Sous-Vide-Que: Boneless Chicken Breasts
"To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone." Reba McEntire
I am not a breast man.
And by not being a breast man, I am, of course, referring to the original white meat – chicken.
While I appreciate the cut for its meatiness and overall flavor, it's hard to forget the hundreds of stringy, dry as a bone breasts I have suffered through.
Why is it so difficult to properly cook a chicken breast? The problem is two-fold. First, unlike a fattier thigh that is almost impossible to overcook, breast meat is very lean and prone to dryness. Second, UDSA tells us to cook chicken to at least 165°F in order to kill harmful pathogens, and for many years they said 170 to 175°F! With normal grilling, we are quite comfortable that 160°F is safe. While cooking to such a high temperature will, indeed, take care of any existing salmonella bacteria, it will also guarantee a significantly less tender and juicy breast versus one cooked to a lower internal temperature.
So what's a backyard griller supposed to do? Enter the Sous-Vide-Que method (read more about it here). By preparing the chicken breast in a controlled temperature water bath before finishing on the grill, we are able to extend the cooking time and therefore reduce the temperature needed for pasteurization. Instead of literally cooking bacteria to death at 165°F (and drying the breast out in the process), chicken can now be safely sous vide at temperatures as low as 136°F if cooked for at least one hour and then finished on the smoker and/or grill to crisp the skin, brown the surface, and get the wonderful flavors from the Maillard reaction and the grill.
Finding the Perfect Sous Vide Temperature
Tired of overcooked chicken, I set out to determine the perfect sous vide temperature for the creation of the ultimate moist and tender grilled chicken breast. For the test, I used three boneless, skinless chicken breasts, all roughly the same weight, shape, and size.
Each breast was brushed with olive oil then liberally seasoned with McCormick Applewood Rub before sealing in separate freezer bags. The breasts were then cooked for 2.5 hours in water baths set to the following temperatures: 145°F for breast number one, 155°F for breast number two, and 165°F (the USDA minimum temperature) for breast number three. Note that although the breasts could be safely sous vide as low as 136°F, we started at 145°F as the texture of chicken cooked at lower temperatures can be too soft and smooth for most people.
After the controlled water bath was over, the breasts were removed from their bags and grilled over direct heat for approximately two minutes per side for a nice color and grill flavor.
Upon completion of the grilling the breasts were sliced and compared side by side. As expected, the breast cooked at 165°F was the least juicy and tender of the three, with very well defined muscle fibers and a slightly mealy texture. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 145°F breast was so moist and tender that it was almost too soft for my personal taste. In between was the breast prepared at 155°F, featuring just enough texture and the right amount of moistness and tenderness to keep me coming back for more.
Even more interesting, though, was the overall look of the breasts following their controlled temperature water bath. As is apparent from the side-by-side photo, the breasts actually became plumper as the temperature went up as the muscle fibers shrank as the heat increases.
In the end, I am hesitant to declare the breast prepared at 155°F as the hands down winner as I do believe that many people would find the 145°F breast to be spot on. So I recommend splitting the difference and settling on 2.5 hours at 150°F!