How to Plant a Container Like the Pros Do

Jessica Damiano wrote . . . . . . . . .

Have you ever gone to the grocery store for, say, milk, and left with a cartful of impulse buys? Well, I visited a couple of nurseries last week in search of one specific plant and left with nearly everything except that plant, which both retailers had sold out.

As usual, I was seduced by the colorful, pre-planted annual containers on display, and hemmed and hawed about whether I should buy them or make my own.

I often do the latter, but sometimes can’t resist the allure of all that beautifully arranged eye candy.

Those thoughtfully planted pots and baskets are often created by talented garden center workers, sometimes following recipes provided by the plants’ wholesale nursery growers. They’re a great option if you’re looking for instant gratification, which, if I’m being honest, I often am.

However, creating your own mixed container is an easy, fun and often money-saving project that will reward you with flowers and pride all season long.

I’d love to tell you that you’re limited only by your own tastes and desires, but the truth is there are some killjoy considerations that need to be taken into account when selecting plants.

You’ll need to consider the mature sizes and aesthetic coordination of the plants you combine in a planter, and ensure they all have the same watering and sunlight requirements.

Choose a pot or window box that will accommodate plants when they’re fully grown, and make sure they have holes in the bottom for drainage. If not, poke or drill the holes.

Never use garden soil in containers. It’s heavy and too dense for young, tender roots to grow through. It also may contain weed seeds, or harbor fungal spores, bacteria or viral diseases that can kill plants.

Instead, use a prepared potting mix that’s formulated for the types of plants you’re growing. Or make your own by combining:

  • One-third peat moss, coco coir or rice hulls (if using peat, add ¼ cup of garden lime per 6 gallons to balance the pH of your final product)
  • One-third compost
  • One-third vermiculite (replace with perlite if planting succulents, cacti or other plants that require quick-draining soil)
  • A slow-release, balanced fertilizer (read the label for dosages)

For lush, abundant container arrangements, the traditional recipe includes a cute, rhyming threesome of plant types: thrillers, fillers and spillers.

Thrillers are tall upright plants intended to draw the eye upward. Plant your thriller first, placing it in the center of the container.

Surround the thriller with fillers, which are shorter plants that will spread to fill in the space between the thriller and spillers.

Spillers are vining plants that will cascade over the edge of the pot as they grow. Place them just inside the perimeter of the container.

If your potting mix doesn’t contain nutrients, apply a fast-release fertilizer right after planting.

Plants growing in containers will need more attention than their in-ground counterparts. That’s because plants growing in the garden can spread their roots far and wide to reach distant nutrient and water resources. Potted plants are limited by the contents of the container, so they’re entirely reliant on you.

Soil in containers dries out much more quickly than in the garden. Sometimes I water pots in the morning only to return to wilting, thirsty plants at night. Check them twice a day, especially during hot, dry spells.

Follow fertilizer directions for potted plants; typically they recommend more frequent fertilizing than for beds and borders.

Source: AP






Back Pain Shouldn’t Stop You from Cooking at Home. Here’s How to Adapt

Pien Huang wrote . . . . . . . . .

Cooking a simple meal involves a lot of movements that could strain the back. Lifting a pot filled with water to boil pasta. Standing at the counter chopping vegetables. Bending forward to put pans in the oven.

“When you’re making soup, you’re doing all kinds of gymnastics to get different batches of it in and out of the pot or blender,” says Julie Bozo Cotte, 50, who has suffered from chronic back and neck pain for some 15 years. She loves cooking for friends, but says the condition has severely limited her home cooking.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care in the U.S. Around 40% of U.S. adults experience back pain each year and around 13% have chronic back pain, which endures beyond three months and can limit how much they move in their daily lives.

A new cookbook, The Healthy Back Kitchen — out this month from cooking media empire America’s Test Kitchen — aims to help back-pain sufferers enjoy cooking, with mindful adaptations to their kitchen techniques.

