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When I roast a whole chicken, I always make sure that my chicken is cooked to the proper temperature. Quite often, this results in juicy legs and thighs, but dry breasts.

Is there a reason the chicken breasts end up so dry, while the legs and things are moist and delicious? Are there any ways to roast a chicken to prevent the breasts from drying out?

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15 Answers 15

up vote 21 down vote accepted

It's my opinion that the "proper temperature" is a number set by lawyers, not by chefs. The government standard for a roast bird is 180°F (83°C)! Are you kidding me? HTST pasteurization is 161°F (72°C) for 20 seconds, but my turkey has to get to 180°F for safe human consumtion? What the hell kind of bacteria do they think live in there?

165°F (74°C) is a common number, and a pretty decent one, though I always take mine out before that for the reason below.

You need to remember that the internal temperature of the bird will continue to rise for a while after you take it out of the oven: the heat on the outside is still migrating inward. If you wait to take it out until the internal temperature is the "right" temperature, by the time it peaks, it'll be 10°F (~5°C) HIGHER than the right temperature, and that's in the dry zone. We're talking 190°F (88°C) thanksgiving football. Blech.

Dark meat almost always handles being overcooked better than lighter meat. The breast is the hardest part of the turkey to cook correctly. If you haggle with the temperature, and your white meat is still on the dry side, you might try brining the bird for 24 hours or so. It makes a big difference in terms of juiciness.

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1  
It's not that the dark meat handles being overcooked -- it's that it's a completely different type of meat, and its ideal temp is higher. (It's still a little undercooked at 165F, while breast meat is done before then). –  Joe Jul 15 '10 at 1:41
    
165 degrees Fahrenheit = 73.8888889 degrees Celsius 180 degrees Fahrenheit = 82.2222222 degrees Celsius –  Cornelius Jul 15 '10 at 7:24

The breasts are dry because they are overcooked. All the different thermometers I have used to follow published guidelines have landed me with overcooked meat. I think it is because of the way I use the thermometer and also the rise in temperature (as noted by Satanicpuppy) while the meat rests. What I have done instead is to test doneness by pressing the meat with my finger while poking it with a thermometer. When it feels done, I write down the temperature, take it off the heat, and let the meat rest. If it is overdone, next time I will use a 5°F lower temperature; if underdone, a 5 °F higher temperature. Second try is usually perfect.

Over time on gets good at the finger press method and one only needs to resort to the thermometer if it's been a long time since one has made that particular dish.

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+1 for the stupid thermometers. How I hates them! Hates! Gotta get one that does actual temperatures, and then, yea, experiment. The "pushing on the meat" is a good test too, though obviously imprecise. I once read it was supposed to feel as firm as the palm of your other hand...What does that even mean? When I read that I was doing a lot of work outdoors, and my hands were hard and callused. Hah. –  Satanicpuppy Jul 15 '10 at 0:35

I always find placing a half lemon in the cavity and covering the breast with foil for part of the cooking helps to stop the breast from drying out. You can also add a herb/butter mix between the skin and the flesh of the bird, so as the butter/herb mixture cooks it bastes.

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Simply roast the bird upside-down the entire time, and you will avoid this problem.

The reason most recipes say to roast a bird breast-side up is to have nicely browned skin. If you're not concerned about the bird looking pretty & golden, just leave it breast down.

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better yet, keep it breast up until it looks nice, then turn over. –  jwenting Apr 18 '11 at 9:30
    
Why no to use a oven which can rotate the metal stick pierced the chicken? –  lamwaiman1988 Jun 22 '11 at 9:00

Use bacon to cover the breasts, and remove them for the last 15 minutes to brown them. The bonus is you get extra flavour and stock.

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In addition to the very 'sage' remarks about temperature, there are some other techniques that are helpful, particularly for larger birds.

  1. Start breast-down, flip 1/2-way through
  2. Roast at higher temperature
  3. cheesecloth over breast, soaked in baste
  4. brine
  5. baste
  6. baste
  7. baste
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Also, you should remember to baste it. –  Eclipse Jul 15 '10 at 1:22

Someone else probably has a better idea, but try covering the breast in aluminum foil to keep as much moisture as you can inside the breasts.

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Actually, that can cause tge breast to cook even faster. –  Sean Hart Apr 19 '11 at 1:26

Rub thoroughly with butter mixed with whatever spices you want to use (garlic, ground black pepper, chopped parsley leaves, I also use a little paprika for color) - just enough butter to spread the spices evenly, not too much. Pour some white wine over the chicken before starting to bake/roast it. Take out every 10 minutes, spill the sauce forming in the pan over it using a tablespoon. Turn breast-up only for the last ten minutes. This will give you an all around juicy chicken plus a nice brown crispy skin.

Check the meat every now and then by sticking a toothpick into it. If it goes in easily, the meat is about ready, and you should turn the chicken for the final browning of the breast skin. If no juice comes out after you extract the toothpick, it's overdone already.

