Chicken is such a popular ingredient due to the variety of ways it can be seasoned and prepared, and because it goes with almost any side dish. One of the healthiest ways you can prepare chicken is to bake it. Baked chicken is much better for you than fried chicken or even pre–packaged chicken products like nuggets and patties.
The key to great baked chicken is not in the seasonings, not in the flavorings, and not in the side dishes you choose to pair it with. The real secret is to cook it properly.
Cuts of Meat
When it comes to chicken, there are two distinct types of meat. The white meat comes from the breast; it’s leaner and therefore is more in danger of drying. The white meat requires particular attention when baking, and is best done when using a sauce or when wrapped around something a cheesy filling such as with chicken cordon bleu.
The dark meat comes from the thigh, legs, and wings; it’s able to keep moister than white meat, so baking it is a much better bet. Because it is fattier, it tends to have more drippings, so it’s best elevated on a rack.
White meat and dark meat take different times to cook in the oven, so they should not be baked together in the same tray.
Boneless breast meat should be baked in a 350-degree oven. A lot depends on the thickness of the cut of the breast, but a 4 oz thick piece can take about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, a probe thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the breast.
When the breast reaches an internal temperature of 160, remove it from the oven and allow carry–over heat to bring it up to 165.
Chicken thighs will require about 30 to 40 minutes to reach an internal temperature of 165, depending on the thickness. Generally, thighs take the longest.
Remove the chicken from the oven and allow carry–over heat to bring it up to 170.
If you are determined to cook your chicken dark and light meat together, let the dark meat get started about 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time, then open the oven and add the breasts. They should finish close to each other.
It is not advisable to start them together and remove the breasts when they’re done, as the uncooked juices from the dark meat can contaminate them. Safety first!
Adding More Flavor
Instead of just putting the boneless chicken in the oven, why not give it more flavor?
One option is to bring it. A brine is a salt–water solution (sometimes with sugar or honey added, as well as flavorful dried, ground herbs) that you soak the chicken in for 8 hours before baking. Brines help keep birds moist and juicy while seasoning your bird at the same time.
Another option is a marinade, which is an acidic-based liquid such as lemon, orange, vinegar, or whine, mixed with seasonings and possibly some oil. Because of the acid, chicken parts should not spend more than 4 hours in a marinade or it can ruin the texture of the meat, but even 30 minutes is okay.
Finally, you can simply season your chicken with dry or fresh herbs, such as garlic, rosemary, thyme, chili powder, or curry. If you like, you can also baste it with tomato sauce, duck sauce, fruit juices, or even honey.
Experiment with different flavors to arrive at combinations your family likes—but you’ll find that as long as you cook your chicken correctly, you’ll get far fewer complaints.
If you want a fool–proof method for moist, tasty boneless chicken, try cooking it in a foil pouch.
Just spread a piece of foil on the counter and lay one or two pieces of chicken upon it. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and your favorite seasonings. Add a small pat of butter or a splash of olive oil if you like.
Fold up the foil so that it forms a sealed pouch around the chicken, and place it in a baking tray. The foil keeps the moisture in to ensure the chicken stays juicy. You can even add a scoop of frozen or chopped fresh vegetables in there for a more complete meal.
This is a great option for families who have people with different tastes— one person may like lemon pepper chicken, another may like barbecue sauce style, still, another might like Hawaiian style with pineapple chunks. You can bake all three kinds together— each in their individual pouches— at once in the same tray.