I Ate Chicken for a Whole Year and Wrote a Cookbook All About It. Here Are 10 (Sometimes Surprising!) Things I Learned.
I remember the day the idea for a chicken cookbook came up in conversation with my editor. I reeled a bit. That’s it? Just chicken dinners? Is that what people still really want?
Yes, it’s what they want. Americans buy 53 pounds of chicken per person per year. Chicken is among the most popular food searches across the entire internet. And yet it’s the protein we love to complain about the most: Boring, bland, and dry are adjectives frequently attached to chicken.
So, yeah, an easygoing but reliable book of just chicken dinners — vibrant, modern, delicious chicken dinners — is exactly what you want. And as it turns out, exactly what I wanted to write too.
Despite my confidence that I had the know-how and recipes to write what became Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinners: 50 Winning Ways to Cook It Up!, the truth is that you always learn a lot while writing a cookbook. But I didn’t realize that I’d learn quite as much as I did on this one. Here are the 10 most important things I learned while writing an entire cookbook about chicken — I think that highlighting them may help you cook chicken better too.
1. You can eat just chicken for a year and not get bored.
Can you guess the first thing my kids said when I announced that I was writing a cookbook dedicated to chicken dinners? “We have to eat chicken every night for a year?” (If you thought they may have said, “Congratulations!” I’m going to assume you don’t have tweens or teens.)
I have to be honest: I wondered the same thing. Everyone in my family mentally prepared to get bored of chicken; it seemed inevitable. But to our great surprise, we did not tire of eating chicken. It was actually kind of amazing. And for me, it was a big lesson in why chicken is popular in the first place: It’s an incredibly friendly protein that can be cooked in, literally, a million ways. You just need to know how. Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinners: 50 Winning Ways to Cook It Up! helps with that.
2. “Air-Chilled” is the most important label on any package of chicken.
Food labels are exhausting, and especially the ones for chicken. While it can be tricky to determine the difference between labels like organic, antibiotic-free, all-natural, hormone-free, and vegetarian-fed, there’s one label that doesn’t require you to read between the lines: air-chilled.
What does air-chilled mean? When chicken is initially processed, it is either chilled in cold water or hung in an open room while cold, purified air circulates. The water-chill method for bringing the temperature of the meat down to the required minimum can cause the meat to retain as much as 14 percent water, and sometimes the water is chlorinated (totally safe, but good to know). This water retention should be noted on the label, and rightly so since it negatively impacts taste and texture. Plus, it increases the weight of the meat, which also impacts price.
Air-chilled birds, on the other hand, do not retain any excess moisture and the process also reduces the risk of bacterial contamination.
Read more: What’s the Deal with Air-Chilled Chicken?
3. Perfect chicken comes through perfect doneness — and you can’t judge that accurately by cook time or instinct. You need a thermometer.
Saying it again, especially for the well-seasoned, confident cooks in the back: You cannot consistently cook perfect chicken by cook time or instinct, no matter how great the recipe or how well-seasoned a cook you are. At the end of the day, even simple chicken — cooked with nothing more than butter, salt, and pepper — can be juicy, tender, and delicious when cooked properly, which is to say to the correct internal temperature.
So what is the correct internal temperature? According to the USDA, chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165°F (75°C), although these guidelines are considered outdated by many food professionals. Newer guidelines say that chicken breasts can be more like 140°F to 145°F (60°C to 62°C) before resting, and that thighs, bone-in pieces, and whole birds can be 155°F to 160°F (68°C to 70°C) before resting. These are the guidelines I follow.
Decide what feels safe to you. It may depend on how comfortable you are with medium-doneness, who you’re feeding, and, most importantly, the quality of the birds you’re cooking (mass-processed, water-chilled birds have a higher likelihood of bacterial contamination). But no matter what temperature you choose, use a probe thermometer to know for sure.
Without a thermometer to help you determine the internal temperature of your meat, you’ll always need to err on the side of safety and, when playing a guessing game, it’s really easy to overcook chicken, with unfortunate results. Being able to cook chicken just up to that safe place, while keeping it juicy and tender, makes all the difference and is worth every dime you’ll pay for a meat thermometer.
From the USDA: Cooking Meat? Check the New Recommended Temperatures.
4. Dry brining is worth the time if you have it (but wet brining is not).
Someone could write an entire book on the topic of brining alone. I didn’t, but I did learn about what works — and doesn’t work — to make mouthwatering chicken. Surprisingly, not all of it aligned with common wisdom, so let’s run through the basics.
Wet brining is the act of soaking your bird in a salt-water solution to yield firmer, juicier chicken. But it doesn’t always work out that way (plus, it’s not particularly convenient). Leaving the meat in a wet brine too long can cause your chicken to get overly salty and even rob it of flavor (the chicken will soak up water as well as salt). The brine can also inhibit chicken skin from crisping because it will saturate the skin with water.
Dry brining, on the other hand, is far less cumbersome and results in juicier, more tender meat and crispier skin. What is dry brining? Easy: Instead of soaking your bird in salt water, you simply rub chicken all over with salt and, if you want, other herbs and aromatics like lemon zest. The end result is similar to a wet-brined chicken, but there is an important subtle difference: Where a wet brine will plump the meat but make it harder for the skin to crisp, a dry brine does the opposite. The salt rub helps the skin crisp and the chicken retain its natural juiciness without plumping the meat with water. It’s this difference, combined with the ease of a dry brine, that makes it my exclusive go-to for home cooking.