The impact of back pain is both mental and physical, says Dr. Griffin Baum, a spine surgeon at Northwell Health in New York City who wrote the book. “Almost universally, my patients tell me: ‘My back pain is keeping me inside. It’s keeping me from standing, bending, lifting. And it’s keeping me from socializing, from being with my loved ones and cooking a weekend meal or a family dinner,'” he says.

Conversations with his patients inspired Baum to develop the advice in The Healthy Back Kitchen, including tips for creating a more ergonomic kitchen setup, ways to minimize motions like bending and torquing, and prep shortcuts to reduce cooking time.

“One of the rules we set was that every recipe had to include a break or two or three,” Baum says. “So people wouldn’t spend more than 10 to 15 minutes standing at a time because that’s always an aggravating factor.”

Cotte, a photography director at America’s Test Kitchen who was not involved with making this book, says cooking a full meal in one stretch leaves her exhausted. She recently made cauliflower soup using tips from the book, which recommended chopping vegetables ahead of time and crisping capers in the microwave.

She hopes that cooking this way could leave her with more energy to spend with her family in the evenings — while still having home-cooked food. “I’d like for [my nine-year-old son] to eat less frozen pizza,” she says.

The book focuses on the mechanics of cooking, starting with the concept of mise-en-place – gathering the tools and ingredients and tools you need before you start cooking, with the help of a rolling cart to minimize walking around with heavy things. It recommends sitting to chop vegetables, and using kitchen shears in the place of knives for trimming beans and cutting broccoli for less back exertion.

“A lot of these tips that are preventative, and that mitigate the risk of increasing back pain are really good,” says Dr. Shaina Lipa, a spine surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who reviewed the book at NPR’s request.

Still, others think the book’s focus on traditional comfort food recipes like pot pies and beef stews misses an opportunity to educate patients on healthier eating. For patients with chronic back pain, “your nutrition may make a difference,” says Dr. Linda Shiue, a primary care physician and founder of a teaching kitchen for patients at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, who also reviewed the book at NPR’s request.

For many, she says, back pain is related to weight issues or to arthritis in the spine. “It may help to avoid inflammatory foods like sugar and refined carbohydrates,” and to eat less meat, Shiue says.

Baum says his focus is on helping people adapt so they can still enjoy cooking. “Curing your back pain isn’t possible. So let’s talk about what is possible. What are the things you can’t [currently] do that you want to do?” Trussing a 12-lb turkey may be out of reach – but they could try roasting a small spatch-cocked chicken instead, on a lightweight baking sheet that can be loaded into the oven with less bending.

Being able to cook again, and to share food with loved ones, gives back pain sufferers agency, Baum says: “You’re getting part of your life back. And that experience of happiness and joy and connection with people will actually improve back pain.”

People with chronic back pain can prepare delicious, beautiful meals, he says – so long as they adapt how they do it. Below are a few of his tips, and a sample recipe.

Get into a self-compassionate mindset

Cooking is just one aspect of life that can feel seriously limited by chronic pain. And the approach starts with being compassionate towards yourself. “Everybody has pain [of some kind]. You are not alone,” Baum says. Accept that your pain is real, and that it’s not your fault.

Develop a cooking routine

Plan ahead by a few meals so you can make the most of a trip to go food shopping. Unpack your groceries carefully, maybe using a rolling cart to bring all the cold items to the refrigerator at once. Set aside time in the morning to prep ingredients for dinner, to make it easier on your future self.

“It’s important to find a way to keep going on your best days and your worst days,” Baum says. To people in pain, “a minute can feel like an hour; a day can feel like a year. A routine helps keep an even keel and a cadence to your days, he says.

A flexible routine also allows you to modify on days when your pain is worse, and gives you a path to getting back on track. “If it’s a bad day, it’s not going to last forever,” he says, “It’s very rare for an acute episode of back pain to last longer than six weeks.”

