Learn how to cook chicken breasts on the stovetop with juicy and tender results! This is my go-to method for a quick and healthy dinner paired with your choice of sides.
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Chicken is a classic dinner-time staple, but it can easily become dried out and bland. To avoid that, I’m sharing my stovetop pan sear technique that adds a ton of surface flavor to the chicken breasts while ensuring moist and tender meat. The key to success is heat management.
You’ll need to give the protein enough time for the exterior to brown, then reduce the intensity to gently finish cooking. Once you master this simple technique, the possibilities are endless. Get creative with entree portions, kick up the protein level for salads, or shred up pieces to use in soups and casseroles.
I recommend using boneless skinless chicken breasts that are between 6 to 10 ounces. If the tenders are still attached, they add bulk and make it harder to flatten. I like to pull them off and make baked chicken tenders for the kids. They love it! I find that anything over 8 ounces will end up being too wide after flattening, so you may need to cook in two batches.
Flatten the pieces
Chicken breasts are admittedly a challenge to cook evenly because of their shape. They are thicker on one side, and they thin out and taper on the other. It’s best to flatten the thick end so that the entire piece is level. Place the chicken in a plastic bag, then use a meat mallet or rolling pin to pound. Shoot for about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thickness.
Another option is to slice the chicken in half horizontally lengthwise to create two fillets out of one piece. This technique works nicely if the meat is very thick, 1-inch or bigger.
The seasoning blend
Dried seasonings like salt, black pepper, garlic, powder, and herbs are concentrated in their characteristic flavor compounds. A little goes a long way! Feel free to add what you have available in your spice cabinet. Don’t overthink it. If desired, you can go super simple with just salt and pepper. The process of cooking the chicken will add even more flavor.
In my seasoning blend, I like to incorporate paprika for a deep golden hue and earthy taste. I use sweet but smoked or spicy varieties to add an interesting dimension. Use a small amount, and don’t jack up the heat too high, or you’ll burn the spice. If you want a deeper golden brown color, omit the paprika. Cook the first side on medium-high heat, and then reduce to medium when flipping over.
Prepare the chicken
After flattening the meat, dry both sides with paper towels. This process wicks up any extra moisture on the surface that could cause it to steam instead of brown. We want to kickstart the flavor and color development in the pan.
Evenly sprinkle with the seasoning blend, about a 1/2 teaspoon per side. Don’t let the chicken sit too long. The salt will draw the moisture to the surface. If this happens, blot with a paper towel before adding to the pan.
A cast iron skillet or stainless steel pan helps to create a golden-brown crust. The trick to using them correctly is to preheat the pan and heat the oil before adding the meat. This process creates a better non-stick surface. Since we are using moderate heat, it’s okay also to use a nonstick pan if you feel more comfortable.
The pan sear method
The best cooking oils to use for the stovetop chicken breast are olive oil for a slightly fruity taste or avocado oil because of its high smoke point and neutral flavor. Make sure the oil is nice and hot but not smoky. Once the pieces go in, press them down for better contact with the surface, then do not move. I repeat, let it sear!
The preheated fat and moderate heat drive off any excess moisture from the meat. Then it goes through the Maillard browning reaction. Hundreds of new flavors and golden colors develop for much tastier bites. Keep a close eye on the color change while the chicken develops a crust. This will make it easy to flip over.
Add butter for more flavor
Butter is optional, but it’s such a good idea! After flipping, I add a tablespoon. Let the fat melt, then baste with it. The process coats the surface to prevent the meat from drying out. Throw in some sprigs of rosemary or thyme to infuse fresh herb aromatics into the dish.
When the milk solids brown, they add more color and a nutty flavor that sticks to the meat. It’s delicious! I wait until after the initial sear because I don’t want the water in the butter to interfere with browning or the solids to burn. You can skip this step, but I’m a big fan of the extra flavor it creates.
Checking for doneness
The surface of the chicken breasts should become golden brown and completely opaque throughout. It’s okay if the juices run slightly pink, but the meat should not be raw in the center. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature on the thickest part of the breast. I poke it parallel into the meat for the most accurate result. It should be between 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC).
Rest then slice
Give the chicken about 5 minutes to rest before slicing. This duration allows the flavorful juices to redistribute into the muscle fibers. Resting keeps the meat moist instead of running out onto the cutting board.
Serve this with
- Homemade barbecue sauce
- Mashed potatoes
- Crispy roasted potatoes
- Sauteed green beans
- Steamed rice
- Couscous salad
- Sauteed mushrooms
- Roasted zucchini
In a preheated pan over moderate heat, about 5 to 7 minutes per side. Larger pieces of chicken will take longer to cook. Target an internal temperature of 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC).
Yes! If you have extra time and want to increase the seasoning and juiciness, brine the chicken breasts. Dissolve 2/3 cup kosher salt or 1/2 cup of table salt in 2 quarts of water. Add the chicken and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours. Dry the surface well before cooking.
For more flavor dimensions, add a chicken marinade. The citrus juices, salt, aromatics like garlic and soy sauce helps to increase the savory umami taste. Since there is an acid in the marinade, all you need is 30 minutes or up to 1 hour. The meat may turn mushy in texture if left longer. Pat dry before cooking.
Absolutely! The flavorful fond left in the skillet from the juices and cooked bits is great for making a pan sauce or gravy. Use the drippings from the pan, or add 1 tablespoon of butter if previously omitted, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour to make a roux. Add 1 cup of chicken stock or broth to thin out the sauce, whisk, and cook over medium-high heat until thickened.
How to pan sear on the stovetop
Typically, pan-searing involves high heat browning in a skillet and then transferring it to the oven to gently finish cooking. However, you can use just the stovetop. Flattening the chicken ensures even cooking, then using moderate and consistent heat is critical to preventing the meat from drying out. As long as the cooking oil is preheated, then the chicken will get brown and be juicy.
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Juicy Stove Top Chicken Breasts
- 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, about 6 to 10 ounces each
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoons paprika, sweet or smoked, optional
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning, optional
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, or avocado oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, optional
- Place one of the chicken pieces between two plastic sheets or in a large plastic bag. Flatten to an even thickness, about ½-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining pieces.Alternatively, for pieces 1-inch thick or larger, cut in half horizontally. This should create eight ½-inch thick pieces.
- In a small bowl, combine kosher salt, black pepper, paprika (if using), garlic powder, onion powder, and Italian seasoning (if using).
- Use paper towels to pat dry both sides of the chicken to remove excess surface moisture.
- Evenly sprinkle both sides of the chicken with the seasoning mix, about ¼ to ½ teaspoon per side.
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil, once hot and shimmering but not smoking. Add the chicken breasts presentation side down. Use tongs to press down into the pan for maximum contact. Cook until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- If the chicken is very large after flattening, work in batches cooking two pieces at a time. Clean the pan in between if needed.
- Flip the chicken over and add the butter. Swirl the pan to melt and evenly distribute. Occasionally baste the meat with the butter. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC), about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate to rest for 5 minutes.
- Serve whole pieces of chicken breast, or slice crosswise into strips or dice into cubes.
- Storing: Cool completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Freeze in a resealable plastic bag for up to 3 months.
- Paprika: For a deeper golden brown color, omit the paprika and herbs. Cook the first side over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, then reduce to medium when flipping over to complete cooking.
- Seasonings: Dried Italian seasoning gives various herbs like basil, rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Herbs de Provence, which has lavender, is a tasty swap or any dried herb of your choice.
- Make it Whole30: Omit the butter, or use ghee or clarified butter.
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