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How to Make the Best Pan-Seared Chicken Ever

Updated on September 1, 2017

Learn How to Make Delicious Chicken Breasts in No Time

In a nutshell, pan-searing a chicken breast comes down to just a few steps. You don't need a recipe, just a little technique. A little oil, salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you like, the right pan, enough heat, and you're ready to go! Even better, once you learn how to sear a chicken breast, you 'll be ready to use the same method on a number of other proteins, including pork, beef, lamb, and fish. So ditch your recipes, relax, and get ready to learn one of the best kitchen tricks around.

7 Steps to the Perfect Pan Seared Chicken Breast

  1. Pick the right skillet.
  2. Correctly season chicken on both sides.
  3. Preheat skillet and oil over medium heat until oil shimmers.
  4. Place chicken in skillet in hot oil, without crowding the pan.
  5. Let chicken sit - without flipping - for about 8-12 minutes, until golden, then turn.
  6. Cook on the second side for about 10 minutes, or until golden and 165F internally.
  7. Remove chicken from the skillet and allow it to rest for 7-10 minutes - then enjoy!

How to Pan Sear a Chicken Breast

Step 1: Start with the Right Equipment

You have a couple of options for getting the right skillet, and it's really just a matter of personal preference. I like either cast iron or stainless steel. Cast iron has been my go-to choice for years, and I still love it. However, I have a large family, and cast iron skillets larger than 12 inches get ridiculously heavy. They also take a bit more maintenance than regular cookware. Not much more, especially once you're used to it, but it's something to consider. So if you cook for up to 4 people, cast iron is an excellent choice, and the first one I would recommend.

Another excellent choice is stainless steel. I have several large (over 12 inch) stainless skillets and use them regularly. They are inexpensive, durable and easy to clean, so it's a win. The one thing to watch for when picking out a stainless skillet is to make sure the bottom is nice and heavy. This helps the pan hold heat better and distribute it more evenly, making it behave more like a cast iron skillet. Heavy bottomed cookware is always an excellent investment, and simple stainless steel is one of the more economical options out there.

One thing you don't want in this instance is non-stick cookware. Non-stick surfaces make it much harder to get a nice golden crust (if not impossible). Matter of fact, I have exactly one piece of non-stick cookware in my kitchen - an omelet pan. For everything else, cast iron becomes nearly non-stick with care, and stainless is lighter in weight for cooking in larger batches.

Step 2: Correctly Season The Chicken

You need very few ingredients for this technique. You'll need only:

  • boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • olive or vegetable oil
  • kosher salt
  • fresh black pepper
  • garlic powder, Cajun seasoning, lemon pepper or other spices of your choice (optional)

Once you've chosen the skillet, it's time to take a look at the chicken itself. Check out the picture I've got below showing three pieces of chicken that all came from the same package. See how the one on the left is much thicker? When that happens I cut the large one in half horizontally to make sure they all cook at the same rate. That's also why you can't just go on cooking times to make sure the chicken is cooked correctly all the way through. Another quick trick to use at this time is to pat the chicken dry - this helps the crust form during cooking.

I use kosher salt. It isn't much more expensive than table salt but has a much cleaner taste. It's also much easier to see the larger grains on the food, so you have a visual on how much you've used. I talk about letting the salt 'snow' on the food, and that's about how much you want to use. You know how TV cooks hold their hand way up above the food to sprinkle salt? There's a reason for that other than that it looks kind of cool. It makes it much more easy to apply an even layer of salt to the food - which is exactly what you're after. On a side note, it also almost always means you get salt all over your counter, but your food will taste great!

When it comes down to it, salt is really the only seasoning you really need. Now I use quite a few others as well, but salt is the only one really necessary. It helps form the crust on the chicken as it cooks, and frankly, unsalted food tastes like a lot of blah. So I use kosher salt always. A couple of other seasonings I use on a very regular basis are freshly cracked black pepper (I use a lot - love the stuff) and garlic powder. I've got a picture to give you a visual of how much seasoning to use. You can also pick a bunch of others, simply based on your preferences. It's your food - make it how YOU like it! Try onion powder, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper - or if you're not sure, take a spin with some pre-made seasoning blends (Eventually I hope you'll make your own)! Lemon pepper, cajun season, taco seasoning or poultry seasoning are all worth a spin, especially if you're just learning how to cook. You can add endless variety to your meals with just this one technique - searing a chicken breast - and trying different spices as you cook.