Load the oven with less bending, and help from tongs

Retrain yourself to load a hot oven with less bending. First, you’ll stage your pan or casserole on a stool next to the oven. “You drop the oven door open, and use a long pair of tongs to pull out the rack,” Baum explains, “Then you’ll lift whatever you’re putting in off the stool and onto the rack,” loading the oven from the side. “And then you slide everything back into the oven and flip the door back up.”

Unloading is just the reverse – sliding the rack out with tongs, and moving your hot dish onto a stool as an intermediate stop, before bringing it to the table to serve.

It’s one of the most challenging parts of cooking with back pain, and one that people can be retrained to do more safely.

Practice pain-reducing kitchen prep

Look for pre-chopped vegetables in the produce aisle or salad bar at the grocery store. For prepping ingredients at home, Baum recommends pulling a stool up to the kitchen counter.

Prepping while seated lessens the amount of time you spend standing and is better for your back, provided the setup is ergonomic. “You want your shoulders to be relaxed, your arms to be at a 90-degree angle,” Baum says. From this position, you can slice ingredients like mushrooms and small potatoes with a utility knife, or cut greens with kitchen shears.

When you must stand, cushion your feet

Chopping onions and meat can require the leverage you get from standing – which aggravates back pain. Cushioning can help. “I can never cook in the kitchen with bare feet or slippers on,” Cotte says. “I have to wear big, cushiony shoes and stand on a thick foam mat” which alleviates stress on her joints, including her back.

“It makes a huge difference,” Baum says, “whether you’re standing for 20 minutes or two hours.” And many mats are impervious to spills and stains, so they can be easily wiped clean.

Prepare ahead for bad days

Chronic pain is often cyclical. Baum recommends taking advantage of good days to prep freezable ingredients like onion and garlic, “so if you want to make a soup or a stock, it’s super easy to do.”

On days when your pain is bad, rely on shortcuts, such as using your microwave for toasting nuts and “roasting” beets (in a medium bowl, with a little water, for four minutes). And feel free to take frequent breaks. “You can do 20 minutes of work in the morning, go rest all day until you’re feeling better in the afternoon, and come back and finish it for dinner,” Baum says.

Using pre-prepped ingredients and simpler recipes appeals to Cotte, who tends to “swing for the bleachers,” choosing complicated cooking projects that take a lot of time and energy – and are limited to good days. “I’m trying to bring it down a notch, to have a more sustainable model that I can keep going with,” she says.

Savor each bite

“A lot of these recipes are designed around how to create a bite of food that will not only nourish you, but refill your soul and take you back to a memory of a different time,” Baum says. Finding something luxurious that you enjoy each day – getting in the mindset of “treating yourself” – boosts levels of dopamine and serotonin and helps reduce pain.

Source: npr





How Does Baking Powder Affect My Cookies?

Stella Parks wrote . . . . . . . . .

What Is Baking Powder?

Baking powder is a two-in-one chemical leavening that combines a powdered alkali (sodium bicarbonate) with a powdered acid (originally, tartaric acid). When moistened in a dough or batter, a chemical reaction takes place that produces carbon dioxide gas, inflating cookies, cakes, and pancakes. Because baking powder combines both an acid and a base, it eliminates the need for ingredients like buttermilk or sour cream to activate the sodium bicarbonate, allowing milk or even water to set off the reaction.

Long before the internet, folks at home knew how to do the exact same thing with baking soda and cream of tartar, so baking powder didn’t prove an instant commercial success. To make baking powder more affordable than DIY alternatives, manufacturers lowered the cost by replacing expensive tartaric acid (an imported by-product of winemaking) with monocalcium phosphate (domestically produced from calcium and phosphorus).

Even so, baking powder didn’t truly take off until the 1890s, when companies introduced “double-acting” formulas by adding sodium aluminum sulfate. Though acidic by nature, this insoluble crystalline powder refuses to interact with sodium bicarbonate unless fully melted, delaying any reaction until it’s warmed above 140°F.