5. Marinating chicken overnight is overrated, and sometimes just wrong.
Like brining, there are many opinions (and lots of conflicting scientific claims) about marinating — especially when it comes to using marinades with acids like vinegar, lemon, and other citrus juices. Also like brining, I’m going to spare you too many details. But here’s what I can tell you for sure.
Highly acidic marinades can cause chicken — especially boneless, skinless chicken — to get mealy if it sits too long. And by too long I mean 24 hours, which is a common recommendation.
Having learned the hard way, I’ve come to avoid highly acidic marinades almost completely for long soaks. Instead, I either keep the acidity of my marinades low or I skip the acid all together, only using a combination of oil, fresh herbs, dried spices, aromatics, and fun stuff (like jam, Sriracha, soy sauce, honey, or mustard). I add a big hit of acid to some reserved marinade for basting while cooking.
On the other hand, when I want to use a highly acidic marinade — like for my super-lemony Greek-style chicken — I limit the amount of time that my chicken sits. Boneless, skinless cuts can soak for as little as 20 to 60 minutes and still have a ton of flavor!
Read more: What Happens When Meat Marinates Too Long
6. Every roasted chicken should be a spatchcocked chicken.
Although I’m never one to shy away from using the word spatchcock, I should let you know that it is the same thing as a butterflied bird: the result of removing the backbone from a whole chicken so that it can be flattened.
Butterflying a chicken is a fantastic (and easier than you think!) technique, especially for busy home cooks. I honestly don’t know why it isn’t more popular. Doing it helps a whole chicken cook faster, more evenly, and yields a bird with juicer meat and crisper skin all over.
There’s just one important thing to consider: When you plan to cook a butterflied chicken, stick with a bird that’s three to four pounds. One that is much heavier will require a longer cooking time that mitigates the virtues of this technique.
7. While we’re at it, you should also be butterflying all those boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
One of the tough things about cooking boneless, skinless chicken breasts — even if you use a probe thermometer — is that they aren’t an even thickness. To top it off, the thickness differential is too great to pound them to an even thickness. It can feel like a no-win situation, but it’s not!
The answer is butterflying your boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which yields thin-cut cutlets that cook more evenly and faster too. To do this, you split the breast in half horizontally — but not all the way through! — and open it like a book to make one much larger or two separate thinner cutlets. Doing this approximately evens out the thickness of a chicken breast, but if you really want to ensure even thickness throughout, you should pound the cutlet before seasoning and cooking.
And pro tip: If you’re having a hard time making a clean, smooth cut while butterflying your chicken breasts, put them in the freezer for about 30 minutes. This will help firm up the meat and give you more control.
8. Chicken thighs should be your default cut.
I get why everyone reaches for boneless, skinless chicken breasts — the quick-cooking cut makes the perfect base for just about any flavor addition — but you should be grabbing boneless, skinless thigh meat for juicy deliciousness that comes with the same convenience.
The two cuts act much the same, but thighs have tons more flavor, thanks to a higher fat content. That also makes thighs easier to cook without drying out. Unless I’m in a rush, whenever a recipe calls for boneless, skinless chicken breast, I consider swapping in boneless, skinless thighs. Period.
9. Frying chicken at home is easier than you think.
I knew that I couldn’t write an entire cookbook about chicken without including fried chicken, but I admit that I was intimidated. I rarely fry at home! But now that I’ve started, I can’t stop; it’s much easier than I expected. And satisfying, too, because the truth is that even simple fried chicken — dipped for a minute in buttermilk and coated with nothing more than salt-and-pepper-seasoned flour — can be utterly delicious. The key isn’t a brine, spice blend, or special coating, but rather cooking your chicken at the right temperature.
Even a delicious fried chicken recipe can turn into a soggy mess if you fry your chicken at too low a temperature or allow the temperature to fluctuate too much during the frying process. So it’s critical to make sure that your canola oil (or shortening!) gets to at least 360°F (180°C) before you start — because the temperature will drop as soon as you add chicken to the pot — and to keep a watchful eye on maintaining an oil temperature of around 350°F (180°C) the entire time you’re frying.
You know what all this means, right? A frying thermometer is a key investment. Bonus: They typically double as candy thermometers, too!
10. Don’t wait for chicken leftovers, make chicken leftovers.
One of the many reasons we all love chicken is that the leftovers are easy to stretch into new fast, tasty meals without much effort.
While testing recipes for Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner: 50 Winning Ways to Use It Up!, I had a tremendous amount of leftover chicken that I was mindlessly using to throw together quick dinners on nights when I was too tired to cook any more “proper” meals. These casual dinners quickly became favorites. So much so that I included a chapter called “Using and Creating Leftovers.”
Now that I’m not cooking pounds (and pounds!) of chicken every day, I intentionally create chicken “leftovers” by poaching chicken so that I still always have juicy, pre-cooked meat in my fridge for when I need to throw together 10-Minute Tostadas or an easy-prep (Leftover) Chicken Pot Pie. Because with simply cooked pulled, chopped, or sliced poached chicken waiting in the fridge, a quick, delicious meal can always be just minutes away.
Stacie Billis is a cookbook writer, food editor, and podcaster. She shares practical cooking advice for busy cooks on her social media as well as the weekly podcast she hosts with Kitchn editor Meghan Splawn — Didn’t I Just Feed You.
Her first book, Make It Easy: 120 Mix-and-Match Recipes to Cook From Scratch with Smart Store-Bought Shortcuts When You Need Them, is a real-life manual of just-healthy-enough family eating for busy parents and their kids — yes, even the picky ones. Stacie currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and two boys who are growing up way too fast, probably because of what she feeds them.