Baked chicken is something you can quickly prepare for dinner, but how many times does it turn out dry, rubbery, and nearly flavorless? No amount of sauce can compensate for tough, dry, overcooked chicken. There are a few tricks to cooking tender, juicy chicken breasts every time—regardless of the recipe you use. Keep reading for the temperature tips you need to get it right.
Chicken breasts account for 60% of the chicken sold in stores in the U.S., and most of it is boneless and skinless. Yes, it’s widely known that bone-in, skin-on chicken will have more moisture and flavor, but so many of us have family members (ahem, picky eaters such as children) who prefer not to deal with the skin or bones.
Besides, the stripped-down white meat is so easy to work with. And when boneless, skinless chicken breast goes on sale at the local grocery store, who can resist stocking up the freezer? Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a staple in so many home kitchens, but there has to be an easy way to get the best results!
3 Top Chicken Cooking Challenges:
Why are chicken breasts so notorious for being dry and tough?? These three factors make even the slightest error in overcooking very noticeable.
- White chicken meat is very lean. White chicken breast meat has very little fat and nearly no connective tissue. The presence of fat accounts for much of the perception of moisture in meat. Fat also contributes to flavor. It’s important to retain the moisture and flavor that naturally exists in the meat. The best way to do this is to cook it to the proper temperature. Overcooking leads to dry, tough, stringy meat with nearly no flavor.
- High doneness temperature for food safety. Salmonella is the food safety culprit in chicken. It is a hardy bacteria that can survive higher doneness temperatures than most. But cooking chicken to a doneness temperature that is too high will cause it to dry out excessively. Even slight overcooking is apparent in chicken because it is so lean. Tracking and verifying temperatures is critical to cooking juicy chicken that is also safe to eat.
- Its shape is uneven. The naturally uneven shape of a chicken breast makes it difficult for the entire piece of meat to be perfectly cooked at the same time. The thin, tapered end will be grossly overcooked and dry by the time the thermal center of the fatter end has reached its pull temperature.
3 Simple Keys to Juicy Baked Chicken
A few simple steps will set you up for juicy chicken success.
1. Brine It…If You Have The Time
A wet-brined chicken breast will absorb some of the water during the brining time, but will still end up losing quite a bit of moisture while cooking—nearly the same amount as dry-brined chicken. So either method should produce similar results.
Brining in Water: Brining is the process of soaking meat in a salt water solution. Over time, the salt not only seasons the meat, but it alters the protein on the outer edge of the meat making it better able to retain its own moisture through the cooking process. Some of the water is absorbed by the meat for a juicier end result.
Dry Brining: Dry brining is the process of seasoning the meat with salt on all sides and allowing it to rest for 30 minutes and up to overnight before cooking. Salt is hygroscopic (or water-loving) and draws moisture to the surface of the meat. The salt dissolves in this moisture and is then drawn into the meat. The same chemical reaction occurs with dry brining and the protein is able to retain moisture better during cooking.
Brining is best, but you may not have time for that on a busy night. Be sure to season the chicken on all sides, not just a quick sprinkling of salt on the top.
➤ Moral of the story: brined chicken will be more moist and juicy than chicken that is not brined. A 30-minute dry brine will improve the eating quality of your chicken dramatically.
2. Flatten It Out
Chicken breasts are an uneven teardrop shape. Fat and thick at one end, tapered and thin at the other. The tapered end will finish cooking much faster than the thick end and will be overcooked and dry by the time the entire piece of meat has come to its pull temperature. To overcome this problem, the best thing to do is flatten the chicken breast by butterflying and pounding. (Directions for this process are in the recipe instructions below.)
➤ Tasty bonus: The pounded-out chicken breast will have more exposed surface area. That means more area for a flavorful seasoning and browning.
3. Track the Temperature, Then Verify
There are so many variables that play into exactly how long it will take your chicken to cook: oven temperature, oven accuracy, the size of the chicken breasts, the type of pan you’re cooking in, the temperature of the chicken, etc. It’s important to pull the chicken from the oven once it reaches the target pull temperature and not a bit higher. If it’s pulled at too high of a temperature, the chicken will be dry and tough.
Use a leave-in probe oven thermometer like a ThermoWorks® DOT® to track the internal temperature of the chicken as it cooks. DOT’s high alarm will sound when the target pull temperature is reached, then you can verify its internal temperature with an instant-read digital thermometer like the Thermapen® Mk4.
➤ Pull the chicken at its doneness temperature, and not a degree higher.
…buy a digital instant-read thermometer. You will never over- or undercook a piece of meat again. Do it. no more excuses, no more timing charts or poking with your fingers. Just buy a good thermometer, and don’t look back. I guarantee you will not regret it. …the Splash-Proof Thermapen from ThermoWorks is pricier than most, but it will last forever and it more than meets all the essential criteria. —The Food Lab, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
What Happens to Chicken As It Cooks
Significant changes occur in this white meat during the cooking process. In the image below you can see the changes that occur with texture, shrinkage, and loss of moisture as the internal temperature climbs. Temperatures beyond 160°F (71°C) are where the meat becomes irreversibly dry and tough. Temperature tracking is critical. For more information on exactly what’s going on with protein fibers during the cooking process, see our post Heat and Its Effects on Muscle Fibers in Meat.
➤ Times and Temperatures for Chicken Pasteurization
The USDA recommends cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) to eliminate salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. At this temperature, pasteurization is nearly instantaneous. If held for specific periods of time, lower temperatures will result in the same level of pasteurization as being cooked to 165°F (74°C).
Check out the Time and Temperature Tables for Ready to Eat Poultry from the USDA for more information on doneness temperatures and holding times to properly pasteurize chicken and turkey.
