Five Ways with Chicken Breasts

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I have a very funny story about chicken breasts that has become something of a legend amongst our friends. And it has nothing to do with how to cook them.


Ten years ago, my husband and I lived in Costa Rica for a few months. While we were there, we treated ourselves to weekly massages with Marie and Omar. One night, after a month or so, I was on my back sinking into a lull when Omar folded the sheet down … to my waist.

I tensed. Chatter flooded my head. Was I being prudish for cringing? Was he totally out of line? Don’t the Europeans do breast massage? I agonized about what to do all through the next week. Should I wait and see where the massage goes? Should I tell him up front that breasts are off limits? Should I even be going back?

In the end, I decided to face the issue straight on. I rehearsed what I was going to say, I practiced my Spanish; I was prepared. When I walked into the room with Omar, I turned to him and said, “No mas pechugas.”

Omar looked at me with a blank face. “No mas pechugas,” I repeated.

Omar shook his head. “No intiendo,” he said. So I grasped the body parts I was talking about and repeated. “NO. MAS. PECHUGAS.”

At that moment, Omar’s wife Marie walked into the room with my purse. Her eyebrows shot up and her lips curled into a grin. “You forgot your purse in the kitchen, Lia,” she said. I dropped my hands and flushed. “And just so you know,” she added, “pechugas are chicken breasts.”

So now you know Lia’s infamous pechuga story.

Aside from the fact that I chuckle whenever I think of pechugas, I have a love-hate relationship with chicken breasts. During my many years of low-fat dieting I, like millions of others, felt compelled to make boneless, skinless chicken breasts the foundation of my meals. I still remember how the dry strands made a sticking sound as I chewed — and flavor … what flavor?

So as I adopted a more nourishing approach to food (and lost weight, by the way), I swore off boneless, skinless chicken breasts and embraced chicken thighs and legs with abandon. But I’ve come back around … sort of. I haven’t cooked a chicken breast as-is out of the tray since those fat-fearing days. Here’s what I do instead:

  • Pound it. One of my favorite ways to use chicken breasts is to place them inside a plastic bag (I often use one of the produce bags I got from the grocery store) and pound them with the back of a heavy pan or meat pounder to a uniform thickness of about an inch. This lets the breast cook evenly and quickly, and stretches it far enough to be able to serve two people with half a chicken breast.
  • Split it open like a book. This is a similar approach to the pound with all the benefits, only even easier. Just slice the breast horizontally right down the middle (with your knife parallel to the cutting board), stopping an inch before the far edge; as if you were slicing open a book to the spine. Then open it up and flatten it out.
  • Cut it into chunks. Boneless, skinless chicken breast makes a great addition to stir-fries and sautés if you keep the chunks big and keep the cooking short. Season them well with salt and pepper before you add them, so the chunks will develop a nice, flavorful crust while staying tender. But don’t keep them in the pan for more than a few minutes or they’ll dry out.
  • Thinly slice it. Another great way to use chicken breast is to slice it super thinly and let residual heat do the cooking. Thinly sliced chicken breast has a lovely texture and stays nice and juicy this way.
  • Stuff it. Stuffed chicken breasts may sound dated, but, man are they good. Adding a moist stuffing (like sautéed mushrooms) keeps the meat tender, while very small amounts of cured meat or cheese can amp up the flavor.

These simple tweaks to the old boneless, skinless chicken breasts can make your pechugas, well, simply irresistible.

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Yum-Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Alison and I got to talking about chicken the other day and were reminiscing how, when she was my editor at Cooking Light, readers couldn’t get enough of stuffed chicken breasts. And then we remembered why. They’re moist and tasty, quite elegant-looking, and cook faster than you’d think. Because they’re “beefed up” by the stuffing, you can easily serve four with only two breast halves.

mushroom-prosciutto-cheese-stuffed-chicken-breasts2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs thyme
1/4 cup white wine
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 slices Swiss or ementaller cheese, each sliced in half
4 thin slices prosciutto
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Add mushrooms, shallot, garlic and thyme, and saute 5 minutes or until mushrooms are golden brown. Pour wine into pan and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom. Cook 2 minutes or until liquid has evaporated. Stir in lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, remove thyme stems and transfer mushrooms to a bowl. Wipe out the pan.

Holding a sharp knife parallel to the cutting board and starting from the thick side of a chicken breast half, slice the chicken horizontally right down the middle so that it opens like a book (I like to “open” the flap about halfway in and then carefully continue slicing towards the center until the breast lays flat). Give the thick edges a few hits with your palm to flatten them out to an equal height (don’t worry, the chicken won’t bite–just wash your hands afterwards). When you’re done, you should have a fat, heart-shaped chicken breast half at a uniform thickness of about an inch. Repeat with the other chicken breast half.

Layer the cheese and then the prosciutto evenly on top of the chicken breasts. Mound half of the mushrooms on one side of a chicken breast and press the mound down gently with your hand. Fold the other side over the mushrooms and push two wooden toothpicks through the far edges to help keep them together. Repeat with the other breast. Lightly salt and pepper both sides.

Heat the skillet once again over medium-high heat and swirl in the remaining olive oil. Carefully place chicken breasts in pan. Cook for 3 minutes on one side, then turn (keep the seam side down in the pan so the stuffing doesn’t fall out–tongs work great) and cook 3 minutes on the other. Pour chicken broth into pan, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for another 6 minutes, or until chicken is cooked all the way through.

To serve, transfer chicken to a cutting board with tongs and cut each breast in half. Turn up the heat on the pan and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom. Place one portion of chicken on each plate and drizzle with pan sauce.

Serves 4

  • Kathryn

    I have always hated chicken breast! Until I discovered the Chinese way of tenderising it (called velveting). It involves lightly pounding slices of chicken, adding seasoning, a small amount of egg white and cornflour and allowing that to sit for about 30 mins before cooking it. I discovered this online and was pleasantly surprised at how tender and juicy the chicken breast pieces were when I stir fried it. Another way I use chicken breast is to mince it and add an egg and some water or stock to make a soft, steamed savoury custard (the Chinese version of Chawanmushi). This dish is usually made with pork mince. I sometimes use this same mince in soups too.

  • Alison Ashton

    That sounds really good, Kathryn–we’ll have to give that technique a try! I’m intrigued…