No matter how you cook your chicken, you need it to have two particular qualities when it's finished: It has to be tasty, and it has to be safe. The way to meet both of these criteria is to cook your chicken at the right temperature and for the right period of time. That way, it's heated enough to eat without drying it out and ruining its flavor.
It’s What’s On the Inside That Counts
Raw chicken is the perfect home for E. coli and a number of other bacteria that cause severe illness in humans. Cooking your chicken thoroughly is the only way to safely eliminate that bacteria, so if your chicken doesn’t get hot enough, it won’t be safe for you to eat. You can tell whether or not your chicken has been cooked hot enough by taking its internal temperature with a food thermometer. Stick the thermometer into the middle of the thickest part of the meat; it should read at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you eat it.
Firing Up the Grill
When you’re cooking chicken on the grill, logic may make you think that a higher temperature means a faster cooking time. That’s partially correct, but it also means a dry, charred piece of chicken. When you grill chicken, the grill’s heat should be medium-low to medium. If you use a high-temperature grill to cook chicken with skin, the skin will dry out and burn before the meat inside can cook. If you use a very hot grill to cook boneless, skinless chicken, it will draw out all of the meat’s moisture and leave it dry and tough.
Baking Your Bird
Because chicken is lean meat, it doesn’t retain moisture as well as fatty types. This means that when you bake it, the heat of the oven pulls moisture out of the meat and dries it out -- the higher the temperature, the faster it leaves your chicken rubbery and flavorless. When you bake chicken, your oven’s temperature should be between 350 and 400 F, and the length of time that you bake your chicken depends on the part of the bird. While a 4-ounce boneless, skinless breast may be ready in as little as 20 minutes, for example, a drumstick weighing just as much may take up to 45 minutes.
Cooking chicken breasts on a stovetop is a relatively fast and easy way to prepare them, but like grilling, cooking at too high of a temperature can quickly dry them out. When you cook on a stovetop, though, it may be easier to ensure that your chicken retains its natural moisture. Poaching your chicken, for example, cooks the meat in boiling water, so that its moisture doesn’t escape. By adding other ingredients to the water, like fresh herbs or garlic, you can even infuse the meat with other flavors. Because this method relies on water kept at a continuous boil, a medium-high heat works best. This ensures that the water stays hot enough without boiling over.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.