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Yesterday I was trying to cook "Chicken Tonight". The jar instructs to cut 400 grams of chicken breast in "small" pieces (we use two jars, so I end up with 800 grams), then to brown those pieces in a pan.

No matter what I try, I can't get the chicken to brown: I've got the pan as hot as it can reasonably go. I'm using an induction stove, I put that on 'boost' and leave the pan for minutes, just heating up. As soon as I add fat (sometimes butter, sometimes olive oil) to the hot pan, it starts showing small bubbles/sizzling almost immediately, and I need to drop in the chicken or it will start to smell burnt.

But no matter what I do, the chicken won't brown. Instead, it starts losing a lot of what I think is water rather quickly, and then it will be more like it ends up cooking in that water. Here's a picture of what I ended up with yesterday, there's a solid half cm of water on the bottom of the entire pan. This usually happens in a matter of seconds, and at that point I take the pan of the heat source. At this point, the chicken pieces are completely done, but except for maybe a slight brown edge on a few pieces, they're also all completely white. I just get rid of the fluid, add the sauce from the jars, and leave that to simmer at this point, because further attempts at getting the chicken to brown will end up with more fluid and drier meat, but no brown.

What do I need to change to properly brown small pieces of chicken breast?

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    Frame challenge: you don't need the chicken to brown, just to be cooked through. I use those kinds of jarred sauces (and homemade equivalents) quite a bit and I have never tried to do anything other than cook the chicken. I interpreted "brown the chicken" on the instructions as "make sure it's cooked before you add the sauce".
    – Vicky
    Sep 4 at 8:54
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    Brown? Chicken breast? I assume "browning" here is a more generic term for sufficient cooking
    – PcMan
    Sep 4 at 10:55
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    Welcome to the age of meat injected with water to increase the weight you're buying..
    – Caius Jard
    Sep 4 at 15:49
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    Also, think on the last time you ate chicken-in-some-sauce in any restaurant context - was it browned?
    – Caius Jard
    Sep 4 at 15:53
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    "I put that on 'boost' and leave the pan for minutes" If that pan has any kind of fancy no-stick coating, say goodbye to the pan.
    – Nobody
    Sep 4 at 17:58
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You have overcrowded your pan. All you have to do is to brown it in batches.

Each batch should be so small that you have only one layer of chicken cubes on the pan bottom. The pieces will still lose their water, but it will evaporate quickly, leaving them dry, and they will brown on the bottom. Wait long enough that the first side is browned (don't stir even if you are itching to do something), then stir once until most pieces have fallen on a new side. Repeat until they are generally uniformly browned.

When the batch is ready, empty the chicken pieces into a bowl. You don't have to wash the pan, but you will likely have to add fat again before the next batch goes in.

The pan should be fairly hot, but induction with boost on will be too much. You have to make sure that the meat has enough time for the browning to happen, before it gets too overcooked. "happens in a matter of seconds" means the pan is way too hot.

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    Important to add: pat the chicken dry with a clean kitchen towel (paper or fabric) before tossing them in, it helps immensely. And you can always cheat by adding some carbs (flour / cornstarch) Sep 2 at 12:52
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    +1 for "don't stir even if you are itching to do something" - this is the part I've always had trouble with :-)
    – Kryten
    Sep 2 at 21:12
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    Use the widest, lowest-rim pan you have available. One more thing you can do -- if you have a range hood fan, turn it up. It'll help draw off water vapor as the chicken gives up moisture. It's a small factor, but it's a factor. Sep 4 at 0:48
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First of all, chicken breast doesn't brown well, because it's low in fat. Additionally, in places like the US, supermarket chicken tends to be heavily brined, retaining a lot of extra water which comes back out when heated. So temper your expectations.

As rumtscho said, your pan is overcrowded, and working in batches will help. But particularly with pieces that small, by the time they're significantly browned, they will be overcooked by modern standards. There's literally nothing you can do about this: You can't rush Maillard browning (or it'll be burnt instead of browned), which means you would need to somehow hold the outside surface around 150C for a few minutes without heating the interior (mere millimeters away) above 75C or so. That is not going to happen.