So why use two acids? In double-acting formulas, the moisture-sensitive acid is meant to prime (not leaven!) the dough, seeding it with carbon dioxide. Then the heat-sensitive acid kicks in right as cakes and cookies need it most—about midway through the baking process, when softly set batters and doughs threaten to collapse.

Don’t Bother With Homemade Baking Powder

It’s that one-two punch that makes modern baking powder so effective, and why I don’t recommend DIY alternatives at home. Totally better than nothing at all, but according to the Handbook of Food Products Manufacturing, such “single-acting” baking powders expend 75% of their carbon dioxide before even reaching the oven.

That said, cookies are far more forgiving than cakes, in part because their comparatively low moisture content prevents sodium bicarbonate and acid from truly interacting until the butter melts (hence, cookie dough is happy to chill in the fridge). In double-acting formulas, there’s no need to fear; worst-case scenario, the first dose of carbon dioxide is wasted, but the second hits the oven rarin’ to go.

Barring some sort of cookie crisis that necessitates MacGyvering (or MacGrubering) through a recipe, single-acting baking powders are all but obsolete. When cookies call for baking powder, the “double-acting” part should go without saying.

How Much Baking Powder Do My Cookies Need?

The exact amount a recipe will need varies depending on how long the cookies bake, i.e., how long the supply of carbon dioxide needs to last. Expect about one teaspoon per five ounces of flour; thin and crispy cookies may need a little less, thick and chewy cookies may need a little more.

Even without baking powder, a well-aerated dough will still puff with steam. If that supply cuts off before the cookies set, a soft dough will collapse in on itself. If it continues until the end, the air pockets are preserved as the cookie’s crumb.

Baking powder simply adds carbon dioxide to the equation, providing a more forceful pressure that encourages a dough to spread up and out. Without the well-developed elasticity of a bread dough, the strands of gluten in cookies would sooner snap than stretch, cracking along the surface. That gives cookies their familiar appearance, but if you keep pushing the dough with more carbon dioxide, those cracks will only deepen.

In this series of photos, you can see that as we increase the baking powder, the cookies tend to rise a little more, but only to a certain point. Eventually, the reaction is so strong and violent that it will actually cause those air pockets to rupture and collapse, delivering a denser, squatter cookie.

So, contrary to popular belief, it’s not excess baking powder that makes a cookie cakey. Baking powder just regulates how air cells expand—whether or not a dough can handle that expansion depends on gluten. Recipes that are relatively acidic, lean, low in sugar, and high in moisture favor gluten development. Recipes that are relatively alkaline, rich, high in sugar, and low in moisture don’t. You can’t change that with baking powder—you can only cram a dough with more chemicals than it can burn off in a given time, leaving a funky taste behind.

With Baking Powder, Brand Doesn’t Matter

The brand of double-acting baking powder you use isn’t that important. Different companies use different blends of starches, alkalis, and acids, and some may offer various certifications (gluten-free, kosher, etc.), but they’re all formulated to produce a two-stage reaction to a relatively equivalent degree.

I keep Clabber Girl at home, but I don’t owe it any particular allegiance (it’s what they sell at Sam’s Club, my one-stop chemical shop). It has the same blend of ingredients that popularized baking powder 120 years ago, so I figure it’s tried and true.

When comparing labels, keep in mind that the ingredients in baking powder are meant to fuel a chemical reaction. Unless something goes awry, those ingredients aren’t in the final product. For example, it’s impossible to taste sodium aluminum sulfate in cookies because it’s not there: It reacts with sodium bicarbonate to evolve into carbon dioxide, sodium, water, and aluminum hydroxide—an odorless mineral. Meanwhile, what’s touted as a tastier alternative, sodium acid pyrophosphate, produces carbon dioxide, water, and trisodium pyrophosphate—an inherently bitter acid.

Store Your Baking Powder Cool and Dry

Whatever kind you choose, store your baking powder someplace cool and dry. Packages generally indicate a six-month shelf life, but there’s little concern of being ambushed by bad powder.

