When you’ve added chicken breast to your weekly meal rotation in efforts to boost your protein intake and slim down fast, poultry can get pretty boring—and fast. You’ve exhausted your spice cabinet’s flavor arsenal and even cracked open those enshrouded cookbooks. And to make matters worse, the new recipe you unearthed on the internet promised juicy results, but the actual outcome was far from it.
Let’s face it, even the most seasoned chefs get plagued by dry, tasteless meat. To help you double down on your kitchen skills and cook poultry perfectly, we’ve rallied up six common mistakes people make when cooking chicken, so you know what to avoid once meal prep Sunday rolls around.
You Purchase Low-Quality Meat
Mistake: Any chicken dish is only as good as its parts. If you start with factory-farmed, frozen chicken, odds are good your meal will taste dry and won’t have as much flavor as it could.
Solution: Whenever possible, opt for organic, free-range, and locally produced chicken out of a fridge (instead of the freezer). These options are more likely to retain moisture and be packed with flavor.
You Buy Skinless Meat
Mistake: Sure, de-boned and de-skinned chicken may seem easier to cook. But when it comes to chicken, discarding the bones and skin is a lot like tossing the baby (read: the flavor) out with the bathwater.
Solution: If you’re concerned about the fat content of chicken skin, don’t fret: Experts at the Harvard School of Public Health maintain that these fats are the healthy, unsaturated kind. What’s more, because leaving on the skin helps the chicken retain moisture and flavor, you’re less likely to reach for other, perhaps less healthy, flavorings.
You Only Purchase Breasts
Mistake: Chicken breasts are easy to find, easy to cook, and hailed as one of the healthiest ways to consume chicken. But when you limit yourself to breasts every time you eat poultry, you’re missing out on a whole world of culinary satisfaction.
Solution: Don’t be afraid to experiment with thighs and wings in addition to breasts—you just might find yourself liking chicken a whole lot more. One caveat here: If you do experiment with different cuts of meat, don’t assume all cuts are created equal. Ideal cooking strategies vary depending on the cut involved, so do your research before firing up the stove or grill.
You Wash the Chicken
Mistake: Rinsing off chicken prior to cooking it may seem like a good way to improve its hygiene, but food safety rules maintain that this actually makes contamination more likely to occur.
Solution: The process of washing chicken spreads potentially harmful bacteria onto your sink and countertops, and it’s unlikely to serve any real benefit. So skip the chicken bath and move on.
You Skip Drying the Chicken
Mistake: While it may not be a good idea to wash chicken, it is a good idea to dry it. This may sound counterintuitive; after all, nobody likes to eat dry meat.
Solution: Most people do like the outside of their chicken to have a lovely brown crisp—and that’s only achievable when you start with a dry bird. For the best results, allow the meat to air-dry outside of any packaging for a few hours in the fridge. Then remove it from the fridge and pat it dry with paper towels right before cooking.
You Thaw Chicken on the Counter
Mistake: Rare is the home chef who hasn’t tried this approach to meat thawing, but here’s why you should avoid it: Room temperatures provide a warm breeding ground for all sorts of potentially harmful bacteria. And because the outside of the meat is likely to thaw faster than the inside, this means the outside will be vulnerable to these bacteria for much of the time that the inside is still thawing.
Solution: To avoid this issue, consider thawing the chicken overnight in the fridge. Or place it in a plastic bag and submerge that bag in cold water. (Just be sure to replace the water often so temperatures in the bowl never rise to room temp.)
You Ignore Other Food Safety Practices
Mistake: We’ve already covered a few food safety practices, but several more deserve the attention of anyone who’s cooking chicken at home. In the spirit of better food safety, make sure that you never place cooked meat on a plate that was used to hold raw meat. You should also avoid letting chicken rest on the counter while it marinates.
Solution: Place the chicken in the fridge to marinate instead. Don’t use the same marinade that was used on raw chicken to marinate other foods. Avoid undercooking the meat. Always wash your hands before and immediately after handling raw meat.
You Cook Chicken Breasts Without Tenderizing Them
Mistake: We all know it’s critical to tenderize a steak before cooking it, but fewer people realize it’s just as important to pound out chicken breasts before tossing them into a pan.
Solution: Pounding chicken is good for several reasons: It helps tenderize the meat, it reduces cooking time (which can minimize the risk of overcooking), and it makes it easier to achieve an even cook. For best results, make sure the breasts are an even thickness; aim for approximately half an inch. Not in the mood for pounding? Consider butterflying the bird instead.
You Cook the Meat Right Out of the Fridge
Mistake: You’re starving when you get home, so you take the defrosted chicken out of the fridge and cook it immediately.
Solution: While it’s true that you don’t want to let the meat sit around on the counter for ages before cooking it, it is a good idea to let the thawed meat sit out of the fridge for 15 minutes or so prior to cooking it up. This will help ensure that the inside and outside of the meat is generally the same temperature, which increases the chances that the chicken will cook evenly.
You Forget to Brine
Mistake: At one point, everyone has overcooked chicken. Because you want to make sure the chicken is fully cooked, we end up cooking it too long. “This is where brining can save the day,” Derek Wolf, fire cooking enthusiast and owner of Over the Fire Cooking tells us.
Solution: “Basically, what you do is soak your chicken in a blend of herbs, spices, sugar, water, and salt for a couple hours in order to create a perfect amount of moisture inside the meat. It helps to prevent over-cooking and to enhance flavor. Plus, it’s super simple. My favorite brine consists of Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt, thyme, black pepper, sugar, and water.”
