Good bye rubbery chicken breasts--Hello paillards
By Sandra A. Gutierrez
Boneless, skinless, chicken breasts are a busy cook’s best friends. Not only do they lend themselves to myriad preparations, they also cook in a matter of minutes. So why is it that often times many cooks turn these delectable cuts into chewy, rubbery and non-edible concoctions?
The answer is so obvious that it may appear overly simplistic; however sometimes the most apparent things prove to be the hardest to understand. The secret to moist, juicy, chicken breasts is all in the timing. That is, the shorter the cooking time, the more delectable and tender the chicken breasts will be. Chicken breasts are lean; remove their skins and you’ve made them even leaner. Cooking them quickly becomes even more important since they have been rid of the protective layer that seals juices in and naturally bastes them as they cook. Furthermore, the bones actually help the chicken retain moisture so by eliminating them you’ve made the breasts even more susceptible to drying out.
The first cooking tip for cooking skinless, boneless chicken breasts is to prepare them well before exposing them to any heat source. Chicken breasts need to be divided into two lobes. These lobes are generally uneven in thickness and must therefore be evened out. To do this, begin by removing the tenderloin attached to the bottom end of each breast. It is attached to a small filament and is easily pulled away from the breast meat. For tips on what to do with the tenderloins keep on reading.
The second step is to transform the chicken breasts into "paillards". You have probably encountered this French cooking term on the menus of fancy restaurants; put into simple terms, "paillard" means cutlet. Do not let the fancy cooking terms intimidate you; preparing paillards is simple and very quick. Once you learn how to make your own chicken paillards, you will be able to prepare huge batches of them and freeze them, uncooked and portioned out, for up to three months. Easy to thaw and quick to cook, paillards are a great solution for those times when time is of the essence and energy is low. Talk about delicious, nutritious, and healthy fast food!
To make a paillard, place each chicken breast half—tenderloin removed—between two sheets of plastic wrap. Using a heavy meat pounder, mallet—a heavy skillet also works well—pound the chicken gently, until it is about a quarter of an inch thick. Whenever you pound meat, or chicken, always make sure to start the pounding from the center and work your way out. As you do this, you will notice that the meat yields with ease and that a more evenly shaped cutlet is obtained. You now have a perfectly shaped paillard ready to be cooked.
Now that your chicken breasts have been totally transformed into paillards, you can introduce the element of high heat. The trick is to cook them at very high heat, for very short periods of time. The preferred cooking methods to cook paillards are grilling, sautéing or pan-frying. All three methods are utilized when food needs to be cooked quickly. Stir-frying, for instance is a variation of sautéing, where the food is cooked over direct heat and only for a short period of time.
So we get back to the question as to why many cooks transform chicken breasts into rubbery objects. To begin with when the chicken breasts are not evened out, it takes much longer to cook them; by the time the thickest part is cooked, the thinnest area of the breast has turned into rubber. Secondly, the cooking methods normally selected by most harried and hurried cooks are poaching, baking, roasting and –alas—microwaving.
All four methods are indeed inadequate when it comes to cooking boneless chicken breasts since, by definition, they require longer cooking periods. Microwaving is the exception because it cooks in minutes but dehydrates food, causing the chicken to lose its juices and thus rendering them dry. All four of these cooking methods—perfectly suited for darker meats and for bone-in cuts—will undoubtedly yield rubbery, boneless and skinless, chicken breasts.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Most prepared, pre-seasoned chicken breasts available in the freezer section of most grocery stores are in effect chicken cutlets. Look carefully and you’ll notice the tenderloins are missing and that the breasts have been pounded thinly. Now check the ingredient lists and see what is not missing—the high sodium content, the preservatives and unpronounceable ingredients. In fact, most have been injected with salty brines so that when neophyte cooks prepare them—with the wrong cooking techniques, of course—they won’t toughen up; great in theory but alas, not in practice. You decide whether the effort to cook from scratch is worth it or not.
On to those delicious chicken tenderloins that you lovingly removed from the breasts before transforming them into paillards: leftover chicken tenderloins are wonderful, fast food material. They can be sliced and quickly stir-fried with vegetables and spices. They are ideal for making Satays by pounding them thinly into strips and then skewering, grilling, and serving with spicy peanut sauces.
Of course, tenderloins can also be dredged in flour, dipped into beaten eggs and coated with bread crumbs in order to produce delectable chicken fingers that can be lightly sautéed or baked until golden. Serve these alongside homemade, baked fries and expose your children to real comfort food that is really healthy, delicious and preservative-free. By training their palates to quality foods you will be creating the next generation of gourmands.
You, my friends, are on your way to quicker and healthier cooking for yourselves and your families. Invest on a good mallet, purchase some heavy duty plastic wrap, buy that family-pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale at your warehouse outlet and get pounding. What’s for dinner? Well, paillards, or course. Ooh-la-la, now you’re cooking.
Copyright © Sandra A. Gutierrez, 2007; All Rights Reserved.
Paillards of Chicken with Mustard Sauce
4 chicken paillards
Salt and pepper
2 tsp. Olive oil
1 tsp. Thyme
¼ cup lemon juice
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Season the chicken paillards on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken paillards and sauté them on the first side for 2-3 minutes or until browned. Flip the chicken over and cook on the other side for 3-4 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a separate serving platter; set aside. Add the thyme to the pan and cook for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the lemon juice and cook, over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the mustard and stir well with a wooden spoon; cook sauce for 2 minutes. Return paillards (and all juices collected in the bottom of the plate) to the sauté pan, coat with sauce and heat through for 20 seconds; place paillards on serving platter and drizzle over chicken: serve immediately. This recipe yields 4 servings.
Copyright© Sandra A. Gutierrez, 2007; All Rights Reserved.