Baking powder’s chief ingredients, cornstarch and sodium bicarbonate, are outrageously stable even in abusive storage conditions, and its most important acid is defined by an inability to react with water. Hypothetically, the moisture-sensitive acid could be activated prematurely, but liquid water would be created as a by-product of that reaction, causing the cornstarch to visibly cake, clump, and pill.

Bad Cookies? It’s Probably Not the Baking Powder’s Fault

My personal theory is that a lack of aeration (from under-creaming or ultra-soft butter) is the real reason trusted recipes sometimes fall flat.

Check it out—both sugar cookies contain the exact same amount of baking powder. I made the batch on the left with room-temperature butter, using a stand mixer to stir rather than cream in the sugar. I made the batch on the right by creaming cool butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

With proper creaming to incorporate countless tiny pockets of air for the carbon dioxide to expand, my sugar cookies puffed up light. Without aeration to provide a foothold in the dough, the carbon dioxide simply tunneled out, erupting in ugly wormholes. See those dark spots?

If you didn’t understand the importance of creaming or the fact that squishy butter won’t retain air, it’d be easy to blame “bad” baking powder. So, instead of tossing out a perfectly good tin, check your technique instead. In a lifetime of baking, 10 years of professional kitchen work, five years of troubleshooting recipes online, and the formal recipe-testing process that goes into writing a cookbook, I’ve yet to encounter a single baking powder–based failure.

Then again, I’ve never been struck by lightning. It could technically happen, but the odds are not, as the kids say, ever in your favor.

If you’re still worried, put a tablespoon of double-acting baking powder into the bottom of a tall drinking glass, add three ounces of boiling water, and watch it foam to the top. If it doesn’t, check the date on the package and shoot me an email—I’m trying to determine the real-world upper limit, but haven’t found it yet.

Source: Serious Eat





What’s a Smoke Point and Why Does it Matter?

Niki Achitoff-Gray wrote . . . . . . . . .

One of the most important things you’ll want to consider when picking out a fat is smoke point. Here’s what you need to know.

Ever left oil in a pan over high heat, only to turn around and find it billowing with smoke? That’s because every cooking fat, be it butter, lard, or oil, has a smoke point: a temperature at which it stops shimmering and starts sending out some serious smoke signals. Learning how to interpret those signals is a crucial element of any good cook’s vocabulary.

To understand how smoke points affect food, we have to look to where our fats come from and how they’ve been processed. Traditionally, oils are extracted from nuts and seeds through mechanical crushing and pressing. If bottled immediately thereafter, you’ve got a cold-pressed raw, or “virgin” oil, which tends to retain its natural flavor and color. Many unrefined oils are packed with minerals, enzymes, and other compounds that don’t play well with heat and tend to be especially susceptible to rancidity; these are the oils best-suited to drizzling, dressings, and lower temperature cooking.

To produce an oil with a high smoke point, manufacturers use industrial-level refinement processes like bleaching, filtering, and high-temperature heating to extract and eliminate those extraneous compounds. What you’re left with is a neutral-flavored oil with a longer shelf life and a higher smoke point. Clarified butter, or ghee, follows the same basic concept: a process designed to extract more heat-sensitive components—in this case, milk solids—from a fat in order to raise its smoke point.

Now, when it comes to actually cooking with fats, smoking oil isn’t always a bad thing—oftentimes, you’ll want that wok or skillet ripping hot. But when a flavorful, raw oil or pool of butter starts sending up smoke, you’re headed into a danger zone. Sure, smoke is pesky, but that’s not why you should be concerned. Heated past its smoke point, that fat starts to break down, releasing free radicals and a substance called acrolein, the chemical that gives burnt foods their acrid flavor and aroma. Think watering eyes, a stinky kitchen, and bitter, scorched food.

Another side effect of that breakdown? As a fat degrades, it’s also getting closer to its flash point, producing ignitable gases that you probably don’t want hovering over an open flame. That said, if your oil starts to smoke, don’t panic. You’re almost definitely not about to spontaneously combust. But unless you’re using a high-smoke point, neutral fat, you’ll at least want to take it off the heat. And if it’s a flavorful oil, give it a sniff and a taste once it’s cooled; if it’s started to develop any unpalatable flavors, just pour it into a disposable container and replace it with a new batch.

