Whether you’re just getting started in cooking or you consider yourself a seasoned home cook, you probably know that, more often than not, your choice of cookware can make or break a dish.
That’s especially true when it comes to frying chicken. A lean meat, chicken packs plenty of protein and not that much fat, turning it into a great addition to a well-rounded diet but also a bit of a challenge to cook.
Suppose that you have a frying pan and a sauté pan resting in your cabinets. When frying chicken on the stove, which one should you reach for?
You can fry chicken in a frying pan and a sauté pan. Slope-sided frying pans make it easier to flip the breasts or fillets with a spatula and are a good choice when cooking with little oil. Straight-sided sauté pans give you a greater surface and contain splatter when frying with more oil.
Frying pans are great for most recipes, but they tend to fall short of expectations when braising (finishing the chicken off in stock, beer, or white wine as soon as it’s browned) and shallow-frying battered chicken or chicken schnitzels. And that’s precisely where sauté pans excel.
Cooking Chicken in a Frying Pan
When cooking chicken, most home cooks will rightfully reach for their trusty frying pans. Non-stick pans offer a no-frills cooking experience, but thick-bottomed carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel skillets yield superior browning—and browning brings aroma and flavor.
Simply drizzle enough cooking oil to lightly coat the bottom of your pan, preheat over medium heat for a few minutes or so, and, as soon as the oil starts to ripple in your pan, add the chicken and let it cook uninterrupted on one side.
Though you could pan-fry chicken with any store-bought cooking oil, I’ve come to the conclusion that rice bran oil is best for high-heat cooking, as it stays stable at high heat, and butter is best for low to medium-heat cooking (butter burns quickly when overheated, so gentle heat is a must).
Once a crispy crust has formed on the one side of your chicken and its color has gotten golden brown, flip it over with your spatula, allowing it to cook peacefully on the other side.
Many of us make the mistake of agitating the chicken by poking, moving, and flipping it over throughout the whole time. While that’s a great way to release stress or stay busy, I know, it’s kind of counterproductive. The secret to great pan-fried chicken is simple: let it brown.
How do you tell that your pan-fried chicken is done?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poultry is safe to eat once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 °F (73.9 °C). To measure it, use an instant-read thermometer, inserting the probe into the center of the meat and waiting for 2-3 seconds to get an accurate reading.
Cooking Chicken in a Sauté Pan
A sauté pan is as shallow as a frying pan but has straight sides and always comes with a lid. As such, it gives you a greater surface to simmer sauces or fry in an abundance of cooking oil without having to worry about your pan splattering all over your stove and countertops.
Keeping splatter to a minimum is especially important when deglazing your pan to make pan sauce, something you’d probably end up doing if you cook with stainless steel. Adding liquid to a hot pan can be pretty messy, and the tall, straight sides of a sauté pan are really helpful in helping you to keep that mess within your cooking vessel.
Use a sauté pan for recipes that start by browning the chicken on the stove to give it a crispy, golden-brown, and highly-flavorful crust, but continue by adding a cooking liquid—such as chicken stock, beer, white wine, or water and vinegar—and simmering it down until it thickens.
Basically, a good way to think of a sauté pan is as “the shallow cousin,” in the best way possible, of the braiser or Dutch oven. When used correctly, it yields similar results but, since the sides are not too tall, it makes it easier for you to stir and flip the chicken.
As my editorial team demonstrated to you in “Do You Simmer With the Lid On or Off to Thicken,” the lid comes in handy only when you’re looking to simmer the sauce without reducing it down. So, most of the time, you probably won’t cover your sauté pan when frying the chicken in it.
Covering the pan can also tenderize the chicken and prevent it from becoming dry. Faith Durant at The Kitchn has written extensively on the matter, and I recommend that you check her technique out.
When adding cheese, cream, or milk to your sauce, remember to tone down the heat to low (or medium at most). Dairy products will curdle over high heat, ruining your dish with an undesired consistency that’s much like Chinese egg drop soup.
What Makes a Pan “Good?”
The best pans, whether we’re talking frying pans or sauté pans, have a thick and heavy bottom that heats evenly, stays hot even when adding fridge- or room-temperature items to the pan, and radiates heat well enough to promote browning.
Plastic handles are comfortable, but since they melt when continuously exposed to high heat, they make your pan less oven-friendly. Wooden handles look good, but they can’t go in the oven or the dishwasher.
That being said, a good pan has metal handles, ideally riveted and not bolted-on, that can easily go from stovetop to oven.
Cooking shows and food bloggers will tell you to get non-stick, but I can’t entirely agree with their advice. Non-stick cookware has its advantages, but the coating on it won’t last for more than 2-3 years, even on the most expensive makes and models. And it’s not particularly good at browning meats.
In contrast, a carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel pan can last you a lifetime, as long as you use it properly and care for it well. That longevity comes at a price: carbon steel and cast iron aren’t dishwasher-friendly and must be seasoned prior to their first use, and less fatty foods are prone to sticking to uncoated stainless steel.