Quick and dirty instructions for cooking perfectly juicy and tender chicken breasts for salads and sandwiches.
Boneless skinless chicken breasts are a great cut of meat. They’re lean, healthy, versatile, but they can be surprisingly tricky to cook, and too often, they end up dried out, flavorless, and boring.
For years, when I wanted a chicken salad or sandwich and tried to cook a whole chicken breast on the stove, I FAILED every time. I always ended up with burnt outsides and dry, stringy meat. They took forever to cook all the way through and the end result was not even close to worth the trouble.
When I finally started cooking regularly for myself, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to learn how to cook a chicken breast with burning it (or leaving it half raw) or die trying! Well, I’m not dead.
Turns out, cooking the perfect chicken breasts for salads or sandwiches is actually pretty simple (if you want shredded chicken, check out my post How to Cook Shredded Chicken), but like so many things, until you learn how to do it properly, it’s going to seem insurmountable.
Do you have your own fool-proof way of cooking chicken breasts? Great! Share it below in the comments. Struggling like I was? Need a full-proof way to get moist, flavorful chicken breasts every single time? This is what you’re going to want to do:
1. Start with completely defrosted chicken breasts. (Have frozen meat you need to defrost quickly? Read this.) Never try to cook half-frozen breasts on the stove. That’s how you end up with raw insides and over-cooked outsides. Plus, if your meat is still frozen, it’s going to make the next step nearly impossible…
2. Pound your chicken breasts to an even thickness. This is the secret to tender, moist chicken breasts! Meat that is all the same thickness is all going to cook at the same rate, so you aren’t going to get parts that are over-cooked and dried out.
A mallet works best (mine has a wooden handle, but I recommend an all-metal one so you can run it through the dishwasher), but you can use a rolling pin, or even a wine bottle. Place your chicken breast smooth-side up between two layers of plastic wrap or in a large disposable plastic bag (my preferred method) and go to town. Start with the thickest part of the meat and strike it, working outward until the breast is the same thickness all over.
3. Marinate or season your chicken breast before it goes on the heat. If you’re marinating, now’s the time for it. If the chicken is not being marinated, at the very least, salt and pepper that thing before putting it on the heat. Even better, get creative and sprinkle on some of your favorite spices. Is it going in a Mexican salad? Use some taco seasoning. An Italian sandwich? A little basil and oregano would be perfection.
4. Start with a hot pan over medium-high heat. Spray with cooking spray and add your chicken to the pan. You should hear a sizzle when it hits the heat. Cook your chicken until it is nice and brown on the first side, 5-8 minutes, and then flip. Continue to cook until done, flipping again if necessary. If at any time your chicken starts to brown too much, turn down the heat a bit and let it cook at a lower temperature.
5. Use a meat thermometer. As soon as an instant-read thermometer* inserted into the middle or your chicken says 165 degrees, pull it. It’s done! Set on a plate, tent with foil and let sit for at least five minutes before cutting.
6. (Optional) Deglaze the pan with a couple tablespoons of white wine or chicken broth (or water, if neither is handy). Return the pan to heat, add liquid and scrape the black bits and juices off the pan. Pour back over the chicken breast while it rests.
7. Slice and enjoy that perfectly cooked chicken breast on a salad or in a sandwich! Chicken will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or can be frozen in individual portions (read below for freezing instructions).
Try this method with some of these recipes!
How to Cook Perfect Chicken Breasts for Salads and Sandwiches
- Boneless skinless chicken breasts
- Seasonings or marinade of choice
- Start with completely defrosted chicken breasts.
Pound your chicken breasts to an even thickness by placing your chicken breast smooth-side up between two layers of plastic wrap or in a large disposable plastic bag (my preferred method) and go to town. Start with the thickest part of the meat and strike it, working outward until the breast is the same thickness all over.
Marinate or sprinkle both sides of your chicken with salt, pepper, and your preferred spices before it goes on the heat.
Heat pan over medium to medium-high heat, grease with cooking spray or a drizzle of oil, and cook for 5-8 minutes per side. Turn heat down if chicken begins to burn.
Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of your meat. Pull the breast when it reaches 160 degrees and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with 2 tablespoons of white wine, chicken broth, or water and pour back over chicken.
- Slice and enjoy!
Approximate nutritional information is for 4 ounces of cooked chicken breast prepared with cooking spray.
Freezer Instructions: Chicken will keep in the freezer, in an air-tight container for up to 4 months. To eat, defrost in the refrigerator. You can also defrost the chicken by putting it in the microwave for 1-2 minutes, sprinkled with about a teaspoon of water.