Size Matters - The Thickness of the Chicken Breast Determines Cooking Time

Don't get stuck on cooking times - it's the thickness of the chicken breast that determines how long it takes to cook, and as you can see from these, they can vary quite a bit.
Don't get stuck on cooking times - it's the thickness of the chicken breast that determines how long it takes to cook, and as you can see from these, they can vary quite a bit.

Cut As Needed

Cutting a chicken breast in half horizontally can drastically reduce cooking time. If your chicken breasts are large, consider this quick step to cut cooking time. It also helps to reduce portion sizes, and stretch proteins!
Cutting a chicken breast in half horizontally can drastically reduce cooking time. If your chicken breasts are large, consider this quick step to cut cooking time. It also helps to reduce portion sizes, and stretch proteins!

Correctly Season

Hold the Fresh Herbs

I adore fresh herbs and use them all the time. However, they don't do well with the relatively high, direct heat used in this technique. If you'd like, consider using them to make a pan sauce while your chicken rests, but otherwise, they'll burn.

Step 3: Preheat Your Skillet and Oil

Now that the chicken is seasoned it's time to cook! It's very important to preheat the pan. You want medium heat - medium heat ensures that the temp is high enough to sear the chicken breast on the outside but low enough to make sure that the chicken cooks through correctly without burning or becoming tough. Every stove is a little bit different, you may need to experiment a couple of times with this technique until you figure out the perfect setting for your own cooktop.

Place the skillet you've chosen over medium heat, and add a tablespoon or two of oil. Pick your favorite oil. I like olive oil and that's my preference, but vegetable oil works well too. Let the skillet and oil heat together until the oil shimmers. You need just enough oil to fully coat the bottom of the skillet, and to move freely if you tilt the skillet. You'll see the start of the shimmer. The surface of the oil will 'shimmy' across the surface as it moves. This lets you know it's hot enough.

Heating the oil correctly helps ensure the chicken won't stick when you add it. A correctly seasoned cast iron skillet also helps a great deal with the sticking, but even without one as long as the skillet and oil are hot enough when you add the chicken, you should be fine.

Heat the skillet and oil until it shimmers...

I tried to capture what 'shimmering' oil looks like, and I think I mainly got a refection of my son. You'll see ripples across the surface when the oil is hot enough.
I tried to capture what 'shimmering' oil looks like, and I think I mainly got a refection of my son. You'll see ripples across the surface when the oil is hot enough.

Oil vs. Butter

I use regular (not extra virgin) olive oil because it has a higher smoke point than butter. You can use butter, but your chicken breast won't have the same golden exterior unless you risk burning your butter. Also, skip the expense of extra virgin olive oil. The flavor won't come through to the finished dish, and plain olive oil is much less expensive. Use butter in a finishing sauce for flavor, or make a quick vinaigrette or drizzle is you like extra virgin olive oil.

Forget About Cooking Times - It's all about internal temperature - 165 F is the sweet spot!

Don't get hung up too much on cooking times - the thickness of the chicken, the temperature of the meat when it goes into the pan, the type of skillet you use, the temp of the kitchen...all of these have an effect on how long it takes to reach an internal temperature of 165F, which is the only number you need to worry about!

Step 4: Place the chicken in the hot oil and skillet

Now that the skillet and oil are hot enough, add the chicken to the pan without crowding it. If your oil is properly heated, you'll hear the gentle sizzle. That sizzle gives you feedback. A gentle sound and it's perfect. No sound and it's too soon. If it makes a loud popping sizzle the oil is too hot.

At this point, you're going to leave it alone. Don't flip it or move it for the first 8-10 minutes. There are several things happening at this point.

  • The Maillard reaction - the chemical term for getting a piece of food crusty and golden on the outside is starting. Moving the chicken interrupts this process.
  • Not crowding the pan allows steam to escape, further helping the Maillard reaction. When food is placed too close together, not enough steam escapes. The food still cooks, but there's no chance of getting the taste and texture of a proper crust. Crowding leads to steaming, not searing.
  • The longer the food stays still, the more time the Maillard reaction has to work, meaning a better crust. This crusting process also means less chance of sticking. As the crust forms, the proteins will release from the cooking surface on their own.

