How to Cook Perfect Chicken Every Time
For the best results, know these simple cooking methods, tips, and tricks.
Chicken is one of those foods that tends to get pulled toward the middle. Usually, even when it’s the centerpiece, it’s just kind of there—a source of lean, healthy protein but with timid flavor, more a vehicle for sauce than a star on its own. It doesn’t have to be that way. Chicken can be bold and flavorful. Whether working with the whole bird or its parts, you have the potential to turn the humble chicken into a meal that can go toe-to-toe with pork, beef, or game. Consider these simple tips to elevate your chicken to juicy heights.
The process of preparing chicken begins long before cooking. It begins with shopping for the right chicken. We have a whole post that details how to find the right chicken. If you don’t start with a good chicken, you can’t possibly end with one!
Once you have your whole chicken or chicken parts, be sure to take your poultry out of the fridge early. This gives chicken a chance to warm to room temperature. If you skip this step, the inside of your chicken will remain below temperature when the outside is done. To prevent this from happening, take a whole bird from the fridge at least an hour before you apply heat. Take parts like breasts and thighs out at least 30 minutes early.
Another pivotal thing to do early is add salt. This lets salinity travel deeper into the chicken, seasoning more of the bird rather than the fraction on the surface. In a plastic bag or covered bowl, add salt the night before or morning of the day you cook your chicken.
Finally, you’ll want to have a meat thermometer. You can buy a great one for under $20. They make both life and chicken much easier.
An expertly roasted chicken is magic. Done right—something that doesn’t take much—a roasted whole chicken is chicken at its full potential. Start by removing the package of organs from the bird’s hollow. Stuff this hollow with fruit and aromatics, such as a cut lemon, bunches of rosemary or sage, and a half dozen garlic cloves (or more). Massage the skin with olive oil, and then freely coat the shiny surface with salt and pepper.
Whole chickens thrive with the oven blasting at 450 degrees or higher. This crisps and colors chicken lavishly. One of the best and most unheralded vehicles for roasting a whole chicken is a cast iron pan. Put in the chicken. Cut a few potatoes and add them along the lip. Sit back and wait (though you’ll have to turn the potatoes a few times, and remove them early).
You don’t always want to roast a whole chicken. Even if you do, you may not always want to wait for one, as they take at least an hour (time varying based on heat and size). Thankfully, all the major chicken cuts can roast impeccably. Thighs do especially well in the oven, thriving in high heat, 450 degrees or 475 degrees for about half an hour, making for crisp skin and luxurious mahogany colors. Legs and wings do great, too. You don’t need equipment fancier than a rimmed baking sheet for roasting chicken parts.
When arranging cuts for roasting, be sure to line them in a single layer. Also, space them widely so that the oven air has room to surround the chicken, working it from all exposed angles. If roasting chicken together with vegetables, they will likely cook faster than the chicken. Unless they’re hardy root vegetables like whole carrots or parsnips, they’ll have to be removed from the oven early (or they’ll overcook and even burn). Additionally, vegetables moisten your oven’s atmosphere, making it harder to achieve ultra-crispy chicken skin.
One final tip for roasting chicken: try chopping garlic and slipping it beneath the skin. The garlic will fuse into the melting chicken fat and leak all over the flesh. This is an easy shortcut to roasted chicken magic.
This method of cooking chicken has the advantage of speed. It is more difficult than roasting or grilling. Some cuts, like legs and wings, are better cooked by methods other than sautéing. Legs can be a real challenge in the sauté pan, as they are shaped so that just a small part touches the hot surface, making heat distribution uneven. Thighs and breasts do much better.
Before you get started sautéing them, consider the pan. Anything but a non-stick pan can build the flavor you want. Most non-stick pans aren't meant to be used over high heat, which makes the kind of heavy browning that leads to huge flavor hard to achieve. Cast-iron is better, and works wonders with chicken skin. If you’re using a recipe that calls for wine, skip cast iron for a metal like steel or copper. These are much more suited to deglazing.
What fat to cook with? Butter or a neutral oil, like grapeseed or sunflower. Olive oil may burn and smoke if you turn the dial to medium-high, which you’ll want for sautéing. Butter makes for a more luxurious thigh or breast. A few garlic cloves in your cooking fat never hurts, either.
As far as chicken cuts, chicken breast is made for the pan. A foolproof approach is to pound the breast with a meat tenderizer. Reaching for a meat tenderizer does two things. First, pounding chicken builds tenderness. Second, tenderizing (which you can also do with the bottom of an unheated pan) gives breasts more of a sail-like shape — leading to faster, more even cooking, plus more surface area for browning.
When cooking chicken breast without tenderizing, cover the pan once you’ve flipped your chicken. The time to flip is when the first side, sizzling away, has developed a heavy brown surface and an opaque ivory hue up the sides—after cooking five to eight minutes on the first side. After the flip, add about a quarter-cup of water or stock and cover the pan. This keeps breasts from drying (for the remaining five to eight minutes).
Thighs may also need more than just a naked pan. You’ll want to cook thighs over medium-high heat, and in a skillet that can handle the oven. After four or five minutes on each side, transfer thighs to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at heat at 400 degrees or higher. Be sure the skin-side is facing up, that way it crisps nicely.
The process of grilling chicken is simple, but there are a few tips to keep in mind. First, all the major chicken parts cook beautifully on the grill. You never need to flip them more than once or twice, making the active process of cooking mostly passive, waiting, anticipating.
As you wait for your chicken to grill, keep in mind that heat can vary considerably from one grill to another, or from one side of your grill to the other—so rely on your meat thermometer more than you do rely on recipe time guidelines.
There are two great ways to build layers of flavor before your chicken hits the grates: marinades and rubs. Marinades have the potential to amplify flavor and make flesh juicier. Rubs have the potential to crust the surface in a crisp, delicious sheath. We have a whole guide to both, and more grilling wisdom, that you probably want to check out.
Another way to add flavor is through your cooking fuel. If you’re using a charcoal- or wood-fired grill, factor in the flavor added by your fuel. Mesquite gives chicken (an animal protein more neutral) something of a dusky, pungent flavor. This flavor will be part of your final flavor tapestry, and doesn’t necessarily benefit every chicken dish.
Another key to grilling chicken is to skip really thick cuts. A tall, heavy breast could potentially take a long, long time to grill, burning on the outside before cooking in the center.
When Is My Chicken Done?
Luckily, this question is easy. Cooked by any method, your chicken is done when it registers 165 degrees on your meat thermometer, with the reader of your device stuck into the thickest part of the bird.
Even with a meat thermometer, keep a careful eye on your chicken. Temperatures seem to leap up more quickly toward the end of cooking. Erring on the side of over-checking could save you the agony of waiting too long, giving your chicken a reading, and seeing a temperature of 175-plus degrees. A dry chicken is a forgettable chicken, chicken pulled to the middle.
Your chicken is done. Take it off the heat! Arguably, the most important step is now. Be sure to cover your chicken for at least 10 minutes before cutting. Tent foil over the whole bird, or run sheets of it atop your serving dish, so that no steam can escape. After a brief, flavor-sealing rest, you’ll be ready to enjoy the hot, juicy fruits of your work: perfect chicken.