Call me an iconoclast, but I actually like to grill chicken breasts. Not always, but often. I appreciate their neutrality -- a blank canvas, as it were, on which to impose the flavors from the world's most vibrant food cultures. I also like the convenience -- especially after a busy day. You can season, grill, and serve a chicken breast in less time than it takes to preheat the grill.
The challenge is this: How do you grill chicken breasts without drying them out? Direct grilling, of course, is inherently a dry cooking method. It intensifies flavor, but it also tends to desiccate leaner proteins.
But grilled chicken breasts don't have to be dry. Over the years, I've developed 10 strategies guaranteed to keep your chicken breast moist however hot your fire.
- Glaze or sauce: Glazes and barbecue sauces serve a triple purpose as they seal in succulence, add flavor, and give grilled chicken breasts a handsome lacquer. They are usually syrupy and on the sweet side, so should be painted on the meat toward the end of the cooking time to avoid scorching the sugar. But the sauce category is broad, and can include relishes, dipping sauces, salsas, etc., all of which add moisture to the finished dish. Check out some of my international favorites.
- Buy the best breasts you can afford: Without going all "Portlandia" on you (remember Colin the chicken), how a bird was raised and processed should make a difference to a conscientious consumer. There are reasons why the country's largest producers can sell chicken so cheaply, and you don't want to know them. If you can, buy local and buy certified organic. Two widely distributed national brands I'm comfortable recommending are Bell & Evans, a Pennsylvania company in business for more than a century, and Nebraska's Smart Chicken.
- Stuff it: If you have larger chicken breasts to work with, you can cut deep pockets in the sides and fill them with moist flavorful ingredients, like cheese, prosciutto, and/or salami. Or tuck the stuffing between the skin and the meat if using bone-in, skin-on breasts.
- Marinate: Rather bland on their own, chicken breasts are excellent candidates for marinating. Marinades usually contain oil, an acid, and aromatics or seasonings, but don't penetrate the flesh deeply. They add flavor, and the oil in them forms a barrier that prevents moisture loss. Rubbing the breasts with olive oil or vegetable oil accomplishes the same thing. But watch out for flare-ups, as oils can excite live fire.
- Skin-on, bone-in: If you're like me, the skin is your favorite part of a roast chicken. The skin adds flavor, moisture, and fat to chicken breasts. Plus, when properly crisped, it's tasty as all-get-out. Not to mention that you can slip herbed butter under the skin before grilling, which bastes the chicken as it cooks. Another advantage? The curved rib cage acts as a natural roasting rack, protecting the bottom of the breast from the grill's drying heat.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is www.barbecuebible.com.