9 Mistakes Everyone Makes Cooking Chicken
These missteps have easy fixes, so you can tweak your chicken routine for the better tonight.
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The Perfect Bird
The path to delicious chicken is littered with stringy meat, rubbery skin and funky flavors, thanks to a handful of cooking blunders even experienced cooks make over and over again. Here's what you're doing wrong and how to fix it next time.
The Mistake: Rinsing Chicken Before Cooking
Why It’s Bad: Raw chicken is not sterile, and washing, rinsing or soaking will not kill the bacteria. There’s also a good chance you’ll splash or splatter the dangerous germs all over your kitchen, contaminating your sink, work surface and utensils, along with any other food that might be in the way.
Next Time: Just pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Don’t worry! The high heat it takes to cook it will also kill the germs.
The Mistake: Using Boneless, Skinless Breasts in Everything
Why It’s Bad: They are very lean and end up turning dry and stringy in long-cooked recipes like stews and slow-cooker meals.
Next Time: Try bone-in, skin-on thighs. Or if you’re a white-meat-only person, use skin-on, bone-in breasts, and take care not to overcook. If in doubt, take a piece from the pot and use an instant thermometer to test. Cook just to an internal temp of 165 degrees F and the meat will be tender and juicy. If the chicken is done before the rest of the ingredients, remove it, discarding the skin and bones, and put it aside. Add it back to the dish at the end of cooking just long enough to reheat.
The Mistake: Over-Marinating With Citrus Juice
Why It’s Bad: In this case, a longer soak does not equal a more flavorful meal. When a marinade contains lemon, lime or orange juice, the citric acid breaks down the meat over time, making it mushy or mealy when cooked.
Next Time: Marinate for two hours max when citrus is involved. (Remember too, that the acid can react with metal, so refrigerate in plastic storage containers or bags.) Similarly, when chicken is soaked in buttermilk or marinated with yogurt for too long, the tangy lactic acid and enzymes can over-tenderize it. So do this for one day, tops, for the best result.
The Mistake: Crowding Pieces in a Skillet
Why It’s Bad: When the pieces are so tight that they’re almost overlapping, they will be hard to maneuver around the pan and they won't cook evenly. Each piece needs extra space, or the chicken will steam in its own juices rather than brown. And if it’s crispy skin you’re looking for, overcrowding is also your enemy: You need even heat that’s just high enough to render the fat and caramelize the juices.
Next Time: Make sure to pat chicken very dry, especially if skin is involved. (Some cooks refrigerate skin-on chicken uncovered for several hours to air-dry it, which helps the skin get really crisp.) Use a skillet large enough so the pieces don’t touch. Add just enough oil to coat the pan and heat over medium until shimmering. Season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper and let it cook undisturbed. The chicken will stick slightly at first, but leave it be — you'll soon see the golden magic start to happen. When the pieces are evenly browned on one side, flip and repeat.
The Mistake: Using Fancy Olive Oil for Fried Chicken
Why It’s Bad: You need a lot of oil to fry a chicken, and if it’s extra-virgin, this is a huge waste of money. Also, expensive extra-virgin oils can smoke and burn if they get too hot, leaving a bitter taste.
Next Time: Use vegetable oil or light olive oil. It will be much easier on your wallet, and the chicken will taste great. And watch the temperature: Too high and the crust will brown before the meat inside is cooked. About 325 degrees F is perfect. This is also why it’s better to use smaller chickens for frying, not chubby oven-stuffers. Three- to three-and-a-half-pounders cut in pieces are the perfect size. Fried at the right temperature with enough space in the pot, the crust turns gloriously golden at the same time the meat becomes juicy and perfectly cooked.
The Mistake: Poaching Chicken Breasts at Too High a Temperature
Why It’s Bad: Boiling chicken can make the flesh tighten up and get chewy. You then have to overcook it to make it tender, and in the process, it loses its juices and turns dry.
Next Time: Poach chicken low and slow. Keep the liquid below a simmer and cover the pan partially with a lid, so you can keep an eye on it and maintain the right heat. You should use just enough liquid to cover the meat and the surface should barely ripple, not bubble. (About 180 degrees F on a digital thermometer is ideal.) For extra-good flavor, season the poaching liquid with aromatic veggies, like sliced carrot, celery, onion, a smashed garlic clove and some herbs and spices, like thyme and peppercorns. Be sure to cook the chicken just until the center is no longer pink.
The Mistake: Not Resting Roast Chicken Before Slicing
Why It’s Bad: While the chicken is cooking, the juices percolate away from the center towards the skin. They need time to redistribute and settle back into the meat or they will puddle up on your cutting board and leave the meat dry.
Next Time: Transfer the chicken to a board, cover loosely with foil to keep warm and let rest for 15 minutes before carving. Use the downtime to finish cooking some veggies, or make a tasty pan gravy.
The Mistake: Reheating Roast Chicken More Than Once
Why It’s Bad: Every time you reheat already-cooked chicken you dry it out more. Dry it too much and it turns stringy and mealy. To say nothing of the flavor, which can get quite funky with repeated warming.
Next Time: Reheat only the portion you plan on eating so you only each portion of leftovers once. For best results, wrap the whole piece tightly in foil, then warm in a 350 degree F oven to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. If reheating in a microwave, cut the chicken into same-size pieces, place in a microwave-safe dish, cover with a damp paper towel and cook in 1 minute intervals, rotating several times between each so the chicken heats evenly.
The Mistake: Stir Frying Chicken and Veggies at the Same Time
Why It’s Bad: The cold chicken will lower the pan temperature, its juices will get all over the veggies and the ingredients will steam — not stir fry. The result is a murky mess: chicken that’s chewy and mushy vegetables with muddled flavor.
Next Time: Stir fry the chicken first until just cooked (adding seasonings like ginger, scallion, garlic and soy sauce just before it’s done so they don’t burn), then remove and set aside. Reheat the wok or pan until very hot, and continue with the veggies and sauce. Just before serving, add the chicken back to the pan and toss briefly just to heat through.