What the USDA is looking for is a 7-log10 relative reduction in salmonella bacteria in the meat. That means that out of every 10,000,000 bacteria living in a piece of chicken, only one will survive. In the table below you can see how long meat needs to be held at specific temperatures for proper food safety.
Leave your thermometer’s probe in the meat after you remove it from the oven so you can see the temperature rise with carryover cooking. You can use a timer to be sure the final doneness temperature or above is held for the appropriate amount of time.
USDA Times and Temperatures to Obtain 7-log10 Lethality of Salmonella
|136°F (58°C)||81.4 minutes|
|140°F (60°C)||35 minutes|
|145°F (63°C)||13 minutes|
|150°F (66°C)||4.2 minutes|
|152°F (67°C)||2.3 minutes|
|155°F (68°C)||54.4 seconds|
|157°F (69°C)||34 seconds|
|160°F (71°C)||16.9 seconds|
|162°F (72°C)||10.5 seconds|
|165°F (74°C)||<10 seconds|
We pulled our chicken at 152°F (67°C) and had a final doneness temperature of 157-158°F (69-70°C). The chicken only needs to maintain that temperature for 34 seconds to be safe enough to eat. Pulling the chicken breast at the right temperature is what yields succulent, juicy meat (see picture at right).
Threefold Criteria for Tasty Chicken
What are we looking for in delicious chicken?
- Texture: Tender, not tough. The higher the doneness temperature, the tougher the meat fibers will become.
- Moisture: Juicy, not dry. Meat fibers expel more moisture at high doneness temperatures. Accurate temperature tracking and pull temperature are critical.
- Flavor: Sufficient seasoning and richness from the Maillard reaction. Browning on the surface of the chicken imparts flavor.
Overcooking a thin piece of meat such as a butterflied chicken breast is easy without careful temperature tracking. Mind your temps to achieve the juiciest result.
How to Make Juicy Baked Chicken Breasts
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
(cooking 2 at a time works well in a cast iron skillet)
- Vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper, or another seasoning of your choice
(if you brined your chicken, omit any additional salt when seasoning)
- Cast iron skillet
- DOT alarm thermometer
- Thermapen Mk4
➤ Don’t have a cast iron skillet? We love using cast iron because its heat-retention properties always give the meat a fantastic sear (see our post, Thermal Tips: Searing Meat). You can also use a metal roasting pan. An aluminum sheet pan will likely warp and a glass baking dish may crack at such high oven temperatures. Stick with cast iron or another heavy metal roasting pan.
- Preheat your oven to 500°F (204°C) with your cast iron pan in the oven.
- While your oven is heating, butterfly the chicken
- Slice the chicken in half laterally and open it like a book.
- Place the chicken inside a zipper-lock bag and pound to an even thickness with a meat pounder.
- Pat the chicken dry and coat lightly with vegetable oil
- Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper or another seasoning of your choice.
- Place the chicken breast onto the preheated cast iron skillet and place Pro-Series® High Temp Straight Penetration Probe (Included with DOT) into the thickest reduce the oven’s temperature to 400°F (204°C).
- Set DOT’s high alarm to 152°F (67°C).
- Reduce the oven’s temperature to 400°F (204°C).
- Let the chicken bake—it will take about 10 to 15 minutes.
- When your DOT’s alarm sounds, verify the internal temperature by spot-checking the chicken in multiple areas with a Thermapen Mk4.
- If you find a lower temperature than 152°F (67°C), replace the needle probe to read that lowest temperature area and return to the oven to cook until the pull temperature is reached.
- Once your pull temperature of 152°F (67°C) is verified, pull the chicken from the oven, tent with heavy duty foil, and rest for about 5 minutes. Leave your DOT’s probe in the chicken breast and watch the internal temperature continue to climb as it rests. Verify that the chicken has been held at 157°F (69°C) for at least 34 seconds or 155°F (68°C) or above for 54.4 seconds.
- Serve and enjoy!
Baked Chicken Recipe Applications
Once you’ve made your epically delicious chicken, how are you going to serve it? Sure, you can serve it alongside some instant rice and steamed veggies, but we have a few quick ideas that’ll make a great quick meal. And don’t forget to hang onto any leftovers. They’re perfect for soup, lasagna, or pot pies.
- Chicken Mac and Cheese: Season with salt and pepper | Bake | Cut into small dice | stir into macaroni and cheese
- Chicken Tacos: Season with Mexican or fajita seasoning | Bake | Slice into strips | Serve in corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, avocados, queso fresco, and lime juice
- Chicken Parmesan Sub: Season with salt and pepper and garlic powder, or Italian seasoning | Bake | Slice into strips | Serve on sub roll with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese | Broil until the cheese is bubbly
- Chicken Quesadillas: Season with Mexican seasoning | Bake | Slice into strips | Layer with shredded cheese on a tortilla, top with second tortilla | Microwave or bake to melt the cheese | Slice and serve with sour cream, guacamole, and salsa fresco
- Chicken Caesar Salad: Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder | Bake | Slice into strips | Serve over chopped romaine lettuce tossed with Caesar salad dressing
- BBQ Chicken Sliders: Season with your favorite BBQ rub | Bake | Slice into strips | Toss with your favorite BBQ sauce | Serve on Hawaiian rolls topped with coleslaw
So for the best quick baked chicken breasts, don’t forget to:
- Even out the thickness by pounding or butterflying.
- Brine if you have time.
- Track and verify temperatures so you cook to the pull temperature and not a degree higher.
Baked chicken breasts are a quick and versatile meat to cook for dinner any night of the week. And for the juiciest, most tender chicken, temperature is everything.
Cook’s Science, Cook’s Illustrated
On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee
Another great recipe for juicy chicken: Pollo a la Plancha from Moonlight, Binging with Babish