For the most tender chicken, skip this step
By Ali Slagle
When you’re thinking about what to make for dinner, the question is often “What do I feel like cooking?” But it can also be “How do I feel like cooking it?”
Sometimes, you want to towel-dry, salt-scrub and bronze each piece of chicken, relishing the sizzle, before adding liquid. Other times, you’d rather take it easy, skip the browning altogether and pile everything into a pot, then let it simmer, steaming your face over it as it bubbles.
Skipping browning isn’t a shortcut, but it is instead another path to delicious results. Think about chicken soup: Because the chicken isn’t browned, it is spoon-tender with a delicate flavor. The same goes for chicken mafe, chicken tinga, khao man gai and so many other classic dishes. When lean chicken is seared over intense, dry heat, its juices can evaporate and render the meat dry. So, although a golden chicken may be beautiful and complex, pale chicken is juicy with straight-up chicken flavor. It’s uncomplicated, in a good way.
Whether or not to skip browning depends on the cut of chicken and the accompanying ingredients. Bone-in, skin-on chicken is an excellent candidate: The fat, cartilage and bones are flavorful enough to turn water into stock. Boneless, skinless chicken will result in meat that is moist but in need of some flavor. A simmer in chicken stock or feisty ingredients can help, as in this recipe for quick-braised chicken and greens. Braising boneless thighs and dark leafy greens in stock makes the dish cozy, but the pickled peppers add sweet-and-sour personality.
Even ground meat doesn’t always need browning. In many meatball soups, such as canh and sopa de albondigas, you can plunk the meatballs right into the broth, where they cook gently and end up pillowy. (If you’re worried about the meatballs breaking, refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes to firm before cooking.)
Opting not to sear is also practical: No splatters on your stove, counters and self. No flipping or fighting stuck-on bits. The heat is lower, yet the cooking isn’t slower. The cooking experience is gentler and the meat is more tender. It’s chicken in a pot, as kind as can be.
Quick-Braised Chicken With Greens
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1/2 cup sliced hot pickled Peppadew, cherry or pepperoncini peppers, and 2 tablespoons brine reserved, plus more to taste
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon light or dark brown sugar, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 1/2 pounds (1 to 2 bunches) dark leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard or escarole, de-stemmed and coarsely chopped
Fried toast (see tip), pasta, boiled or mashed potatoes, mashed cauliflower, or grains, for serving
1. In a large pot over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onion, season with salt and cook, stirring just a few times, until translucent and browned, 6 to 9 minutes. Add the peppers, tomato paste, brown sugar and cumin, and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste is a shade darker and starts to stick to the bottom of the pot, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the broth, chicken, greens and pickled-pepper brine. Season with salt and stir to combine. Cover the pot, keep on medium-high and bring to a simmer. Uncover, reduce heat to low, and cook uncovered until the chicken is cooked through and the greens are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Using two forks, shred the chicken right in the pot into pieces, then stir to combine. Taste and adjust with salt, sugar (if it’s too tangy or spicy) and brine (if it’s too sweet or flat). Eat with starch of choice.
To make olive oil-fried toast, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium in a large skillet, add four 1/2-inch-thick slices of crusty or sourdough bread and fry until crispy on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Spaghetti and Chicken Meatball Soup
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 pound ground chicken or turkey
1 cup finely grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
8 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 large egg
Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Pinch of red-pepper flakes (optional), plus more to taste
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups store-bought or homemade marinara sauce
8 ounces spaghetti, broken roughly into thirds
1. In a large bowl, stir together the chicken, half the Parmesan, half the garlic, the egg and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir with your hands until combined. Using wet or oiled hands, roll into 12 to 14 meatballs (about 1 1/2 inches in diameter each). Meatballs will be very soft, but if they don’t hold their shape, refrigerate until Step 3.
2. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil, tomato paste, remaining garlic and the red-pepper flakes (if using) over medium. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is sizzling and fragrant and the oil is stained red, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chicken broth, marinara sauce and 2 cups of water. Keep on medium heat and bring to a simmer.
3. Gently add the meatballs to the broth and stir to combine. Add the spaghetti. Simmer over medium, stirring gently and often, until the meatballs are cooked through and the pasta is al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. (Pasta will finish cooking from the heat of the soup). Turn off the heat, stir in the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan and season to taste with salt and red-pepper flakes, if using. Serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan and red-pepper flakes, if desired.