How to Tenderize Chicken

Bye bye, dry, chewy chicken.

February 03, 2023
An asian woman enjoying a grilled chicken meal in restaurant

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An asian woman enjoying a grilled chicken meal in restaurant

Photo by: hxyume/Getty Images

hxyume/Getty Images

By Dana Beninati for Food Network Kitchen

Dana is a host, chef and sommelier.

We all have experienced the disappointment of a rubbery chicken dinner. At its best, chicken is a succulent, tender canvas for a world of flavors. But at its worst, chicken can become leathery, chewy and dry. Keep reading to prevent chewy chicken and learn how to tenderize it with ease.

What Is the Secret to Tender Chicken?

It all lies in responsible sourcing and preparation.

1. Buy the Right Chicken

First, buying fresh chicken makes it easier to spot “woody breast”, a textural issue caused by forced increases to growth rate. Healthy chicken has a pink hue and plump shape. Chicken affected by woody breast looks oddly pale and overly firm, two attributes that can be hard to spot when frozen.

2. Tenderize with a Meat Mallet

Next, we recommend shopping for boneless chicken or removing the bones to allow for the use of a meat tenderizer or mallet. No one wants a shattered bone in their cooked chicken.

3. Marinate the Chicken

Additionally, the use of a marinade or brine to further tenderize the protein ensures that the chicken will be juicy and easy to chew.

4. Cook the Chicken Correctly

Above all, proper cooking technique is the final layer of insurance which guarantees tender chicken.

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Photo by: Iza Łysoń / 500px/Getty Images

Iza Łysoń / 500px/Getty Images

How to Tenderize Chicken Breast

The challenge: Chicken breast can be challenging to cook because of its naturally tapered shape. By the time the thickest part of the breast is fully cooked, the thin end is dry and chewy at best.

What to do: Use a meat mallet to pound boneless chicken breasts into an even thickness to ensure that they cook evenly. When tenderizing chicken with a mallet, let the recipe inform how thin to make the meat.

How to Tenderize Chicken without a Mallet

If you find yourself without a meat mallet, use something that is sturdy, durable and heavy, such as a rolling pin, to pound the chicken into an even thickness. If you find yourself with very limited supplies, you can also use the prongs of a fork to excessively prick the surface of the chicken on all sides. While this is not as effective as a mallet, it does make a marinade or brine more effective and efficient.

Marinated Chicken Breasts

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Marinated Chicken Breasts

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

How to Marinate Chicken to Tenderize It

It is very important to marinate chicken whenever you plan to cook with high, direct heat such as grilling or pan searing, as these techniques tend to dry out the meat as it cooks.

A marinade is an acidic solution that gets a head start on breaking down the structure of a protein before it is cooked. This breakdown makes it possible for spices and fluids to enter the meat, resulting in a juicier, more flavorful final product once cooked. See below for a step-by-step, and check out our story How to Marinate Chicken for more info.

Step 1: Make the Marinade

Marinades must contain an acid to be effective. Some of our favorites are yogurt, buttermilk, citrus juices, wine or even store bought salad dressings. We love this recipe for Marinated Chicken Breast (pictured above) that calls for any vinegar you have in the pantry. Many fruits also contain enzymes that will breakdown protein including pineapple, guava and ginger.

Step 2: Add the Chicken

Add the marinade to a resealable plastic bag, add the chicken, then close the bag and shake until the chicken is evenly coated. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24. Or, freeze for up to one month.

Velveted Chicken Stir Fry

Velveted Chicken Stir Fry

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

What Is Velvet Chicken?

An excellent example of tender chicken is often found in our favorite Chinese meals, thanks to a traditional cooking technique, known as “velveting”. This is a term used to describe the process of marinating meat in cornstarch and then passing it through hot oil or water for a quick period, which is typical when making stir fries. When used properly, this technique ensures tender chicken, even once reheated. Give it a try while making our favorite Chicken Stir-Fry (pictured above).

Why the Meat in Chinese Stir-Fries Is So Wonderfully Tender

It’s all thanks to velveting, a technique that gives Chinese dishes their signature texture. Here’s how to do it at home.

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Photo by: Renee Comet ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

How to Cook Tender Chicken Every Single Time: Slow Cook It

Following the steps above nearly guarantees tender chicken, but the cooking method you select will really seal the deal. Low and slow cooking methods like braising, stewing, or smoking are most effective when trying to create tender, succulent chicken. We love this weeknight spin on a classic Chicken Coq au Vin (pictured above), which uses the acid in wine to help tenderize chicken and a quick stewing time to ensure a delicious dinner.

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