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Can You Pan-Fry Chicken Without Oil?

While you can cook chicken in a frying pan with no oil, there’s a better way to do it that won’t dry it out.

High in protein and low in fat, chicken makes for a delicious—and nutritious—brunch, lunch, or supper at any time of year.

Yet, as lean as chicken breasts, tenderloins, and thighs are, it’s all too easy to add calories to them if you drown them in butter or oil as you fry them in your pan.

This makes self-taught home cooks like you and me ask ourselves the question, “Can you pan-fry chicken without oil?” Which is why, in this article, I’m going to tell you all that you need to know on the topic.

Though you could pan-fry chicken without oil, doing so would cause it to dry it out. Instead, consider greasing your pan with a minimal amount of oil by rubbing it onto the bottom and sides with the help of a paper towel.

After all, crusty chicken that’s hard to cut through is no fun, so you need a bit of oil to seal the moisture in.

This technique applies to non-stick pans, seasoned carbon steel or cast iron skillets, as well as stainless steel cookware.

You don’t need much more than 1 tablespoon of cooking oil to do this. If, for one reason or another, you want to be even more economical than that, dab the paper towel with oil, then spread it onto your pan.

Seasoning a stainless steel frying pan
Greasing my stainless steel skillet with rice bran oil

It’s also important to use medium heat, which yields crispy, flavorful, and evenly cooked pan-fried chicken, especially on larger cuts. You want your chicken well-browned, as browning and caramelization are what makes meat smell good and taste savory.

Frying chicken over excessively high heat will scorch it on the outside by the team it’s fully cooked on the inside. And, really, who wants to eat chicken that not only tastes acrid but can also make them sick?

The most accurate way to tell if your chicken is tone is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Stick the probe into the center of the meat, wait for 2-3 seconds to get a reading, and, when it measures 165 °F (73.9 °C), you know for sure that it’s done.

That temperature, for readers coming across it for the first time, is the safe minimum internal temperature for all poultry products, whole, cut, or ground, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What’s a Good Oil for Frying Chicken?

Pan-frying is a cooking method that requires a relatively high amount of heat, and not all cooking oils are suitable for high-heat cooking.

Every cooking oil has a smoke point, the temperature at which it stops to glisten and shimmer, and starts to burn and emit a steady stream of bluish smoke. When the oil in your pan gets overheated, its flavor will turn acrid and harmful compounds will form inside it.

For pan-frying chicken, you’re looking for a flavor-neutral cooking oil with a high smoke point. That way, you’re letting the aromas and flavors of the bird stand out, and you’re confident that the oil in your pan won’t smoke.

When in doubt, reach for avocado oil or rice bran oil, which have smoke points of 520°F (270°C) and 490°F (250°F), respectively. Avocado oil has a neutral, barely noticeable nutty flavor; rice bran oil imparts your chicken with a slightly stronger, caramel-popcorn flavor.

Is It Okay to Pan-Fry Without Oil?

Many of us falsely think it’s okay to fry foods without any grease on a non-stick or seasoned cooking surface.

But the fact of the matter is that, when not greased, your frying pan can reach high temperatures on the bottom or sides that can damage non-stick coatings and, in extreme cases, flake off cast-iron seasonings.

Think I’m making this stuff up? No wonder, as most of the cooking advice on the Internet will instruct you to do the opposite.

Read through the owner’s manual of your non-stick pan or cast iron skillet, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, most food bloggers and YouTubers haven’t done so, and there’s out there giving you advice that shortens the useful life of your cookware.

“It’s a good idea to rub about a teaspoon of oil or butter on a cold pan each time you use it,” Nordic Ware Director of R&D Reed Winter tells The New York Times, “because despite the name non-stick, most of the cookware needs some kind of lubricant.”

For stainless steel cooking, using cooking oil or butter is almost always a requirement. The bare-steel cooking surface reacts to the proteins in the chicken, forming strong bonds with it and causing it to stick. Fat acts as a natural barrier between your food and the cooking surface, which prevents that from happening.

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Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.