In the 1723 cookery book The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary author John Nott shares a recipe for chicken breasts, in which the skins get lifted and stuffed with grated bacon, anchovies and herbs. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s one of the first written accounts of the noun cluster “chicken breasts” in the English language. It’s also a great way to cook white meat so that it doesn’t dry out.
One major design flaw of the chicken breast is that its thickness varies significantly from end to end. This makes for vexingly uneven cooking — especially when the meat comes boneless and skinless. By the time the wide, bulbous side has cooked through, the lither, tapered side (not to mention the outer edges of the entire breast) has gone stringy, practically desiccated.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to accept that ugly lopsidedness. Take control of your life — and your chicken.
The trick to keeping breast meat tender and juicy is to alter its anatomy completely. There are a few key ways to do this. The easiest is to carve the breast in half crosswise where the thicker end meets the thinner end. This way you can pull the thinner pieces off the heat earlier, allowing the thicker ones to finish cooking for another minute or two.
Another method is to ensure the meat retains its natural moisture. What makes a chicken breast juicy is water, not fat. A simple dry brine — a mixture of salt, sugar and spices — provides that bit of insurance. It’s the salt that’s most crucial, as it draws out the meat’s water. That water then dissolves the salt on the surface of the meat and, through diffusion, the two reenter the meat, seasoning the chicken thoroughly.
As evidenced by Volume 3 of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, dissolved salt modifies the protein structure of meat, allowing it to hold onto water by slowing the contraction of muscle fibers during the cooking process. This contraction ordinarily “squeezes juices out during cooking,” but a dry brine rewards you with retained juiciness.
But proceed with caution: Marinate the chicken too long and you’ll end up with gluey shreds of meat. Fifteen minutes is the Goldilocks time, which is to say, just right.
Other acidic ingredients have similar benefits. The lactic acid in sour cream tenderizes chicken beautifully and also helps crunchy, savory coatings stick to the meat. Smear it all over chicken breasts and encase them in a thick coating of buttery Ritz cracker crumbs and grated sharp Cheddar for a result equal parts moist and crisp.
This comforting chicken bake tastes best with cutlets, which are always a great weeknight option. Although you could pound a thick breast out into a thin paillard (which also breaks down the fibers of the meat), another less violent approach is to slice through the middle of the breast horizontally so you’re left with two cutlets of equal size. As with most things in life, two is better than one.
Ritzy Cheddar Chicken Breasts
• 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing wire rack
• 1/4 cup sour cream
• 1 large egg white
• 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Kosher salt
• 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds total)
• 1 sleeve Ritz crackers
• 2 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
• 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
• 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Position rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat to 450 degrees. Place an ovenproof wire rack over a sheet pan. Dab a paper towel with olive oil and rub it over the rack to grease it.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, egg white and Dijon mustard until smooth.
Then, season with salt.
Lay the chicken flat on a cutting board and carve each breast in half laterally so you end up with four thin cutlets. Add the chicken to the sour cream mixture, and using your hands, smear the sour cream all over the chicken.
In a bowl, crush the Ritz crackers into coarse pieces with your fingers. Add the cheese, garlic powder, onion powder and olive oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and toss until evenly distributed.
Holding one of the chicken cutlets by its thinner end, add to the bowl with the crumbs, and, using your hands, pack the crumbs onto the chicken, pressing them in to create a thick coating.
Transfer the breaded chicken to the rack in the sheet pan. Repeat with remaining cutlets. Bake until the outsides are crispy and the insides are no longer pink, 10-15 minutes. Let the chicken cool slightly so the coating can set, about 5 minutes, before serving.
Total time: 30 minutes, serves 4.