So: browned pieces, small pieces, moist pieces. Pick two; you can't have all three.

Oh, one other thing: fond. If you were to take the chicken pieces out when they're "fully cooked" (by whatever standard, but not yet browned), leave the liquid in, and keep cooking it, it will reduce and brown nicely. For chicken stewed in a sauce, that'll be a fine substitute. You just need to give the liquid time to cook down by itself.

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    Acutally, you can "rush" Maillard browning. One would need to increase the number of available carbohydrates, and the pH. The pH is easier, with a pinch of bicarbonate (but warning, it can give a slight soapy or metallic off taste, not everybody likes it) and the carbohydrate part works by the good old technique of flouring.
    – rumtscho
    Sep 2 at 12:36
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    Also, if you watch the commercials linked from the Wikipedia page (eg youtu.be/_GdiNk3-IPE?t=20) you will see that the "small" pieces are much larger than in the picture in the question. This lets them keep more of their water while browning. If you want very small pieces of chicken in your dinner, it's probably best not to try browning them. Or you could brown them while they are large, then cut them up smaller just before adding the sauce. Sep 2 at 12:39
  • @KateGregory I can't really make out how big the pieces are in the commercial, it's too blurry for that. But looking at e.g. this page on their own website and the picture there, the pieces should be slightly smaller that pineapple parts... which they are. They might look tiny in the picture, but they're still quite big, a single one of them is basically a mouth full. Sep 2 at 13:21
  • at the 20 second mark (which I linked to) there are 5 pieces of chicken in the entire pan. That's a lot bigger than your pieces. Sep 2 at 13:23
  • @KateGregory That would indeed be a lot bigger then, yes. Also, it would not be in line with the instructions on the specific jar I used, which says to 'cut up in small pieces' quite clearly. So that makes either the instructions wrong, or the commercial misleading, or both :-P Sep 2 at 13:25
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It could be that what you perceive as water is in fact ... water. Unfortunately the practice of 'plumping' chicken with saltwater is pretty common in the industry as it bulks up weight cheaply. The industry says this makes chicken more juicy when cooked, I'm not convinced on this myself. Whether it's a good thing or not the upshot of plumping is that the water squeezes out when the meat is cooked, which is why you have so much in the pan.

If you can find un-plumped chicken then there will be less water, but I would suggest instead you change your method and brown the chicken as a single piece before cutting it up. Cutting your chicken up into small pieces creates a lot of surface area for water to escape, keeping it as a single piece will keep more moisture in the chicken and will give you a better result.

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    Luckily, adding water to unprocessed chicken, like chicken breast, is not allowed in The Netherlands without labelling it as e.g. 'chicken breast with added water'. (Source, only in Dutch, sorry). As for browning, then cutting up... that sounds to me like I would end up with quite a few pieces that are only browned on 1 side, or not at all for the thicker end of the breast? Sep 2 at 13:35
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    There are plenty of illegal or 'dodgy' things that happen in the food industry, remember the horse meat scandal? Answering your question I'd suggest that browning well on one side is the best you'll get, if you brown both sides you're likely to end up with dry chicken. The browning is for flavor development, so one side is fine, once you cut it up and add the sauce it will finish cooking.
    – GdD
    Sep 2 at 13:53
  • Heh, fair point about the scandals. I can of course only hope that the packaging is 'correct'. And thanks for explaining that last bit! Sep 2 at 13:58
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    @Tinkeringbell FWIW, it's required that "plumped" poultry be labelled in the US, too. It will usually have something similar to "may have up to 5% solution added" somewhere on the package, but the exact wording differs. That said, if it's repackaged for sale by the grocer or butcher, it may not always be labelled correctly or where you can see it, especially if it's in a meat case and wrapped to order. And of course, some unscrupulous vendors will get away with not labelling it properly. If it's the cheaper option, it's probably been injected with brine, as salt and water are cheap.
    – Bloodgain
    Sep 4 at 7:21
  • Try a different source for your meat, like a specialist poultry seller or a different chain of supermarkets. Or buy precut chicken, just to test.
    – Willeke
    Sep 6 at 6:23

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