How To Cook Amazing Chicken

Simple tips for handling, prepping, and cooking a dinnertime favorite.

Chicken with peppers in tomato sauce

Photo by Meredith

What’s not to love about chicken? It’s versatile, inexpensive, and a great source of protein. Read on for quick tips and top recipes.

Buying, Storing, and Freezing

  • At the grocery store, pick up your raw chicken last, just before you head to the check-out line. And have the checker wrap the chicken in a plastic bag in case the package leaks.
  • A whole cooked chicken can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 days; cut-up cooked chicken can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 days.
  • Never leave raw or frozen chicken at room temperature, which encourages the growth of bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria. Cooked chicken should not be left at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Freeze any chicken that won’t be used right away. You can freeze it in its store packaging, but if you plan on storing it for longer than two months, unwrap the chicken and rewrap it in heavy duty aluminum foil and a plastic freezer bag. Chicken can be frozen as long as one year without sacrificing quality.

Thawing Chicken

Thaw frozen chicken slowly and safely. It will take anywhere from 24 hours to two days to thaw a whole chicken in the refrigerator, and about 2 to 9 hours for cut-up chicken parts (less for boneless pieces). You can thaw chicken more quickly in a cold water bath or by using the defrost cycle of the microwave. But never thaw frozen chicken by leaving it out at room temperature.

Cleaning and Prepping Chicken

Rinse chicken with cold water, inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels before preparing. To prevent cross-contamination, thoroughly clean all surfaces, utensils, cutting boards, knives, and hands with hot soapy water after handling raw poultry. Keep a separate cutting board specifically for working with chicken.

Cutting up your chicken? Here’s how:

By the way, save those bones and you can make some delicious chicken stock.

Marinating Chicken

Marinating or brining? Always let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator, even for a short soak of 30 minutes. And never baste the cooked chicken with the same marinade that’s touched raw chicken: either make extra marinade and set aside a portion just for basting, or boil it for two to three minutes, enough time to kill any bacteria. See our collection of marinade recipes.

Cooking Chicken

There are many ways to cook your chicken. You can bake or roast chicken, fry or sauté it, or BBQ or grill it. Check out all of our Chicken Recipes.

Baking and Roasting Chicken

What’s the difference between baking and roasting chicken? You roast a whole chicken, and you bake chicken Parmesan, right? Well, yes; but these days, the difference is mostly a question of semantics. Initially, “to roast” meant to cook over an open flame. You roasted a whole chicken on a spit. Today, though, you typically roast that whole chicken in the oven, where you do your baking, too. Both methods use dry heat to cook the insides and crisp up the outsides.

But if you want to get technical, there’s this. When you roast a chicken or a butternut squash or rack of lamb, you’re roasting something that is essentially whole. It has that complete structure, that one-ness about it. On the other hand, when you bake bread or a chicken casserole, you’re cooking a collection of distinct ingredients into a uniform whole; through baking, they become one. Here are some top-rated Chicken Casserole Recipes to help you ponder the distinction.

There are other quasi-defining features of roasting versus baking. Did you cover the pan? You might be baking. Roasts, as they did back in the days when meat hovered over open flames, are often cooked without covering. Did you baste? You’re probably roasting.

See our collection of Baked and Roasted Chicken Recipes.

Baked Chicken_Or Is That Roasted Chicken

Photo by Meredith

How do I roast a whole chicken?
For best results, set the bird on a roasting rack over a roasting pan. The chicken will cook more evenly and won’t be sitting in its own drippings, which will give you crispier skin. For easier cleanup, line the pan with aluminum foil. For a super-juicy roast chicken that cooks quicker, you can spatchcock or butterfly your whole chicken before roasting — here’s how you spatchcock it. For more tips, check out how to roast chicken.

How do I know when the chicken is done cooking?
The only way to tell if chicken is cooked properly is to use a meat thermometer — seeing if the juices run clear is not a reliable indicator of doneness. To test the internal temperature of a whole chicken, insert the thermometer into the thigh, taking care not to touch the bone. Chicken should reach 165 degrees F (75 degrees C).

The meat will continue to cook once removed from the heat. So if the temperature is a few degrees below the target — keep the thermometer in place for a moment; the temperature might climb to a safe heat.

How can I prevent my chicken from being dry?
Dry and/or tough chicken is most often caused by overcooking. Recipes often give cooking times, but these are really guidelines.

A few things can affect cooking time. For example, thin pieces of meat will cook more quickly than thick. Heat settings can vary from stove to stove. And even the size and shape of the pan can affect the cooking time. The best way to avoid overcooking is to check your chicken regularly as it cooks.

Roast Chicken

Photo by Meredith

Braising Chicken

Braising makes chicken wonderfully tender and moist, and delivers a sauce with flavors that build and build, slowly concentrating as the dish simmers. One key to a perfect braise is to start with a good sear on the chicken skin; don’t crowd the pan or cheat by removing the chicken before it’s developed a beautiful dark color. The second key is to loosen up the flavorful brown bits on the bottom of the pan by deglazing with wine or stock, beer, cider, or even water. You’ve built the ground floor of your sauce! Then it’s time for a nice slow simmer. Here are a few favorite braised chicken recipes:

Braised Chicken with Carrots

Photo by Meredith

Frying Chicken

Frying chicken is a classic American preparation. Doing it right requires a certain touch. The oil can’t be too hot, it can’t be too cool. The choice of oil also matters. And there are so many “secret recipes” for perfect fried chicken. We break it all down for you in how to fry chicken.

See our collection of Fried Chicken Recipes.

Fried Chicken in white pan with fork on napkin

Photo by Meredith

BBQ’ing and Grilling Chicken

Grilling isn’t just for summer anymore. It’s a year-round tradition.

Chef John has the perfect method for making barbecue chicken on the grill. His technique produces beautiful grill marks without blackened burned parts. The key is to begin skin-side down, getting the nice grill marks first. Then you’ll flip the chicken and paint on the sauce. Then just close the lid and roast it, essentiallyGet the recipe for Chef John’s Barbecue Chicken.

Here’s a tip for grilling boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grill: pound them out to a uniform thickness so they cook evenly. Why? On a hot grill, boneless, skinless chicken breasts cook fast. And you want the entire chicken breast to be done at the same time. If you don’t pound them out, you run the risk of thin parts being dry and overcooked while thicker parts are underdone.

For the lowdown on direct and indirect heat, preheating the grill, useful grilling tools, and more, explore our tips for grilling. And to find out cooking times for different cuts of chicken, check out cooking times for grilled chicken; it’s broken down by type of heat and strength of heat.

See our collection of BBQ’d and Grilled Chicken Recipes.

Stir-Frying Chicken

Stir-frying is like sautéing, with a few key differences. Stir-frying is typically performed at very high temperatures, traditionally in a wok — a cooking vessel with long, curved edges — and often uses flavorful peanut oil, which has a high smoke point, instead of olive oil or butter. You can certainly use a regular skillet for stir-frying.

With stir-frying, preparation pays off. Because the cooking time is mere minutes, ingredients should be sliced in advance into small, uniform pieces and lined up beside the hot wok or skillet. Then drop ingredients into the sizzling oil for a quick 1-2-3 finish.

Check out our collection of Stir-Fried Chicken Recipes.

Stir Fried Chicken and Broccoli

Photo by Meredith

Handling Leftover Chicken

Cooked chicken should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Package it up in an air-tight container and store it in the fridge for up to two days.

Look here for ideas on how to use your leftover chicken, including top-rated recipes for enchiladas, soups, stews, pizza, salads, and more.

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