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When you're new to cooking, it's natural to try food that's easy to prepare, but something that you also like, might have ordered in a restaurant, and which fits a vague notion of health.
Hello, chicken breasts.
If they could figure it out, poultry farmers would raise nothing but boneless, skinless breasts and forget about the rest of the chicken. They're popularity is easy to understand. Chicken breasts are predictable enough during cooking for a beginner to rule yet versatile enough to stay interesting. Get control over a few good chicken-breast dishes and you won't make the same five recipes the rest of your life.
The flesh of chicken is muscle tissue. Muscle is about 75 percent water, 20 percent protein and up to 5 percent fat. Muscles are made of bundles of muscle fibers held together by connective tissue. The less connective tissue, as in the white meat of breasts, the more tender the flesh and the faster it cooks. Don't be surprised to find chicken breasts completely cooked in 10 or 12 minutes. Sauteing -- a French word for uptown frying -- is the best technique for cooking chicken breasts. By this high-heat method the breasts cook quickly and become done before they can think about getting dry. Once out of the pan they'll leave behind a nice bonus -- sauce!
If all this sounds too good to be true, you're right. Chicken breasts have a flaw. They're expensive. As the top-selling chicken part in America they require more grooming than any other part. The best-priced breasts will come with bones and skin. The next-best deal has skin but no bones. The worst deal is the perfect skinned, boned chicken breast, for which you pay dearly, sometimes nearly $5 a pound -- the price of good steak.
If weak knife skills understandably prevent you from boning meat, my recommendation is to buy the breasts pre-boned but with skin on. Anyone who can't at least peel loose skin off a flabby chicken breast deserves to be ripped off. Besides, you'll get better-tasting chicken if you cook the breasts with the skin. If you don't want to eat the skin, make that decision at the table.
Finally, an answer to the question you're too embarrassed to ask.
Q: Does a chicken have one or two breasts?
A: A chicken has one anatomical breast. Not only do we eat them split, we buy them that way. When our eyes detect two pieces, it's an easy leap to human anatomy and to conclude that a package of 4 chicken breast pieces contains 4 chicken breasts (which are really 2 cut in half). So common is this confusion that the mistaken amount is now accepted usage in retail chicken dialect. That's why the recipes here have shelved the clumsy "2 chicken breast halves" and opted for "2 chicken breasts." When a whole breast is requested -- which it isn't in this article or very much in real life -- the term is "1 whole chicken breast, unsplit."
Sauteed Chicken Breasts in Natural Sauce
4 boned chicken breasts, skin left on
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
All you'll need are: Paper towels, a dinner plate, 8-inch skillet, tongs, wooden spoon.
Wash the chicken pieces under running water. Pate them extremely dry with paper towels. Set them on a plate, skin side up. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
Heat a medium-sized skillet (nonstick is OK) over highest heat. Add the olive oil (or butter) and let it get hot. Make sure the oil coats the entire bottom of the pan, even if it's nonstick.
With your hands, place the chicken breasts into the skillet, skin side down. (Wash the plate if you want to use it as a platter.) Keep the heat high until you can see and hear the chicken breasts cooking loud and fast. At that point, you may lower the heat to medium-high. (Every stove is different, and so is every pan, so pay attention to what's happening to the chicken breasts!)
Saute about 5 to 6 minutes, or until you see the meat whitening from the bottom halfway up the sides. Turn with tongs and saute the second side 4 to 5 minutes.
Remove the chicken breasts with tongs and arrange them on a serving plate.
Option 1: Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Option 2: Pour the pan juices over the chicken, then sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking