There are few universal truths that can span the world of food, but this is definitely one of them: No one likes dry, stringy, tough, overcooked hunks of chicken. However, with all the ways we love to cook and eat chicken at home—grilled, fried, poached, braised, stir-fried, roasted—every once in a while, inevitably, the pieces on your plate turn out to be the polar opposite of the juicy, tender bird you’ve come to know and love.
So how can you be sure that every piece of chicken you make, no matter what cut, will be tender and delicious—just as nature intended? Here are our top four tips for tenderizing chicken.
1. Marinade, Rub, or Brine It
One reason chicken often hits the weeknight dinner table is that most cuts cook up quickly and can go from fridge to pan to plate in 20 minutes or less. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t afford to plan ahead and get that chicken rubbed down, brined, or in a flavorful marinade the night, or at least 1 hour, before cooking—right? Right. So get your act together, plan a bit (or have some patience) and prepare an easy dry rub, straightforward wet brine, or simple as can be marinade to infuse your chicken (whatever cut you might have) with tons of flavor and promote a moist-all-the-way-through bite.
For super tender chicken, opt for a plain yogurt or buttermilk marinade, as the enzymes and acids present help to break down the proteins in the chicken to make it tender as can be.
The Easiest Dry Rub: Combine 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika, and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 months and rub all over your chicken (or pork, or beef) up to 1 hour before cooking.
All-Star Wet Brine: Add 8 cups of water and 1 cup kosher salt to a large bowl or pot. Mix to combine, then add up to 4 pounds of bone-in chicken. Brine for 30 minutes to 1 hour before removing and patting the chicken dry and discarding the brine.
Simple Garlicky, Herby Marinade: Add 4 cloves of minced garlic, 1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano, 1/4 cup chopped fresh rosemary, 1/4 cup olive oil to a large bowl or resealable plastic bag. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add up to 2 pounds of chicken pieces. Toss to combine, then seal the bag or cover the bowl and transfer to the fridge to chill for at least an hour or overnight.
Best Buttermilk Brine: Combine 2 cups buttermilk, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and 2 pounds of chicken pieces in a resealable plastic bag or a large bowl. Toss to ensure the chicken is evenly coated, then seal the bag or cover the bowl and transfer to the fridge to chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.
2. Use a Meat Tenderizer
If you’re working with a boneless, skinless chicken breast (as many of us do quite often), this is a great technique to encourage the meat to stay tender as it cooks. Pounding the chicken will help break down the fibers in the meat and allow it to cook faster, but there is such a thing as overdoing it here—so be gentle!
For the best outcome, use a wooden or metal meat mallet, but you can also use the bottom of a frying pan if you don’t have a special mallet. Lay a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper on a cutting board, place your chicken (boneless is important here) on the plastic or paper and place another piece on top or simply fold the plastic or paper over the chicken. Use your mallet or pan to pound the chicken all over until it’s even in the thickness you desire.
3. Cook It Properly
You might think this goes without saying, but I’m not certain it does, so that’s why it’s here. Even being one of the most cooked proteins in kitchens all over the world, I’d guess that there are lots of people still cooking chicken, well, wrong. This isn’t just about internal temperature (which, for chicken, is 165°F), but about technique.
Some cooking techniques will automatically render chicken fall-off-the-bone-tender—think stewing or braising—but others are more prone to failure or overcooking—like poaching. But no matter whether you decide to pan-fry, grill, bake, poach, or roast chicken—or any meat for that matter—you should always let it rest before slicing it up. If you slice it too soon, the juices in the meat are hot enough to flow out and onto your cutting board, leaving the meat itself dry and tough.
Letting the meat rest for even 5 minutes before slicing it up will help the meat retain those juices for a more tender and moist outcome.
4. If All Else Fails, Sauce It Up
Try as you might—pounding, marinating, and properly cooking your chicken—it’s still possible that you may end up with something less than perfect on your plate. Don’t ask me how, just know that it happens, even if you do everything right. Luckily though, there's one simple trick to disguise any dry, sad chicken—sauce! You can whip up a quick, buttery pan sauce for instance or simply grab some yogurt or mayonnaise and a lemon wedge from the fridge for a swipe of something creamier. Make a quick olive oil-based herb sauce if you have fresh herbs lying around or even toss your chicken into a warm bowl of soup to bring it to life. Consider this your failsafe, not your go-to.
"Any Pan" Pan Sauce: Only use this technique if you’ve pan-fried your chicken, as the browned bits on the pan are the key to making this sauce come together. After removing your chicken, add a minced or thinly sliced shallot and a smashed clove of garlic to the pan. Once the shallot is translucent, add about 1/2 cup of white wine or chicken broth and a sprig of rosemary or thyme. Use your cooking spoon to scrape up any of those browned chicken bits from the bottom of the pan. Once it’s bubbled and reduced down by about half, add a tablespoon or so of butter and season the sauce to taste with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Garlicky, Lemon Yogurt or Mayo: Spoon as much yogurt (plain, for obvious reasons) or mayonnaise as needed into a bowl. Use a fine grater or to grate up to 1 whole clove of garlic into the bowl and add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper and mix to combine. Taste and adjust any of the components as needed. You can also add some herbs like chopped dill, chives, parsley, or mint.
Herb Sauce (Gremolata): Add 1 cup parsley, 2 garlic cloves, zest and juice of 1 lemon, and 1/2 cup olive oil to a food processor. Blitz to combine, but don’t process into a smooth sauce, it should be a bit chunky. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and red chili flakes and douse with more olive oil as needed to get the desired consistency.