You Overcrowd the Pan
Mistake: “Ever found yourself with not enough space to cook the chicken breast? In a desperate attempt to speed up the process, you shove all the chicken into one skillet hoping it all fits,” Wolf says, reminding us all of this common blunder. “What ends up happening is the meat cooks unevenly due to being overcrowded.” Additionally, overcrowding can cause your chicken to steam rather than help it get that nice caramelized-brown sear.
Solution: Thankfully, there’s a quick fix that can salvage your dinner plate of undone meat. While Sidoti suggests starting with a wide frying pan that helps keep splattering to a minimum, Wolf has another solution that will come in handy if you’re already mid-process. “When you run into space issues, make sure to give each piece of chicken enough room to cook. Meat needs the heat rising from all sides in order to fully cook. Just grab another skillet or wait for the chicken already cooking to finish,” Wolf tells us. “Better to have fully cooked chicken than not!” We couldn’t agree more, especially since chicken is one of the high-risk foods that are most likely to be contaminated.
You Disregard Temperature
Mistake: A lot of recipes give you an approximate time for cooking chicken dishes, so it’s reasonable to assume that time is the most important factor. But in reality, temperature trumps time any day of the week.
Solution: A meat thermometer is the only tool that can give you true confidence that the meat is fully cooked. Chicken should be cooked to 165ºF; to test it, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat (without touching a bone). Try to avoid cooking the meat beyond this temperature, because that’s a surefire way to have dry meat on your hands.
You Ignore the Cavity
Mistake: Forgetting to stuff the chicken’s cavity before roasting is a sure-fire way to end up with desert-dry dinner.
Solution: “To add some extra moisture and flavor, cut a lemon, onion, or even an apple in chunks and place in the cavity along with a sprig or two of herbs or bay leaves. As the chicken roasts, these aromatics will release moisture and flavor,” Claudia Sidoti, head chef & recipe developer at HelloFresh, tells us. “Just remember to remove the stuffing before carving.”
You Don’t Let the Juices Do Their Thing
Mistake: We get it, you’re hungry! But forgetting to practice patience can cost you a perfectly roasted chicken.
Solution: “Don’t rush to carve that chicken right after you’ve taken it out of the oven. Not only is it too hot to handle, but letting it rest for about 15 minutes will allow the juices time to redistribute,” Sidoti says.
Mistake: “When grilling chicken, finding the right time to flip is essential!” Wolf informs us. “If you flip too early, then you end up ripping off the top layer of the caramelized meat. (This is my favorite part!)” Ours, too, Derek.
Solution: “The best way to prevent this is twofold: First, have a clean grilling surface. When cooking chicken, make sure that the residue from the previous cooking session is cleaned off, which will prevent the chicken from sticking. Secondly, wait for the chicken to naturally release. When you first place the meat on the grill, it will stick from the heat, but after a while, it will slowly create an outside crusted layer. This layer will release from a clean grill grate at the right time. Just wait for it.”
Moving the Chicken Around the Pan
Mistake: Moving the chicken around the pan too often is like pressing the elevator button again and again. Doing either won’t get you results any faster!
Solution: “If you want a nice sear, try not to move the chicken for about 5 to 7 minutes once in the pan. If the chicken is sticking, it’s probably not ready and won’t be golden brown. Also, try to avoid over-flipping. Turn it once and don’t touch again for an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Again, the goal is golden brown color on each side,” Sidoti reminds us.
You Cook the Breast Whole
Mistake: Chicken breasts can be a pretty thick piece of meat. Not only can they be up to two inches thick, but they can also be very thin at the other end. Because of the uneven thickness, the chicken will cook through at different rates, leaving you with overcooked chicken on one end and cooked (or even undercooked) meat on the other end.
Solution: To prevent uneven cooking, you can do one of two things. One option is to butterfly your breast. Carefully place your hand on the top of the breast and apply light pressure. Starting at the thickest part of the breast, take a sharp knife at the middle of the meat and begin to slide the knife down the breast until you’ve cut the fillet in half. You can either leave one edge of the meat connected (at which point if you opened up the sliced meat into one piece it would look like a butterfly), or you can separate the fillet entirely. A second option is to pound the breast meat until it’s entirely even. You can do this with a full breast or even with your sliced meat.
Eat the Meat Right Off the Heat
Mistake: The chicken is the perfect 165ºF, and you’re ready to eat! So you take the chicken off the stove or grill and start chowing down.
Solution: If there’s one thing all chefs can agree on, it’s this: No matter how tasty chicken might look right off the grill or out of the pan or oven, it’s important to let it rest for a bit before you dive in. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, which helps ensure a moister eating experience. Tent the chicken with some foil and let it rest for approximately 15 minutes before eating.
You Store It Anywhere in the Fridge
Mistake: So you’ve cooked your meat perfectly and you have some leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch: great! There’s just one caveat: Don’t toss the leftovers into some Pyrex and cram the container into the fridge wherever you find room.
Solution: Instead, it’s better to store chicken on the lowest shelf in the fridge. This is helpful for two reasons: For starters, cold air sinks—which means the lowest shelf is likely to be cooler than higher shelves (so it’s your best bet in terms of storing meat safely). Additionally, placing leftovers on the bottom shelf minimizes the risk of meaty juices dripping onto other items in your fridge.
You Throw Away the Bones
Mistake: If you opted for bone-in chicken, it seems reasonable to toss those bones in the trash.
Solution: But when you throw away the bones, you’re missing out on an opportunity to repurpose the bones into delicious and nutritious bone broth. Bone broth may improve nutrient absorption, relieve joint and cartilage pain, and even help cure a hangover—so put those chicken bones to good use instead of tossing them.