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Home » Practicing the basics: pan-roasted chicken

Practicing the basics: pan-roasted chicken

This is not a fancy recipe, not is it intended to be. It’s a simple, straightforward way to make roasted chicken and a sauce (i.e. gravy) that allows you to practice some basic skills and knowledge. But it also is a jumping-off place: once you feel confident making this, you can start tweaking it in all sorts of interesting ways. You can put different flavors in the brine – or leave the brining step out altogether, if you prefer. You can swap out some of the aromatic vegetables in the gravy, use a different liquid than chicken stock, add herbs and spices, and adjust the amount of cornstarch or swap it with a different thickening agent to change the texture of the gravy.

Plus, the basic processes in this recipe are repeated endlessly in other recipes, mostly with only small variations. If you can make gravy, you can make any reduction sauce. If you can pan-roast a chicken breast, then you can pan-roast a steak, or a pork chop.

Suggested reading:

Makes 4 servings (about 1/4 lb. chicken each). Minimum time required: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Brine ingredients:

  • 1 quart (4 cups) water
  • ¼ cup kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp. sugar

Chicken ingredients:

  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 tbsp. high-heat oil, such as canola oil

Sauce ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp. high-heat oil
  • 1 cup chopped white or yellow onion
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • ½ cup chopped carrot
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 1 can (14.5 oz.) low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp. corn starch
  • 3 tbsp. cold water

Brining:

In a medium bowl, mix together the water, kosher salt, and sugar. Stir until salt and sugar are fully dissolved. Place the chicken breasts in the brine, making sure they are fully submerged. Leave the chicken to brine in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours. Since you’re submerging the chicken in a liquid that is saltier than the liquid inside the chicken’s cells, a process called “osmosis” will initially pull water out of the chicken until the saltiness of the water in the brine is the same as the saltiness of the liquid remaining inside the cells. At that point, the brine can start moving into the chicken, carrying the salt and sugar (and anything else you added to your brine) with it. This process takes a while. In theory, you can brine for longer than 3 hours, but it may not make much difference as by then the brine will have penetrated most of the chicken. Also, some ingredients that are commonly added to brines can start to break down meat if left to brine too long and create a less-than appetizing texture to your meat.

20 minutes before you are ready to begin cooking the chicken (approximately an hour before you expect to serve the chicken) remove the bowl from the refrigerator. Take the chicken breasts out of the brine, thoroughly pat them dry, and leave them on a plate to come up to room temperature. Patting the chicken dry is very important. In the next step, we’re going to brown the outside of the chicken breasts, which requires raising the temperature to at least 350 degrees – the temperature at which protein browns (known as the Maillard reaction). Any liquid present will prevent the temperature from reaching that critical threshold temperature.

Cooking the chicken:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. We’re going to brown the outside of the chicken on the stovetop first, then we’re going to stick it in the oven to cook the rest of the way through. 350 degrees is just hot enough to get us a bit more crispiness on the outside without excessive additional browning or risking burning the chicken.

Pour 2 tbsp of oil into a large flat saucepan or skillet, and heat over a medium-high stovetop burner util the oil thins a bit, runs freely around the base of the skillet. Tip the skillet to spread the oil across the entire flat surface of the skillet. Preheating oil is not an exact science. You want the oil to be hot, but not so hot that it starts smoking. Just remember that if the oil is not fully pre-heated, it’s going to take a little bit longer to cook the chicken (at least on the first side).

Place the chicken breasts into the skillet and let them cook undisturbed for 4 minutes. Flip them over (the “cooked” side should be nicely browned) and brown the other side for 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the burner. The exact time on each side will vary depending on the amount of heat that your burner puts out when set on “medium high,” but it’s around 3-4 minutes.  But try to leave the chicken breasts undisturbed for at least the first three minutes before trying to lift them up to see how browned they are. And if you try to lift them up and they stick to the pan, they’re not done yet – they will “unstick” when browned. When you’re done browning both sides, the chicken breasts will still be raw in the middle – that’s to be expected, and that’s why we’re finishing them off in the oven.

Place the chicken breasts, “pretty” side up, on a baking sheet or pan, and insert into the oven. Cook at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.  We’re going to use these 20 minutes to make the gravy. If you’re feeling unsure of your oven, you can use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature of the chicken breasts before you remove them from the oven. Check them in the middle of their thickest end, and look for a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow the chicken breasts to sit for five minutes before serving. This is called “carryover cooking.”

Making the sauce:

Re-use the skillet that you used to brown the chicken breasts, but DO NOT clean it first. The remnants left in the skillet is what the French call the “fond”; it’s part of the foundation of flavor we’ll use to make a sauce.

Add 1 tbsp. oil to the skillet and return to a burner set to medium-high heat. Allow the oil to pre-heat. Same as before: the oil will thin a bit and flow freely around the skillet.

Add the onion, celery and carrot to the skillet, sprinkle on ½ tsp. salt and a dash of black pepper, and give the skillet a quick stir to coat the vegetables in oil and evenly distribute the salt and pepper. This is classic French “mirepoix” – onion, celery, carrot.

Saute the vegetables until softened and the onion is partially transparent, about 3-4 minutes.

Add ½ cup white wine. Stir the skillet vigorously and scrape the browned bits of chicken off the bottom of the skillet (but leave them in the skillet). This is called “deglazing the pan.” We want to scrape off the fond so that it can mix in with the rest of the ingredients in our sauce; browned protein is full of flavor and we don’t want to waste any of it.

When the wine has reduced volume by half, add the chicken broth. By reducing the volume of the wine, we’ve removed liquid but concentrated the flavor. We’ve also allowed most of the alcohol to boil off.

Pour 3 tbsp. of cold water into a small bowl. Add 1 tbsp. corn starch, and stir until the starch is completely dissolved. Pour the water-starch mixture into the skillet and stir it in. Corn starch is a thickening agent. Our sauce would naturally thicken anyway as water boils off, but adding some corn starch will accelerate the thickening process and leave us with more gravy. Corn starch is tricky though, since heat is what triggers it to do its thickening magic: if you try to mix powdered corn starch with hot water, it will instantly clump up. So rather than add corn starch directly into the skillet, we dissolve it into cold water first, then pour the mixture into the skillet and stir it in. Voila, no clumping!

Bring the skillet to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer until gravy reaches desired thickness. Season to taste, then remove from heat.  Remember to season to taste. We all like our gravy differently. This recipe is a bit light on salt, because we brined our chicken in saltwater before cooking it. You may decide at this phase though that it could use a bit more. I encourage you to think through all the options when “seasoning to taste.” This recipe has water, oil, alcohol and acid already (wine is slightly acidic), but you might need to balance the different flavors a bit.

Pour gravy through a fine-mesh strainer, catching the liquid in a heat-proof bowl, and serve.

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