicken is simply a function of time and temperature.
Regardless of whether you're using fresh or frozen breasts, it's important to begin with a uniform thickness. Chicken breasts are naturally thicker on one end and taper to about half their thickness on the other, so the thin end will overcook before the thick end is done.
Some processors have recognized this anatomical dilemma and now package their uniformly prepared breasts as "even cook." Or you can select packages of thin-sliced breasts.
Lacking that commercial convenience, you can easily process your own poultry.
Place the chicken breasts (thawed, if using frozen) between two sheets of plastic wrap, waxed paper or in a zipper bag. Lightly pound with a meat mallet, rolling pin, the bottom of a heavy skillet or anything else you can find, until the breast is an even thickness.
When grilling or pan-sautéing, most chicken breasts will cook in 6-8 minutes. Avoid cooking chicken beyond the recommended internal temperature of 165 F (or until juices run clear), and remember that cooked meats will rise in temperature at least another 5 degrees upon standing.
Investing in an instant-read thermometer is invaluable for optimal results.
As for recommending fresh or frozen breasts, it depends on your preference.
Commercially frozen breasts are flash-frozen to minimize the formation of ice crystals, and are often ice-glazed to prevent freezer burn. This provides a higher quality product than home-frozen chicken, which freezes more slowly at lower temperatures.
But some processors also inject chicken broth to guard against moisture loss, and thereby increase the sodium content of the chicken.
You'll have to read the label to determine how the chicken meets your processing preferences.
Finally, the best practice is to thaw frozen chicken slowly (overnight in the refrigerator). This way, moisture retention is optimized and you'll have much better results, regardless of your method of preparation.
Lisa Fritz, a longtime Bryan food and nutrition educator, answers readers' questions about food, cooking and recipes. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.