Nevertheless, you'll never get the breast to be as juicy as the legs. Chicken breast is simply a drier meat - which is why some people don't like it.

I usually don't put salt on the chicken from the beginning, since salt tends to make the meat less tender if added before cooking.

Depending on size, age and origin (supermarket, young and small chicken need lower temperatures and shorter roasting/baking, farmer's market older and larger chicken need longer roasting/baking at higher temperature) I do my chicken for about 1.5 to 2 hours at 180 to 200 degrees Celsius. You'll need to do some experiments before you get it right.

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The issue with dry meat is that the juices have escaped and because there are less juices in the white meat to start with, this means it's going to be drier to the taste, I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the most obvious solution which is to roast the whole chicken in a special roasting bag (available at all supermarkets). In this manner ALL the juices are trapped and as they flow from the chicken during cooking they continually baste the whole of the chicken whilst remaining in the bag. Remember to seal the bag well and make half a dozen or so tiny holes in the top of the bag to allow the release of pressure during cooking. At the end of the cooking time you have all the stock from which to make gravy. Beware though that once you open the bag at the end, the escaping vapour is BOILING HOT. Enough to scald yourself badly. As per the other cooking methods, allow the chicken to stand for 15 to 20 mins thereby letting the remaining juices flow through the chicken. To make even juicier white meat, before placing chicken in the bag, carefully separate the skin from the breast (taking care not to tear the skin) and gently with your fingers rub a little butter into the flesh. This will give the white meat that delicious creamy taste.

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+1 for JustRightMenus, with the modification of flipping the bird back to right side up 20-30 minutes before it is done so the skin can have time to crisp up.

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I pretty much always put a mixture of butter and something (garlic, lemon zest and thyme, or whole-grain mustard, or various herbs - there are lots of options) between the skin and the breast before roasting - you have to carefully slide your hand to gently separate the skin from the breast without tearing the skin.

Pretty much guaranteed moist breast meat (although maybe less good on the calorie front).

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As others have mentioned, it's difficult to find the right balance between overcooking the breast and undercooking the dark meat when roasting a bird. That being said, I've stopped trying. A few years ago, I started butterflying my chickens. The process takes about 30 seconds with a good set of kitchen shears.

It's very easy and has several advantages over traditional roasting:

  • All of the meat is about the same thickness, so it cooks evenly and doesn't dry out.
  • Overall cooking time is reduced
  • Bird can be roasted, pan-seared or grilled
  • Lends itself to interesting presention!
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To avoid overcooking chicken, Heston Blumenthal ("In Search of Perfection") roasts a chicken at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C). Honestly. For a 2 pound bird (1.5 kilos) this will take 4-6 hours. The internal temperature of the chicken must come up to 140 degrees. Once it reaches this temperature leave the meat to rest for a further hour.

There is plenty that can go wrong with this recipe. Here's what I have come up against:

  • The temperature gauge of my previous oven could be out by as much as 20 degrees Celcius! Get an oven thermometer and use it on the same shelf that you will roast the chicken;
  • Don't forget to rest the meat. The meat closer to the bone will continue to cook after it is taken out of the oven. I have found uncooked spots when I skipped this step;
  • Taking the internal temperature of the bird seems to be a black art. I'm not sure where the best place is to probe for temperature. I can only advise to try a number of locations before deciding the chicken is done;
  • Don't use this recipe if your chicken isn't fresh. Have a good sniff before you put it in the oven. If it's a bit niffy your whole house is going to stink after six hours of low-temperature cooking. You won't want to eat it after that.

Last of all, the chicken will come out of the oven looking pale and unappetising. Heston suggests browning the skin in a frying pan. I have had reasonable results sticking it under the broiler for a while.

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You can also try cooking the entire bird at a high temperature for a shorter time. Barbara Kafka recommends cooking it at 500 degrees F for less than an hour. This doesn't leave enough time for the breast meat to get overcooked, resulting in a juicier chicken.

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If you are cooking the breasts only, a solution is to "nuggettify" the breast.

This preserves the humidity inside the meat.

  1. "massage" the breasts (no pun intended) with some flour - cut them into smaller pieces if using a pan instead of an oven
  2. Let the humidity of the breast absorb the flour for a while until it doesn't rub off the meat (external color should turn yellow-pink)
  3. Pre-heat your oven or pan and place the meat - in a pan, cover it until the side touching the bottom is golden, then turn it over and uncover
  4. Always make sure the meat is white inside before consuming
  5. Once nearly cooked, season to preference

This is different than actual nuggets insofar as you're not using egg yolk nor bread, nor any other industrial ingredient.

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Hello Mena and Welcome to Seasoned Advice! Because we are a cooking Q&A website and not a health Q&A website, we try to avoid health-related claims as often as possible. I've suggested an edit which removes just that wording from your answer. Some chicken breast nuggets sound very tasty right about now... –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 11 at 6:56
    
@PrestonFitzgerald thank you for the edit - approved. I am new to this site, so any help is indeed welcome :) –  Mena Jun 11 at 7:13

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