When it comes time to make a simple but flavourful dinner, one of the most common staples of Canadian households is a pan-fried chicken breast. It can be breaded, rubbed, glazed or sauced to easily add to the flavour, and when cooked properly, it's simple and doesn't add a lot of fat to the cooking process. So, what's to know about pan frying? Well, as it turns out, there are a few easy techniques that will help you make your chicken seem like it came from a chef's kitchen.
The first thing to consider is the pan http://www.chickenfeeds.ca/2010/04/technique-choosing-a-pan/. Personally, I prefer stainless steel for its ability to keep a consistent, medium-high heat. If you just cringed at the thought of your chicken breasts sticking to the pan and covered in oil, read on - this is for you.
When you're heating a pan, a few things are happening. At a molecular level, the atoms that make up the steel begin to vibrate - randomly at first, but as they begin to vibrate faster, the surface of the pan begins to change. As the pan reaches a consistent temperature, the surface normalizes, and no longer clings to what is placed on it.
This takes some practice and some familiarity with your cookware, but the easy test is to place a few drops of water in the middle of the pan. If it evaporates, it's not hot enough. If it stays together in a droplet that looks like a ball of mercury and skates along the pan, it's at exactly the right heat. You'll have to play around with this, but with my pan, it takes about 10 minutes at medium-high heat to get to this stage.
Once you've wiped any testing water away with a towel, turn the heat down a bit and pour in a small amount of oil. It should shimmer in the pan, and distribute along the surface like "legs." For this type of heat, it's best to use an oil with a higher smoke point, like peanut oil or regular olive oil (not extra virgin). If the oil smokes, it's too hot, and you should wipe out the pan (don't pour water into it) and start again.
Assuming, however, that you've reached the perfect consistent temperature, pat dry the chicken breast with paper towel and place it presentation-side down in the pan until it develops a nice, brown crust. At this point, make sure that you don't overcrowd the pan. Doing so can rapidly drop the temperature of the pan and does not allow moisture room to evaporate. Flip, and cook until juices run clear and the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Celsius.
If you're cooking a particularly thick piece of chicken, you may want to put the pan in the oven to finish the chicken, but for most, you should be able to cook evenly in the pan.
The advantage of this method is that the same reaction that causes the nice brown crust on your chicken also creates tasty bits left in the pan, called "sucs." By deglazing the pan by pouring in a small amount of wine or stock, you can keep all of that flavour and use it in a sauce.
Hopefully this will improve your pan frying technique and make those easy weeknight meals even tastier. If you have any questions, be sure to ask them in the comments, and we'll try our best to answer them for you!