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Good day. I've had another disagreement with my mother on how to cook Chicken Breast. I know it seems like a small topic and it is situational, but do consider it.

The scenario is this, let's say you forget to take the Chicken Breast (whole, not chopped or butterfly cut) out the freezer and you need to cook it as soon as possible, OR you want to make sure you don't over cook the chicken as you fry it since they can get thick sometimes and you don't know if you cooked it all throughout.

In that scenario, my mother believes that it is okay to boil the chicken meat first in water before frying it. Her logic is that boiling actually cooks the inside evenly without burning the outside and frying gives it color.

However, I think that boiling the chicken takes the flavor away, just like how chicken bones are boiled to make stocks. Also, I think that boiling the chicken for too long causes the chicken to dry out (just like overcooking it).

I tried to tell her that butterflying it would be the best solution to cooking the chicken breast evenly, next to cooking it in the right temperature to not boil it (which seals the flavor inside) and then putting it in the oven (optional).

What do you guys think? Is boiling meat that detrimental to the flavor and overall quality of the dish?

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    boil it with chicken stock and it will taste good – user32649 Jan 10 '15 at 18:03
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Short answer - you are right on all counts and she's wrong. Tell her that, she'll love it. ;)

The longer answer is that boiling a frozen piece of meat, especially one that is thick in the middle like chicken breast is exactly the opposite of what you want to do as you'll cook the outside but the inside will still be frozen, and boiling (as you rightly point out) will remove flavor from what is already IMO flavorless to begin with. Any cooking method will dry the chicken out whether boiling, baking, or frying, so by cooking twice you are liable to end up with food that is overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside.

Cooking frozen chicken isn't a great idea from a safety and quality perspective but it can be done if the meat is cut thin, so your point about butterflying it is very valid. What I do personally is I thaw chicken meat (thighs in my case) partially in the microwave, then I slice it into 1/2" (about 1.3cm) pieces across the grain before cooking in a saute/stir fry of some sort. I like partially rather than fully thawing in the microwave because it gives a better taste/texture than a full thaw in the microwave, and it is very easy to slice when partially frozen.

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    The best thing about the recommended method is that microwaving, unlike other forms of cooking, does cook from the inside as well as the outside. Though obviously it's not the best for fully-cooking a meal, for thawing a piece of meat, it is ideal. – Zibbobz Oct 21 '14 at 14:43
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    @Zibbobz Microwaves do not necessarily cook from the inside out. They heat whatever moisture they hit first. Since we're talking about chicken, the microwave will actually heat from the outside-in because the outside of the chicken absorbs the microwave energy before it reaches the center. straightdope.com/columns/read/2118/… – M. Dudley Oct 22 '14 at 15:56
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    Boiling in fact does dry the chicken out, because it will cause the muscle fibers to contract, expelling their moisture. – djheru Oct 22 '14 at 18:42
  • @djheru My point is that any cooking will dry the chicken out no matter the method, it could be better phrased though. – GdD Oct 23 '14 at 14:48
  • Sous vide will dry the chicken out very very little. – Neil G Dec 2 '15 at 10:26
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I found that putting chicken breasts in a ziplock bag and letting them sit in a bowl of water thaws them fairly quickly "changing the water helps too". Albet not as quickly as a microwave though however in my opinion too long on dethaw in a microwave seems to make the chicken taste off.

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    I do this for most frozen meats, I can defrost a package of chicken breasts, or sausages in about an hour by keeping it in cold water to defrost them. Then I can cook without worry. When you no longer have a microwave it's necessary to find alternatives. – MichaelF Oct 21 '14 at 16:50
  • I also do this. I have found that most of the time I can even use hot water without cooking the meat (especially if my ground beef is still in the butcher paper). This is very helpful if I forgot to move the meat to the refrigerator the night before. – Andrew Burns Oct 22 '14 at 13:46
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    The scientific explanation is that water has a high heat capacity, so it 'absorbs' the cold from the meat pretty quickly. You can speed it up even more by using a metal bowl on a metal surface (like in the sink). I defrosted 3 porkchops like this in less than 30 minutes the other day. – Johanna Jan 10 '15 at 18:26
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The truly BEST way to cook meat evenly (frozen or not) would be a "low-temp cooking" process (AKA sous vide). If you can surround the meat with water at exactly the target temperature of the meat (e.g. 60 Celsius for chicken) you don't need to worry about it getting overcooked. Most sous vide restaurants sear both sides of the meat before and/or after the low-temp part happens to attain good color.

That said, the equipment to properly low-temp cook things is a bit beyond most home-cooks. Thus you're totally right - boiling meat is generally the worst way to cook it for flavor. Braising meat can be a good solution, but that's very different from a boil.

Edit: This situation has changed in recent years - decent Sous Vide machines are available at home-cook prices ($125 - $200 USD, not exactly cheap, but still affordable). I've got one and can get my chicken, steaks, etc exactly as done as I'd like them.

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I will side with your mother here. If you do it right, you'll get better meat.

What dries meat out is not the method (baking, frying or boiling), but cooking for too long. If your meat is frozen, and you fry it until the centre is done, the outside will be overcooked.

