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How to add flavor to boring skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Golden brown chicken breasts top pasta with a goat cheese vinaigrette.
Golden brown chicken breasts top pasta with a goat cheese vinaigrette. TNS

When you need to turn out a fast, tasty and healthful weeknight dinner, it ought to be so easy to reach for skinless, boneless chicken breasts.

They cook quickly, you can do endless things with them and while they cost a little more than other cuts, what you get is all meat, no waste.

Except for the downsides: Skinless, boneless chicken breasts can be boring. If you overcook them, you end up sawing away at a plank of compressed leather.

With no bone or skin, you don’t get much to carry flavor, either. (Yes, I know — you could cook a skin-on breast and throw away the golden, crispy skin, but let’s face it: It’s golden, crispy skin. Who has the willpower to resist that?)

I decided to try to figure out what really makes a difference in turning chicken breasts into fantastic weeknight dinners.

I tasted several cooking methods, and came up with a dish that uses things you either have on hand or can grab in a supermarket on the way home — and still have a shopping basket light enough to use the speed lane.

I picked three methods for prepping the breasts and two methods for cooking them.

Now, common wisdom says that if you want a juicy breast that doesn’t dry out, you need to go hot and fast in a skillet. That doesn’t turn out to be true.

Using fresh breasts, I rubbed one with plain yogurt and refrigerated it for an hour, I wet-brined one in 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 cups of water for 30 minutes, and I dry-brined one, simply sprinkling both sides of a breast with 1 teaspoon of salt and refrigerating it, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Hands down, the best method is dry brining: It’s simple, and it gets quick results. While you can salt and refrigerate breasts in the morning to cook that night, even doing it for 30 minutes results in a noticeably juicy and flavorful piece of chicken.

Next, I tried two cooking methods. One, on joyofcooking.com, gets a lot of recommendations. You flavor the breasts with salt, freshly ground pepper and Italian seasoning or herbs (those are optional), then heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Place the breasts in the pan and cook for 1 minute, then turn them, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Finally, you turn off the heat and let the chicken stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

While it did make a juicy breast, I had trouble getting it cooked through. Breasts vary so much in size that a large breast was still pink in the middle. While it was definitely juicy, it didn’t get that golden appearance either. It would make good chicken salad, but it wasn’t the best overall method.

The second cooking method was developed by food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt of seriouseats.com and the author of “The Kitchen Lab.” While some of his methods can be complicated, this is as simple as it gets: You pat the breasts dry with paper towels, then dry-brine, sprinkling them with salt and pepper (1 teaspoon salt and  1/2 teaspoon pepper for 4 breasts). Refrigerate them, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Pat them dry again before cooking.

To cook them, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium-low until it shimmers. Place the breasts in the skillet, smooth side down. Cook for 9 minutes without moving them, until they’re pale gold underneath and release from the pan without sticking. Add 1 teaspoon butter and swirl it around a little, lifting the breasts to get it underneath, and cook 1 minute. Turn the breasts and cook 6 minutes or until the center registers 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and let stand for 3 minutes.

Now, that’s a great skinless, boneless chicken breast: Golden brown and appetizing, flavored all the way through, and as juicy as I’ve ever had.

Now that you’ve got a great breast, you can use it as a main dish or take it a little farther with this recipe.

Chicken with goat cheese vinaigrette and pasta

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon butter

About 6 ounces uncooked penne pasta

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 ounces ( 1/2 cup) crumbled fresh goat cheese

About 1 cup small tomatoes (grape or cherry), halved or quartered

Place the chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a kitchen mallet to flatten the thick end and create an even thickness. Pat dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta, stirring so it doesn’t stick, and cook as directed, about 10 to 11 minutes, and drain.

While the pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Place the chicken in the skillet, smooth side down, and cook about 9 minutes, until golden underneath. Turn the chicken and spread the tomatoes around the skillet. Continue cooking, turning the tomatoes occasionally, about 6 minutes or until the chicken is done.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil, parsley and pepper flakes. Fold in the crumbled goat cheese.

Divide between plates. Top each serving with a chicken breast and some of the tomatoes. Drizzle the goat cheese dressing over the chicken and serve. Yield: 4 servings.

Adapted from realsimple.com

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