Don't overcrowd your skillet!

Leave plenty of real estate around the chicken breasts in the skillet. This helps form a nice, golden, crusty exterior.
Leave plenty of real estate around the chicken breasts in the skillet. This helps form a nice, golden, crusty exterior.

Step 5: Almost ready - but not quite!

After about 8 minutes, take a peek at the chicken. You want a nice golden crust, and the chicken should lift away from the skillet without sticking. This one is almost - but not quite - ready. It gets another couple of minutes.
After about 8 minutes, take a peek at the chicken. You want a nice golden crust, and the chicken should lift away from the skillet without sticking. This one is almost - but not quite - ready. It gets another couple of minutes.

Step 6: Turn the chicken after 8-10 minutes

Wait about 8-10 minutes after adding the chicken to the skillet. Just be patient - I promise good things are happening even if you can't see them. At 8 minutes in you can lift one of the chicken breasts to check. Look at the photos in this article to see an example of one that is almost ready, then the ones with nice golden exteriors. That's what you're after. Once you have that on the first side, flip the chicken once. Leave it alone on the second side to let it get golden, until you've reached an internal temperature of 165F.

I use a meat thermometer with an internal probe to test, although I have to say that I don't use it for this simple dish anymore. After you've done this a few times, you'll get the hang of the look and feel of the food, so you won't need to test it to know when it's done. Give yourself a break the first few times though. A meat thermometer is a great investment, and I use mine all the times on other dishes.

The second side should take a couple of minutes less than the first side. This is because the meat has come up in temperature overall, so the inside of the meat is closer to the ideal temperature.

Step 7: Out of the pan and ready to rest!

Now that the chicken has reached the correct internal temperature, it's time to take it out of the pan. I talk a lot in my articles and videos about the importance of allowing cooked meat to rest before cutting, and I'll explain it again now since it's something that makes such a difference in the final dish.

When food cooks, all the internal juices rush to the surface, which means that the meat inside the food has lost a lot of juices - it's all at the surface. When you set a piece of meat aside to rest, it comes down in temperature a bit - just a little bit. But it also allows those juices to redistribute throughout the piece of meat. If you've ever cut into a piece of chicken, beef or pork and had juices run out all over the place, then you've seen this in action. So let the chicken rest. It doesn't take long and I promise it won't get cold in the 5-10 minutes you're waiting.

Take the time to make a quick pan sauce while it's resting. My next article will talk about how easy it is to do that. Mastering this technique is a powerful tool in your repertoire. I personally consider it one of the top-five most important things to know how to do, and one of the most powerful tools for a beginning cook. Trying it a couple of times will give you an important method to build on, and give you a perfect dinner as well!

How to make a Pan Sauce

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© 2017 Jan Charles

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    • s85s profile image

      elmedeni laroussi 3 weeks ago from tunisia

      Nothing beats a dinner where flavorful grilled chicken breast is presented as part of the main course. Grilling chicken breasts can cause some frustration if one doesn't know how to grill them properly. Chicken breasts naturally get very dry when cooking them, especially when grilling them. By following a few simple techniques, you can ensure not only that your chicken breasts stay juicy but also flavorful and bitter free.

    • DixieMockingbird profile image
      Author

      Jan Charles 3 weeks ago from East Tennessee

      Thank you for that!

    • s85s profile image

      elmedeni laroussi 4 weeks ago from tunisia

      Central America's history of intermingling cultures led to the exchange of different foods and cooking techniques. Spanish conquistadors had found unfamiliar crops such as corn, tomatoes, hot peppers, and squash in the Americas. Regional cooks had long used these ingredients as the basis of their cuisine.With the arrival of the colonists, important new crops such as wheat joined the native foods. The Spanish introduced chickens, pigs, and cattle to the region, adding more meat, eggs, and milk to Central American diets.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 4 weeks ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Jan, Cast iron skillets are becoming popular again. I say again because I remember my mother using them all the time. Then came the non-stick skillets and people became to use them. The cast iron skillet, I remember, were so hard to clean and like you said, heavy. But they did make the meat taste better. My mother always used to pan fry her steaks and they were delicious. I wouldn't think of pan frying a steak in my non-stick skillet. Thanks for sharing your method of pan searing. I do that with most of my meats before adding them to sauces.

      Blessings to you.