If the color beige was an animal, I suspect it would taste a lot like boneless, skinless chicken breast. Americans eat more than 90 pounds of chicken a year per person, much of it in its blandest form. The appeal is obvious: Boneless and skinless breast is versatile and easy to handle. Like many of you, I grew up with mom baking various permutations of it—chicken breast covered with jarred salsa was a mind-bending combination to me as a child—and swore it off almost entirely after my 9,883rd serving of Seriously Why Am I Eating This? Casserole.
But not everyone feels like roasting or boning an entire bird or has $30 to shell out for fancy heritage-breed, cage-free chicken every week. Plus, I’ve recently started getting grey beard hairs and that’s when my nostalgia for mom’s casseroles starts setting in. So I bought a bunch of the standard supermarket boneless, skinless chicken breast and found the best ways to create something you’d actually want to eat. The keys are to keep the skinless meat from drying out, and to infuse the white meat with as much flavor as possible through marinading, seasoning, or dressing.
Option 1: Blacken it
Blackening gets a bad rap almost entirely because “blackening” doesn’t sound like an appetizing way to prepare food. It’s essentially a marketing problem, so let’s make a tasty chicken sandwich and call it something unbearable and Millennial instead—Unicorn Chicken or Influencer Chicken or some bullshit like that.
Butterfly two chicken breasts and pound them out lightly to a consistent thickness. We’re going to cook fast, and we’re going to cook hot. Mix your... uh, Unicorn Spice Mix... in a small bowl. My small-batch proportions for this one go like this:
- 2 tsp. sweet paprika
- 3/4 tsp. onion powder
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. Mexican oregano
- 1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
- 1/4 tsp. cumin
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper
- 1/4 tsp. salt
Pat your chicken dry, brush with oil, and coat evenly with the entirety of the spice mixture. Set aside and preheat a grill for medium-high direct heat. Grill 2-3 minutes per side, until the chicken is just cooked and the spices look adequately Cajun and whatnot. How you assemble the sandwich is as important as how you cooked the chicken: I go with lightly toasted brioche (or white buns, you’re not serving the Pope here), Bibb lettuce, heirloom tomatoes (negotiable), shaved sweet onions, and mayo doctored with Crystal hot sauce. I wish I was eating this right now. You’ll love it too.
Option 2: Sous vide it, make rad-as-hell chicken salad
I have a lonely, drawer-forgotten immersion circulator that definitely seemed like a good idea at the time. And while yes, I’ve done the thing where I spend most of a day pampering a very expensive piece of steak, I’ve not become the goggle-clad scientist/cook I had in mind when I bought it. But there’s one reason above all others that I keep it around, and that’s perfect chicken salad.
People get opinionated about what you’re throwing into your chicken salad—nuts, dried fruit, celery, etc.—but chicken salad with shitty chicken always makes for bad chicken salad. Get that bird right, first and foremost. A sous-vide method lets you cook every bite perfect and tender, and chicken salad is one of times you don’t have to add any char for a desirable result.
Place a couple of brined breasts in a single layer in a bag, seal it, and put it into a 144 degrees Fahrenheit/62 degrees Centigrade water bath for 90 minutes. Pop the chicken breasts out, cube them, and stir in mayo—food writers are annoyingly fond Duke’s mayo, but it’s both great and cheap on Amazon—plus diced celery, quartered red grapes, pickled mustard seeds, diced shallot, and whatever else your chicken-eating heart desires. Boom, rad-as-hell chicken salad for your lunch enjoyment.
Option 3: Make a kebab pita
If there’s one gospel I need to preach today, it’s the joys of a yogurt marinade. British chef Heston Blumenthal once put chicken breasts in an MRI to try and divine the secret of its excellence. It’s just that delicious.
Start with the marinade itself:
- 1 cup plain yogurt (Greek tastes a little chalky, but it can work)
- Juice of half a lemon and 1/4 teaspoon of its zest
- 4 cloves minced garlic
- 1/4 cup chopped shallot
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. cumin
- 1/2 tsp. hot paprika
Cut the chicken breast into even one-inch cubes and place in a zip-top bag. Stir together the marinade ingredients and pour over. Chill overnight.
The next day, preheat your grill for a two-zone heat setup, remove the chicken, and thread onto skewers (soak wooden ones for 30 minutes to keep them from catching on fire), shaking off excess marinade. Grill the skewers, turning frequently, until evenly charred and cooked through, about 6-8 minutes, depending on your heat.
Remove and warm up some pocketless pitas briefly over the fire. Serve the chicken with cucumber, tomato, onion, tzatziki, and feta.
Option 4: What the hell, throw ’em on the smoker
It’s not one of my Takeout articles if it doesn’t involve at least one truly inane use of time and effort (see also: epic taco-seasoning packet fiesta). So I thought to myself “Hey, why not smoke the thing I had never considered once up until this point?” It’s not the fatty, marbled kind of cut that traditionally creates amazing barbecue, plus I’m meh on the semi-popular and somewhat-related smoked turkey. But hey, barbecue makes everything better, right? Let’s find out. I suggest:
- An overnight bath in spicy pickle brine
- Application of your favorite (preferably low in salt, because pickle brine) dry rub
- A very brief (20-30 minutes, depending on your meat) stay in the smoker at 220 degrees
I removed the chicken from the smoker, sliced it after a very short rest, and served with a couple of homemade barbecue sauces I had laying around. Turns out yes, the smug barbecue evangelists are right again: Smoke may indeed make everything better. It’s not Texas beef ribs by a long shot, but it’s so much better than 99% of the chicken breast I’ve had that it almost makes me angry. I can envision a whole smoker full of these chicken breasts, subsequently sliced thin, ready to make mighty fine sandwiches for an entire workweek. Way to go, the hard way of doing things.