A boneless, skinless chicken breast is exceptionally versatile as long as it remains moist and flavorful. Removing the breast bone and skin offers benefits, but their absence also presents challenges when you cook the chicken. Bone-in breasts cook more evenly because the bone conducts heat, and the fatty skin helps keep skin-on breasts moist while they cook. A thoughtful precooking plan can help you grill juicy chicken breasts even when they’re boneless and skinless. Pounding the chicken flat promotes even cooking, while brining and stuffing the breasts can help them maintain moisture.
Pound It Out
A chicken breast varies in thickness, which results in uneven grilling. The thin lower tip of the breast is invariably dry, if not charred, by the time the thick upper portion cooks through. To flatten the breast, place it in a resealable plastic bag and pound it with a meat mallet until the breast is uniformly about 3/4 inch thick.
Ditch the Marinade
Marinades do not improve moisture retention; they merely flavor the surface of meat. Acidic marinades, such as vinaigrettes or citrus juices, actually toughen proteins, making meat drier. A brine is the only precooking application that enables meat to retain more moisture and absorb excess water. Flavor enhancements in a brine work just like the flavorful components of a marinade; this “brinade” is a compromise that enhances the moisture of the whole breast and flavors the surface.
Brine to Boost Moisture
Prepare your brine in a pitcher so it is easy to transfer. Measure 2 cups of water for every chicken breast you are brining. Add 1/4 cup kosher salt or 1/8 cup table salt per breast. Season a brinade with granulated sugar, brown sugar, herbs or spices, if desired. Stir the mixture until the salt dissolves. Place the pounded chicken breasts in a large resealable plastic bag. Add the brine. Force out excess air as you seal the bag. Place it in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
Reduce Salt to Brine All Day
Prepare a less concentrated brine if you need to start the brine in the morning but plan to cook the meat in the evening. Use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt or 1 1/2 teaspoons of table salt per breast to make a weaker 8-hour brine.
Prepare the Grill
Prepare a charcoal, propane or electric grill while the chicken brines. Create a two-zone fire in a charcoal or propane grill. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat, about 375 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the preheated grill to remove lingering char or debris. Apply a coat of vegetable oil to the grate with a basting brush or folded paper towel. Chicken breasts stick to grates easily, which causes tearing and moisture loss. They are less likely to adhere to a clean, smooth, well-oiled grate.
Rinse and Season the Chicken
Remove the chicken breasts from the plastic bag. Discard the liquid and bag. Rinse the chicken under cool running water to remove excess salt. Pat the breasts dry with paper towels. Apply a light coat of olive oil or vegetable oil to the breasts. Add dry or liquid seasonings, such as ground pepper, a spice rub or a vinaigrette, if desired.
Stuff flattened chicken breasts with about 2 tablespoons of a fruit-, vegetable- or cheese-based filling, if desired, which can help keep the meat moist. Roll the breasts around the filling and secure them with cooking twine. Avoid toothpicks, which can tear stuffed chicken breasts.
Place the chicken breasts on the direct-heat side of the grill. Turn the breasts over with tongs when the meat no longer sticks to the grate, after about 3 to 6 minutes. Thoroughly cooked chicken should not stick to a hot, oiled grill, but it can happen. Pull the chicken free if it appears to be charring but is still stuck to the metal. Grill the reverse sides about 2 to 4 minutes.
Test and Rest Before Serving
Remove the chicken from the grill when its internal temperature reaches 165 F, according to a meat thermometer. Transfer the chicken to the indirect-heat side of a charcoal or propane grill, or reduce the heat on an electric grill, if the surface of the chicken is sufficiently brown but the internal temperature is below 165 F. Tent the chicken breasts with foil. Rest them until their internal temperatures reach 120 F, after about 10 minutes. Resting meat before cutting or serving it allows it to retain its juices more effectively.
Grilling Moist Pheasant
Wild game birds are suitable for similar techniques, with a bit of adjustment. Pheasant breasts, for instance, are leaner and drier than chicken breasts, so they require a slightly different grilling environment. Pound and brine pheasant breasts as you would prepare chicken breasts. But cook them with medium heat — 325 to 375 F — on the indirect-heat side of the grill. Baste the pheasant breasts occasionally with a seasoned liquid such as a vinaigrette to keep them moist. Grill pheasant breasts until their internal temperature reaches 165 F, which takes about 20 minutes. Cover and rest them.
References and ResourcesU.S. Department of Agriculture: Chicken From Farm to Table
Serious Eats: How to Grill Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
Serious Eats: The Truth About Brining Turkey
Fine Cooking: Why Brining Keeps Meat Moist
Serious Eats: The Importance of Resting Meat
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Game from Farm to Table