But if you start the meat in a much gentler cooking method with lower temperature, such as boiling, you will get much better meat quality. It is up to you to decide how much to cook the meat in the beginning, the closer it gets to done, the shorter it will spend in the second stage in the pan. Ideally, if you have a sous vide bath, you can throw it in for several hours (!) until it reaches the perfect temperature inside, then just give it a very quick sear in a sizzling pan, or char it with a torch only, to develop a very thin tasty crust without even rewarming the inside.

What you shouldn't do is boil the meat until it's overdone, then give it another 15 minutes in the pan. Chicken breast will end up in tasteless strings with such a treatment.

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    What dries out the meat is neither the method nor the time--it is the maximum internal temperature of the meat that affects the final moisture content more than any other factor. Placing meat in boiling water is not a gentle cooking method by any means. Thermal conductivity of water is especially high, and boiling water guarantees the outside be overdone before the inside is past raw. – Ray Oct 22 '14 at 16:55
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    Sous vide, on the other hand, is generally a gentler cooking method, but specifically because it is not boiling – Ray Oct 22 '14 at 16:56
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    @Ray placing chicken in water at 100 Celsius is gentle in comparison to placing it in oil at 180 Celsius. Sure, simmering is better than boiling, and sous vide is better than simmering here. Frankly, I'm missing a word in English which means to "cook in water" - just "cooking" covers too many methods, and "boiling" and "simmering" are way too specific. But this cooking method is relatively gentle when compared to frying. – rumtscho Oct 22 '14 at 17:04
  • My brother is a chef who learned his trade at the top restaurant at Gleneagles (and other places). He was taught to gently poach the chicken prior to final cooking in a pan. He used to cook for me and my friends sometimes, his panfried chicken cooked in this way was always moist and succulent. – Kev Oct 22 '14 at 23:15
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    I understand, rumtscho--it sounds it might have been lost in translation, where by boiling you mean cooking in water more generally. Perhaps poaching is what you have in mind? – Ray Oct 23 '14 at 0:44
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I cook thick skinless/boneless chicken breasts all the time. And most of the time I am using the frozen variety. I would love to thaw the chicken out in the sink with cool water for a few hours. Do I ever remember to do this?

No.

So I have tested cooking chicken hundreds of times on the stove top. (Chicken is about 1 pound per and upwards of 2 inches thick)

What I have found:

  1. The most important part is the beginning. You must sear each side until dry and brown. You will need stove on high and there will be a lot of water melting off. Don't flip the first time until the pan is waterless - applies to cooking multiple breasts at same time. Once you flip there won't be as much melting on the other side. Once the second side is brown add a little olive oil and flip again. Continuing cooking until raw chicken is not visible, both sides are browned (not burnt).

  2. Add water to go up to about 1/2 to 2/3 the height of chicken. I also add salt/pepper and other seasonings here.

  3. Keep cooktop on as high as possible. The goal is to have no water in pan once done.

  4. You will flip chicken every 5-10 minutes to make sure it is cooking evenly. A large frozen piece may take 30 mins.

  5. If water is gone before chicken is cooked through then add about a cup at a time until it is done.

  6. You can overcook easily using this method so don't just let small pieces shrivel up in the water. If cooking different sizes, take out the smaller pieces, set them aside and throw them back in with 3 minutes to go. So when you are "done" pan should not have water - very important because as the water evaporates, the flavor let out into the water makes its way back to the chicken. Rebrown your chicken on each side quickly (on high with no water this may be 30 seconds per side).

  7. Enjoy your chicken. Seasoned properly and with the right amount of time/water this works great. Maybe not as good as fresh but good enough. The hard part is knowing your pan/stove. You want your water to evaporate but not so quickly that you are throwing water in every minute. On the flip side if you put in too much there isn't a way to drain it out without draining out a good deal of the flavor.

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If you are starting from frozen meat and want it cooked as quickly as possible, the only method I can recommend is cooking it in sauce. Pounding the chicken breast or butterflying a thawed breast would definitely yield better results then boiling the breast in water. However neither of those methods are possible with a frozen piece of meat which is what you are starting with.

It is true that boiling the meat would dilute the flavor of the chicken. However this can be offset by making a dish where the cooking liquid is consumed. One suggestion is using a jar of chicken soup and simmer until the breast is cooked, then chop of the meat and put it back in the soup. Another is to cook the chicken in some tomato sauce and then serve it with pasta.

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Boil the chicken, add chicken stock to enhance its taste. Remove from water when tender, coat it with egg and flour(add garlic powder, salt, chili powder little sugar on the flour), fry it. Result: Tender juicy fried chicken

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Sous vide is the best choice for “pre-cooking” chicken, IMHO. You can do it without a sous vide machine (although it’s kind of a PITA) by putting each breast in a ziplock bag. Seal the bag except for a tiny corner and submerge the bag in water to force the air out, then completely seal the bag. Bring a saucepan large enough to hold the breasts filled with water to just under a simmer, and keep a close eye on the temp (you’ve got a thermometer, right?) - keep it at about 145°F and immerse the chicken in the hot water. They’ll be cooked through in about an hour, and you can finish them off by searing them quickly in a screaming hot oiled pan. Put a teaspoon of butter, a sprig of herbs, and a slice of lemon in the ziplock for extra flavor.

You could also poach the breasts in barely simmering white wine, which is a lot less of a nuisance, and imparts a delicious flavor to the meat.

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