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What Are the Best Tips for Steaming Chicken Breasts?

By Judith Smith Sullivan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Steaming chicken breasts is a simple and fast method for cooking this low fat meat. The one drawback is that the chicken is basically tasteless. It must be seasoned, marinated, or topped with sauce for it to be palatable. Unless a bland meat is required for the recipe, it is best to season the chicken to obtain a tasty result.

Sometimes a virtually tasteless meat base is desirable. For chefs who want to showcase a specialty sauce, steaming chicken breasts is the perfect way to prepare the meat without adding flavors from butter or oil, which could interfere with the taste of the sauce. Steaming is typically done in a pot, but it is also possible to wrap the chicken in parchment and foil and bake it, allowing the water from the chicken to steam the chicken.

One drawback to steaming chicken breasts is that they can easily dry out, resulting in meat that is too tough. To counteract this, chicken is best steamed on the bone with the skin intact. Some amount of oil and fat from the skin will soak into the meat, but as long as the skin is removed before eating, the chicken is still low in fat. Steaming chicken breasts on the bone also takes a little more time than steaming chicken breasts that are boneless and skinless, but the result is far superior in taste and texture.

To increase the flavor and tenderness of the chicken, it is best to brine or marinate the chicken for a substantial amount of time before steaming. With some brine and marinade recipes, it takes as little as an hour, but others recommend allowing the chicken to soak overnight. The longer the soaking time, the more intense the flavor will be.

Brining recipes rely on salt and water, although other seasonings can be added. Marinades vary from recipe to recipe, but most include a fat, an acid, and seasonings. For instance, vinegar, wine, or lemon juice can act as the acid, and oil or butter as the fat. There are marinades for virtually any flavor desired, and recipes can be found in cookbooks and online.

Herbs and seasonings can also be added to the steaming water to infuse the chicken with flavor. Fresh herbs work especially well as well as strong vegetables like onion, carrot, and celery. Root and bulb seasonings, like ginger and garlic, are also good choices.

Chicken breasts can be steamed in a specialized appliance known as a steamer, but this is not necessary. A simple steaming rack which sits in the bottom of a pot or a perforated pot insert can be used to steam chicken as well. A small amount of water is added to the pot and the chicken is placed on the raised rack or insert. The chicken does not touch the water, but it is important to use enough water so that the pot does not boil dry.

The pieces of chicken should be arranged so that there is space between them. Air must be allowed to circulate freely or the chicken will not cook evenly. The lid should be tight so that no excess steam or heat is lost during the cooking process, and cooks should resist the urge to check the chicken frequently. A meat thermometer provides the most accurate measure of doneness, and the recommended internal temperature is 160 degrees F (71 degrees C).

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