“The higher a fat’s smoke point, the more cooking methods you can use it for.”

The moral of the story? The higher a fat’s smoke point, the more cooking methods you can use it for. But even if you’ve taken the care to purchase a high-smoke point oil, there are a few things you’ll need to watch out for.

Light, heat, water, and air are the sworn enemies of cooking oils. While adding some used oil to a fresh batch can actually improve browning, you’ll want to exercise care—hitting a smoke point further lowers that smoke point, so if your deep-frying fat has been smoking, you won’t be able to successfully reuse it as many times. Most flavorful oils that don’t get used rapidly, like avocado, hazelnut, sesame, and walnut oils, should be refrigerated. And no matter the oil’s starting smoke point, you do NOT want to store it over the stove—the extra heat can lead to rapid rancidity.

Keep your oils tightly sealed in a cool, dark place and, if they come in a translucent bottle, consider wrapping them in tin foil to extend their shelf life.

Chart: Smoke Point Index

Here’s a handy chart of the smoke points of common fats; it’s the list I was handed when I was in culinary school, courtesy of the latest edition of the Culinary Institute of America bible, The Professional Chef at Amazon, with some gaps filled in by my personal bible, Modernist Cuisine at Amazon.

*All neutral oils listed on this chart are refined; though unrefined versions of them do exist, these are the varieties most common to a home cook’s repertoire. Meanwhile, the majority of flavorful oils are expeller-pressed and, though available refined, are often quite costly and uncommon.

When to Use High Smoke Point Oils

You’ll want to make sure you’re using fats with smoke points at or above 400°F when you’re cooking at high temperatures.

For Searing: With searing, the goal is to heat meat as rapidly as possible to promote browning. Choose a neutral fat with a high smoke point like peanut, corn, or vegetable oil, and heat it until it just starts smoking before adding your meat. Get our complete guide to pan-searing steaks and pan-searing pork chops at home »

For Sautéing: You don’t need smoking hot oil for a good sauté—virgin olive oil and other medium smoke point fats will do the trick just fine, so long as you keep a close eye on the stove. Heat a small amount of oil until shimmering or, at most, lightly smoking, and then add your ingredients, stirring as per recipe directions.

For Deep-Frying: Your best bet with deep-frying is to always use a thermometer. Pick a high smoke point, neutral fat that can be heated at least 50°F above your intended frying temperature to account for temperature drops when ingredients are added. If you decide to use a more flavorful fat, like beef tallow or schmaltz, keep in mind that as it cools, that hot liquid fat will resolidify, leaving you with a waxy coating in your mouth. For more tips, see our full guide to deep frying at home.

For Stir-Frying: Wok cooking is fast, and relies on a thin coating of smoking-hot oil to lubricate your food—the idea is to brown those ingredients and develop their flavor while retaining a crisp, fresh crunch. You’ll want a really high smoke point oil, like peanut or safflower, for best (and safest) results. Get more stir-frying essentials and tips here.

Source: Serious Eat





Good Bones and Other Secrets to Juicy Chicken

Becky Krystal wrote . . . . . . . . .

The email that arrived in my inbox last month laid out a common problem.

“For me, cooking chicken breasts is tricky because they are less forgiving than cooking dark meat — cook them too long and they are dry and don’t cook them enough and they are rubbery.”

Similar to what I recently wrote about how to not mess up a nice piece of fish, the key to properly cooked chicken breasts is, well, not overcooking them. Cooking meat covers a spectrum of textures, colours, flavours and, of course, temperatures. As you go higher in temperature, the proteins shrink, moisture is pushed out and the meat turns stiff and dry. All those things are especially unpleasant, and easy to do, with chicken breasts. The margin of error is much lower than with chicken thighs and other dark meat, which can be juicier at temperatures up to 195 F.

