We’ve all suffered through cardboard-dry chicken breasts. We do it because periodically we commit (or recommit or re-recommit) to healthy eating. And boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a fine and filling lean protein well suited to the job.
Except for one thing… Because boneless, skinless chicken breasts are so lean, they overcook and dry out heartbreakingly fast. Doesn’t seem to matter whether I grill them or bake them or saute them. I always end up with dry, chewy and unpleasant chicken breasts. No wonder everyone gets irritable when they’re trying to eat healthy.
But I have a secret for cooking chicken breasts that produces moist, tender meat every time. In fact, it’s so foolproof and effortless, you don’t even need to watch the clock. Though the chicken takes just 30 minutes to cook, you can let them go for as long as an hour and you won’t risk ruining them in the slightest.
The secret? Poaching the breasts in a blend of stock, wine and seasonings. But my poaching technique is slightly different than what you’re used to. And that’s what makes it so forgiving.
First, I use a flavor-packed wine-infused stock to poach instead of water. The flavor difference is big. Second, I use mostly residual heat to cook the meat. As in, I bring the chicken stock, wine and aromatics to a boil, then add the raw boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I bring the liquid back to a boil, then turn off the heat, put a lid on the pot, then let the chicken cook. That’s it.
This method allows the chicken to cook slowly, absorbing the seasonings and letting the wine in the broth deepen the flavor of the meat. The chicken is never tough and doesn’t taste “boiled,” which sometimes happens when you put raw chicken in cold water and boil it.
I started poaching chicken in this manner to use in chicken salad. Moist chicken just tastes better in salad than grilled or baked. And because the chicken is so juicy, you need less mayonnaise when you prepare it this way. But now I make poached chicken breasts for many other dishes — on a green salad; sliced and tossed with pasta; chopped and mixed into soup; mixed with barbecue sauce for an easy “pulled” chicken wrap; etc.
However you use the chicken, be sure to season it with salt before serving, as there is no added salt in the poaching liquid.
WINE-POACHED CHICKEN BREASTS
Start to finish: 45 minutes
Makes 6 breasts
1 1/2 quarts low-sodium chicken stock or broth
3 cups white wine
3 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch chunks
3 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 medium yellow onions, halved
4 cloves garlic, smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
In a large (at least 6-quart) stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high, combine the chicken stock, wine, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and thyme. Bring to a boil, then gently add the chicken breasts one at a time. If the chicken breasts aren’t entirely covered by liquid, add a bit more stock or water. Return the liquid to a boil.
As soon as the liquid boils, turn off the heat and cover the pot. Allow the breasts to poach for 30 minutes, then use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove from the liquid. Chicken can be used immediately, or refrigerated for up to 3 days.
The poaching liquid can be saved for another use. It can be frozen, then thawed and boiled before reusing.
Nutrition information per breast: 150 calories; 30 calories from fat (20 percent of total calories); 3 g fat (0.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 85 mg cholesterol; 55 mg sodium; 0 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 27 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”