Like so many other ingredients, these lean, white meat chicken portions are terrific when grilled, but sautéing is a good alternative when you’re not in the mood to cook outdoors. Sautéing keeps the kitchen heat to a minimum and the food cooks within minutes. All you need is a good skillet and some interesting, fresh ingredients.
By a good skillet I mean a pan that holds heat well. The secret of juicy, but well-crisped sautéed foods is all in the sizzle. Your pan and the fat you use must be hot enough so that when you add the chicken you can immediately hear the crackle of meat hitting heat. For best results, look for a large, heavy pan made of cast iron or stainless steel that has an aluminum-clad inner core (sometimes called tri-ply).
Most nonstick pans don’t heat as well as uncoated ones, but they do let you cut down on the fat required in a recipe. That’s a plus, but don’t be fooled. Some fat is still required (my recipes use very little). Besides, you should hand wash nonstick cookware (to keep the surface intact) and that is a nuisance. Stainless steel cookware is dishwasher safe.
The reason for using a large pan is for heat retention. If you add four half chicken breasts to a small pan, the ingredients will be crowded and the heat will drop. There goes the sizzle. On the other hand, if the pan is too big, the fat will scorch in unused places. The trick is to use a pan that fits the food with some space between each item.
Sautéing chicken breasts is simple. First, buy breasts that are as evenly shaped as possible; if not, cover them with waxed or parchment paper and pound them gently using a meat mallet or the bottom of a heavy pot. Second, be sure to dry the meat using paper towels; this will help brown the breasts properly. Next, heat a small amount of olive oil or vegetable oil in the pan over moderately high heat. When a haze starts to form over the fat, add the breasts. The searing will start immediately.
Cook for about 2-3 minutes per side, then turn the heat to medium. Breasts that are about 1/2-inch thick should take about 6-8 minutes total cooking time. You can use a meat thermometer to check for doneness (it should read 160 degrees Fahrenheit) or cut into one of the breasts with a small utility knife (juices should run clear).
Simple sautéed chicken breasts are fine, as is. During the summer we frequently stuff them between bread slices (or inside rolls) to eat as a sandwich (with tomatoes, slices of avocado and mayonnaise). When not serving sandwiches I usually like to garnish the breasts with a simple sauce. The easiest is a pan sauce. Here’s how to make one: remove the chicken from the pan (keep the breasts warm in an oven set to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit) and deglaze the pan with some chicken stock, juice or wine; cook the pan fluids for a minute or so and pour them over the chicken.
But even pan sauces made with fresh vegetables or other ingredients needn’t be complicated. Chicken with Pine Nuts and Basil Scented Tomatoes and Chicken with Tomatoes, Corn and Herbs are two easy recipes that take advantage of good summer tomatoes and fresh herbs and they take just a few minutes to complete. Add a green vegetable and either polenta or pasta and dinner is complete. Chicken with Capers and Lemon, a tangy, tasty dish in any season, shows you how to make a really quick and easy pan sauce. This dish is wonderful with steamed rice or risotto and steamed or sautéed spinach.
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is
Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.