Chefs tend to have little respect for chicken breasts, especially boneless and skinless. While one might say the breasts are a palette that can be used to paint with flavors and sauce, the general consensus among pros is that breasts are too bland to be saved, and too easily dried out in the cooking process.
Coincidentally, Mark Bittman wrote about this in the NYT today. Interestingly, I drafted these comments last week. Cool.
To some extent, I think home cooks can get discouraged choosing to cook "healthy" boneless, skinless chicken breasts. OK - you can add all kinds of seasonings to doctor them up - from packages to bottles. But I think it takes a good recipe with fresh ingredients and a reliable technique to really make chicken breasts take the stage and receive due applause.
So, how to cook breasts without drying them out, ensuring plenty of flavor, yet not spending a lot of time? I took inspiration from my old mentor Pierre Franey and his bible, the cookbook Cuisine Rapide.
Pierre often calls for an old school technique we don't see a lot anymore - dredging chicken pieces in flour before browning/sauteing. Yet, he holds short of coating with egg and bread crumbs. The flour creates a nice little texture around the chicken, helps keep the breasts from sticking to your skillet, and may even assist in retaining a little moisture.
After browning the breasts for just a few minutes per side, I added chicken stock, bay leaf, a half dozen or so whole garlic cloves,fresh thyme sprigs and balsamic vinegar. Cover and simmer for 10 mins. Perfect. Finish with a touch of butter to thicken the sauce slightly. Optionally, add some chopped sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes. Wonderful. My kids really liked this chicken, including a "best you've ever made" comment from Alex, the pickiest of the bunch.
I served the chicken with a side of steamed broccoli and pasta with fresh tomato sauce. However, I'd recommend plain pasta or rice instead - as the sauce is so good you'll want to soak it up.
Chicken Breasts with Balsamic Vinegar, Garlic and Thyme
2 pounds boneless chicken breast and thigh pieces. Large breast pieces should be cut in half diagonally.
4 tablespoons flour
8 cloves garlic, whole
1 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of fresh thyme. Oregano can be easily substituted.
1-2 tablespoons butter
Optional: Sun-dried tomatoes, chopped.
- Add salt and pepper to flour, then drag the chicken pieces through the flour. Replenish if needed.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet (or two medium skillets) over medium-high heat. Cook chicken pieces for 3 minutes, browned a bit on one side only.
- Add garlic pieces then turn the chicken pieces over. Cook another 3 minutes. Chicken will not be done.
- Add stock, balsamic vinegar, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
- Optional: Remove chicken pieces to a plate and cover with foil.
- Optional: Add chopped sun-dried tomato pieces.
- Turn heat up to high, and boil the sauce to reduce it slightly.
- Add butter to sauce. Check seasoning and add S & P as needed.
- Pour sauce over chicken pieces and serve; alternately, spoon sauce onto plate and place chicken pieces atop.