How to Brown Chicken in Your Skillet

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
Chicken cooking in a skillet

Browning brings out the aromas and flavors in your chicken. So here’s how to brown your chicken to perfection every single time.

There’s hardly a chicken recipe that doesn’t call for browning the breasts, fillets, or tenders before finishing them with another cooking method, be it braising, pan-frying, or roasting.

And for a good reason: browned chicken not only has a crispy, golden-brown crust but, thanks to the Maillard reaction, it’s also more aromatic and flavorful than chicken boiled in liquid or cooked sous-vide.

In the Maillard reaction, which occurs in the temperature range of 284-320°F (140-160°C), the proteins and carbohydrates in your food collide and fuse. As a byproduct of their collision, hundreds of new aromas and flavors are created, imparting the chicken with a pleasant smell and a savory taste.

But browning isn’t as easy as cookbook authors and television chefs make it out to be. There’s more to it than turning the heat all the way up and frying the chicken for a few minutes per side. And, unless you learn the ropes, your chicken can come out overly crusty or bitterly burnt.

Ultimately, it comes down to this:

To brown chicken, bring the meat to room temperature, then preheat your skillet for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat and drizzle 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil in it. Sear for 2-3 minutes per side until crispy and golden brown and finish cooking at gentler heat.

(Browning is the result of a cooking technique called “searing.” That is to say, you sear to brown. For simplicity, I use the term “browning” synonymously with “searing” in this article.)

How to Brown Chicken

The key to browning chicken is to understand that you don’t brown chicken to cook it all the way through, but to give it a crispy and flavorful crust before—or after—you cook it by any other method.

Simply put, you should brown the chicken briefly, no more than a few minutes per side. Even if you continue to cook it in the same skillet, you’ll need to add cooking liquid, reduce the heat to medium, or put it in the oven.

Otherwise, the chicken will burn on the outside by the time it cooks on the inside.

Bring the chicken to room temperature:

Take the chicken out of the fridge 10 to 15 minutes before you start cooking it. Place it on the counter, in a bowl, deep plate, or rimmed sheet pan to catch the juices, allowing it to come to room temperature.

Room-temperature meat not only browns better on the outside; it cooks more evenly on the inside. As an added benefit, the chicken will stick less to the bottom and sides of your skillet. (This is especially important if you’re cooking in stainless steel.)

Reach for the right kind of cookware:

To brown chicken perfectly, you first need the right cookware. Reach for a skillet with a heavy bottom and thick walls, such as a cast iron or carbon steel skillet, or, if you don’t have either, a clad stainless steel fry pan.

Avoid ceramic and non-stick pans; they are made of aluminum, a conductive metal that heats up fast but loses heat just as quickly. You want your cooking vessel to hold heat well so that the temperature won’t drop too much when you throw the chicken in.

Preheat your skillet over medium-high:

A ceramic or non-stick pan is preheated for 20-30 seconds and shouldn’t be heated empty. However, if you’re cooking in cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel, you’ll need to be slightly more patient than that.

Turn the heat to medium-high and preheat the pan for at least 2-3 minutes. When you can barely hold your palm over the cooking surface, you know the skillet is hot enough to cook in. That’s when you drizzle some cooking oil and give it 10-15 seconds to get up to heat.

Use cooking oil with a high smoke point:

You don’t need too much cooking oil to brown chicken. Nine times out of ten, and depending on how many pieces of chicken you’re about to brown, 2-3 tablespoons will be more than enough.

Contrary to what some of us think, butter and olive oil are not the most suitable cooking fats for browning chicken. They have low smoke points, which means they smoke and burn too quickly. Avocado oil, rice bran oil, and canola oil are much better options, at least for browning.

Add the chicken and brown on one side for a few minutes:

Add the chicken pieces to the pan, leaving a quarter to a fifth of the cooking surface uncovered. If you overcrowd the pan, the temperature will drop too much, causing the chicken to simmer and turn soggy instead of brown and become crispy.

Let the chicken brown for 2-3 minutes per side without interruption. (Don’t try to press down on it, and don’t try to lift, turn, or flip it. Doing so will slow down the browning and may cause some of the juices to flow out of the meat, making it drier.)

Flip the chicken and brown it on the other side:

As soon as the chicken starts to release itself from the pan, you know that it’s ready to flip over. With a fork or spatula, turn the breasts, fillets, or thighs over and, once again, let them brown without interruption for a few minutes.

When the chicken has turned golden brown on both sides, you know you’re reading to finish cooking it with whatever method the recipe calls for, whether that’s adding broth to turn it into a braise, reducing the heat to medium to pan-fry it to doneness, or roast it in a 350°F (180°C) oven to perfection.

Common Mistakes When Browning Chicken

Not using enough heat. If you don’t use enough heat, the cooking temperature won’t be high enough to trigger the Maillard reaction, so your chicken won’t brown well enough.

Do this instead: When browning chicken, use a well-preheated skillet over medium-high heat.

Overcrowding the skillet. If you overcrowd the skillet with chicken, especially if you haven’t brought that chicken to room temperature before cooking, the cooking surface temperature will drop too much and take too long to recover. As a result, the chicken cooks rather than browns, and it becomes bland and mushy rather than flavorful and crispy.

Do this instead: When browning chicken, leave a fourth to a fifth of the skillet uncovered.

Using too much heat. The chicken will blacken and burn if you use too much heat, such as high heat. Burning, also known as pyrolysis, is a chemical reaction that takes place at the temperature where the Maillard reaction ends.

When the surface of your chicken reaches 356°F (180°C) and above, the aromas and flavors get destroyed, and an acrid, overly bitter taste takes over.

Do this instead: When browning chicken, don’t crank your stove all the way up to high.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.