There’s more to pan-frying chicken than turning the heat up and throwing the breasts, fillets, or tenders into the hot pan.
And, in today’s blog post, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know to become a master at it.
The long story short is that you need chicken cut into even pieces, the right kind of cooking vessel for the job, an appropriate level of heat, and some good ol’ common sense and patience.
To cook chicken evenly on the stove, cut it up into even pieces and fry it in a thick-bottomed, fat-walled skillet, preheated and greased with 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil, until golden brown on each side.
Now let’s break this technique down step by step, so that you know exactly how to get it right every single time you fire up the stove.
Consider cutting up breasts and fillets:
Chicken tenders are compact, which makes them easy to cook evenly. So you don’t necessarily need that much prep work to pan-fry them.
Breasts and fillets, on the other hand, can be pretty bulky. Because they are bigger, they take longer to cook, and tend to be tricker to get right.
Consider butterflying chicken breasts or halving chicken fillets to make them easier to cook evenly, especially if they’re too large for your frying pan’s cooking surface.
Use the right kind of frying pan for the job:
Before you get cooking, you want to make sure that you’re reaching for the right kind of cooking vessel in your cabinets. When pan-frying poultry (and meat as a whole), you’re looking for a heavy, thick-bottomed, fat-walled carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel pan.
Heavy-duty skillets hold on to heat and distribute it better than their lighter, non-stick or ceramic counterparts. A skillet with these two qualities will greatly aid you in the cooking process.
Grease your frying pan with a bit of cooking oil:
The jury’s out on the precise amount of cooking oil to pan-fry chicken in. The general consensus—and I tend to agree with it—is that you don’t really need all that much. More often than not, a couple of tablespoons will do.
So grease your skillet with 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil. You could use any cooking oil that’s catching dust on your pantry shelves, that’s for sure. Personally, I recommend going for one that has a high smoke point.
Pan-frying chicken requires you to use relatively high heat—and not all cooking oils stay stable under high heat. Extra virgin olive oil and butter, for example, will easily break down, causing them to smoke and burn. Avocado oil or rice bran oil are much better options.
(Learn more about the smoke points of cooking oils and why they matter. It’s an important piece of knowledge that most cookbooks, for reasons that evade me, completely ignore.)
You can spread the oil on the bottom and sides of your pan with the help of a paper towel, or you could just as well lift the skillet and tilt it until the cooking surface is uniformly coated; whichever you prefer.
Preheat your skillet over medium/medium-high:
When speaking about evenly cooked chicken, a preheated cooking vessel is a must. That way, each piece of chicken will get exposed to roughly the same cooking temperature and for approximately the same amount of time on both sides.
So preheat your skillet over medium to medium-high for 2-3 minutes before letting the chicken sizzle on it. Never use high heat, as doing so will burn the poultry on the outside and leave it raw-to-rare on the inside.
What is medium to medium-high heat, exactly?
At the end of the day, that will depend on the make and model of your stove. My Bosch induction cooktop has nine heat levels. When frying chicken, I stay somewhere between levels five and six. (If I notice excessive smoke, I tone it down.)
Don’t overcrowd the pan:
If there’s one sure-fire way to screw up stovetop cooking, that’s to overcrowd your frying pan. The temperature of your pan will drop as you add the pieces of chicken to it. But, if you have too many, it will take forever to recover—and the bird will come out soggy and wet.
In addition to that, not having enough space in the pan makes maneuvering and flipping the chicken hard to do. As the cook, you want to ensure that you’re always in control of the cooking process, or you may not get the outcomes you want.
What I try to do is leave at least ⅓ of my pan’s cooking surface empty. That way, there’s plenty of space left to move, turn, and baste the chicken in.
Let the chicken cook uninterrupted:
Before I started this blog and got busy reading the textbooks they teach chefs with at culinary schools, I would make this mistake over, and over, and over again when pan-frying: I’d keep flipping the meat instead of letting it cook uninterrupted on each side.
That golden brown, profoundly aromatic, intensely flavorful crust on your chicken takes time to form on each side. So, as soon as you’ve placed a chicken fillet on your skillet, let it sizzle for a good few minutes before flipping it to the other side with that spatula of yours.
The most accurate way to tell if chicken is done (no matter what the cut) is to take its internal temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer. Once it has reached 165 °F (73.9 °C), it’s safe to take off the heat and rest for 2-3 minutes before serving.
Seriously, I can’t emphasize enough how practical of a gadget a meat thermometer is. With one at hand, you will always know when your chicken needs more time to cook, even when it looks pretty much done on the outside! Check out my favorites over here.
Why You Should Cook Chicken Evenly
Even if you’re not as fanatical about pan-frying chicken to perfection as most food bloggers, cookbook authors, and YouTube chefs are, it’s still critical to make sure that those breasts, thighs, or tenders in your plate are fully and evenly cooked.
“And ahy is that, Jim,” I hear some of you asking?
For starters, overcooked chicken is hard to chew and tastes downright acrid.
Browning and caramelization, as I explained in “Here’s How to Avoid Burning Your Pan,” are what make pan-fried chicken sweet-smelling and savory-tasting. But fry that chicken too long, on overly high heat, and you’ll burn it, destroying the natural aromas and flavors of the meat.
On the flip side, “rare” chicken can make you and your family sick. And foodborne illness ain’t no joke, folks.
Chicken should be cooked to 165 °F (73.9 °C), the minimum internal temperature for all poultry recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Undercooked chicken can harbor bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Clostridium perfringens, which can cause foodborne illness.
So you want to get to that Goldilocks-and-the-Three-Bears moment where the bird’s “just right,” meaning golden-brown on the outside and cooked through on the inside.