This dish is the single most convincing argument for brining I can put forth. The difference between a chicken breast that’s been brined and pan-seared and one that’s just been pan-seared is like night and day. The brine imparts moisture and flavor into what can be an uninspiring piece of meat. Although a hungry person can easily eat an entire breast, if you’re preparing hearty sides, you may want to plan on a half breast per person.
Leaving the skin on the breast is crucial, too. Not only is it delicious, it also provides the meat with some protection from drying out. Skin-on breasts are usually sold on the bone, which needs to be removed in order to sear the breast evenly. It is easy to do: Lay the breast, skin side up, on a cutting board and look for the layer of bone under the meat. Insert a small, sharp knife between the bone and the meat and, running the knife along the edge of the bone, slice off the meat. Flip the now boneless breast over and remove the loose flap of meat, aka the tender, and reserve for another use. (The tender won’t cook evenly with the rest of the meat, and because of its small size, it gets overseasoned in the brining process.)
This is a perfect headache-free main when you’re cooking for friends; once the meat is brined, it cooks up quickly, leaving you time to relax and receive compliments from your friends about how they’ve never tasted a chicken breast so juicy.
- Yield: 6 to 8 Servings
- 4 cups water
- ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons salt
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 1½ pounds ice, or 3 cups cold water (see weighing ice for wet brines)
- 4 boneless skin-on chicken breasts (see recipe introduction)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- In a small saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add ½ cup of the salt and the sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Add the ice to cool the brine to room temperature. Put the chicken breasts in a resealable plastic bag, pour the brine over them, and seal closed. Place the bag in a container that allows the meat to be fully submerged in the liquid, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and no more than 1½ hours (or the meat will be too salty).
- Remove the chicken from the brine, discard the brine, and dry the chicken very well on a kitchen towel. Allow to come to room temperature, about 1 hour. Season each breast on both sides with ½ teaspoon of the remaining salt and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper.
- Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Heat a black steel pan over high heat until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and heat until the surface is rippling but not smoking. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, add 2 chicken breasts, skin side down. Weight them down with a heavy heatproof plate to create an even sear across the surface of the skin and cook for 2 to 2½ minutes, until crisp and golden brown. Transfer the breasts to a plate, then rinse the pan and dry it well. Repeat the process with 1 tablespoon of the oil and the remaining 2 breasts. Rinse and dry the pan well. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and 2 of the seared breasts, skin side up, to the pan.
- Add 1½ tablespoons of the butter to the pan. Once the butter has melted, repeatedly spoon it over the chicken to baste the meat. Place the 2 basted chicken breasts, with all of their juices and butter, aside on a clean plate. Add the other 2 chicken breasts to the hot pan, skin side up, and baste using the remaining 1½ tablespoons butter. Place the breasts, with all of their juices and butter, on the plate.
- Carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the oven. Place all of the chicken breasts on the baking sheet and pour the juices and butter over the meat. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast until the thickest part of the breasts reaches 140°F, 6 to 9 minutes.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven, transfer the breasts to a platter, and pour any juices over the meat. Loosely tent the chicken with aluminum foil, and let rest for 4 to 5 minutes. Slice each breast on the bias (across the grain, with your knife at a 45-degree angle) into 7 or 8 slices.
- To serve with Asparagus with Black Garlic Hollandaise as shown (see photo), make the hollandaise and cook the asparagus while the chicken is coming to room temperature after brining. Remove the asparagus from the ice water and pat it dry on a kitchen towel; leave the blanching water on the stove.
- While the cooked chicken is resting, bring the asparagus blanching water back to a simmer and quickly reheat the stalks in it, about 30 seconds. Check the consistency of the hollandaise; if it has thickened up too much, whisk the hollandaise in a bowl set over the warm blanching water to gently warm and loosen the sauce slightly or whisk in about 1 teaspoon warm water. Lay 5 or 6 stalks of asparagus on each serving plate and spoon about 2 tablespoons of hollandaise over the asparagus.
- Arrange the chicken slices alongside the asparagus, dividing them evenly, and tuck small tufts of herb salad in the back.