Regardless of the cut or cooking method, the USDA recommends all poultry be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F to reduce the likelihood of foodborne illness. (If you cook meat, you should definitely have a food thermometer!) This doesn’t always sit well with culinary professionals.

Eliminating bacterial risk relies on a number of factors beyond a single temperature point, including moisture and fat content, J. Kenji López-Alt notes in The Food Lab. The combination of temperature and time can help determine when chicken is safe to eat. He says that chicken cooked to 155 F and held there for about 44 seconds allows for a sufficient reduction in bacteria; at 160 F, it’s about 14 seconds. If you feel comfortable with this matrix, go for it.

If you want to stick to the USDA advice because it feels safer and easier, please do.

Before I go into my tips, you’ll notice I left out two common suggestions.

One is brining. To me, brining puts a damper on one of the benefits of choosing chicken breasts: how quickly they cook. Plus, brining can give you “a definite case of wet-sponge syndrome,” thanks to the way the salt makes breasts hang on to so much moisture, López-Alt says. Marinades are another technique I’m skipping here. Marinades do not necessarily tenderize meat or keep it juicy. They are more of a surface treatment that add exterior flavour at best or, at worst, turn the chicken unappetizingly mushy if it’s too acidic and applied too long.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these, but neither is more effective than just not overcooking chicken breasts. Here are my tips for avoiding that fate.

1. Use bone-in breasts

The hollow or honeycomb structure of bones allow them to act like an insulator, Harold McGee says in On Food and Cooking. Bone-in breasts have that built-in insurance policy against overcooking. They also are generally sold with the skin on, which forms a barrier that can prevent the meat from losing as much moisture.

Bonus: Bone-in breasts can be cheaper per pound than boneless, skinless breasts.

2. Make the chicken thinner

One of the hardest things about boneless breasts is how uneven they are, with one wide, thick side that tapers into a thinner, narrower end.

By the time the thick end finally cooks through, the thin one is overdone, or if you try not to overcook the thin side, the thick side can be underdone.

Especially when cooking chicken in a skillet, the answer is to aim for a more uniform thickness, so that the pieces cook more evenly and in less time.

Thinner breasts or cutlets are less likely to dry out, as they won’t spend as much time in the pan.

A simple option is to pound the chicken until it is 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, using a meat mallet/pounder, heavy skillet or even a hammer. This is best done between parchment paper or plastic wrap. You can also butterfly the breasts (so they open like a book) or cut them completely in half into thinner cutlets, but I find with these strategies you can still get a paper-thin end prone to overcooking. Over at America’s Test Kitchen, Mari Levine offers a clever suggestion: split the breasts into three, instead of two, cutlets. Cut the breast in half crosswise so you separate the thicker and thinner ends. Then cut the thicker half into half again, horizontally. Finally, pound all three pieces to an even thickness.

3. Bread or batter the chicken

Breading and batters on meat don’t work by necessarily sealing in moisture while frying, McGee says.

Instead, they serve more as insulation, protecting the meat from the heat of the oil. The surface of the coating dries out, guaranteeing that lovely crisp texture and further shielding the meat. It also helps that oil is less efficient than metal or water at transferring heat to the meat, so that it “gives the cook a reasonable window of time in which to stop the cooking while the meat is still moist,” McGee says.

4. Poach the chicken

As with fish, chicken breasts benefit from the gentle heat of poaching. As my former Washington Post colleague Jane Touzalin explained, “Poaching is a method of cooking food gently in liquid that’s generally kept below a boil.” Her suggestion: place boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a pan in a single layer, cover with a few inches of liquid (water, broth, etc.), add flavourings (spices, salt, herbs, soy sauce, etc.), then bring the liquid just barely to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat so the liquid simmers.

Start checking the meat after about 10 minutes. The chicken should be barely opaque in the centre. Take the pan off the heat, put a lid on it and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. There should be no pink in the centre, and you can confirm the temp with a thermometer.

Source: The Washington Post