Sauteing Chicken Breasts – How to Keep From Burning

October 17, 2006 3 Comments

sauteed chicken breasts

How to Keep Chicken Breasts From Burning When Frying

I received an email from Jason who tried my recipe for Sautéed Chicken with Garlic and Shallots and was having some problems.

He said, “the chicken breasts are taking nearly twice as long to cook through! I’m following the recipe exactly, using a fairly thick pan and pre-heating it well in advance.

The outside ends up charring pretty badly. Could it be the type of chicken breasts I am buying? I get the store brand packs, which are cheaper, but the breasts seem to be thicker than other known brands.”

After looking at the recipe again, I had some ideas on this problem but I wanted an expert’s view so I emailed Chef Adam Bickel for his take on this situation. Together we came up with some probable causes and a few solutions.

Even though we are talking about sautéing chicken breasts, these cooking tips hold true for sautéing chicken, beef, lamb, fish or whatever you are cooking.

Our first thought was to just turn down the heat to medium-high. Some recipes you find in cookbooks and on the Internet are written by professionals who sometimes forget that we don’t have the same skills as they do.

In a restaurant, professional chefs need to cook fast so they often have the burners cranked up to high but they have sautéed thousands of chicken breasts this way and are comfortable with the heat.

Another chef friend of mine, Chef Ricco DeLuca, has to recalculate recipes as far as timing and burner heat to match my skills compared to his own. Otherwise, I end up burning everything.

So, whenever you look at any recipe, you have to know who the writer is writing for and allow some leeway when it comes to cooking times and cooking temperatures.

Looking back at the Sautéed Chicken with Garlic and Shallots recipe, I realize I have to change it some to make it easier for home cooks.  I don’t think anybody should be sautéing on the highest heat level unless they have a lot of experience. Just too many things that can go wrong.

Cooking Equipment

It’s important to understand that everyone’s cooking equipment is different and any recipe that provides exact times and heat will vary depending on that equipment.

For example, the sauté pan you are using will vary in quality, size, thickness, material, etc. Every one of those characteristics will effect how the chicken breast will cook.

Then there is the stove. Is it gas or electric? How many btu’s does it produce?

The ingredients – size, thickness, cold or room temperature. A piece of chicken will cook much different right out of the refrigerator compared to breasts that are at room temperature. This is even more significant when cooking steaks.

And for many of us home cooks, how many times have you tried sautéing a chicken or piece of meat that is still partially frozen because we forgot to take it out of the freezer early enough. Think that will effect cooking times?

Cooking Suggestions

Here are some suggestions for sauteing chicken breasts that may be helpful to you.

Again, first you can try turning down the heat to medium-high and see if you get better results.  If this is still a problem, try medium. Sure it will take a little longer but does it really matter?

Alternatively, you can pre-heat the oven to about 300 degrees, brown the chicken lightly in a sauté pan and finish in the oven. The problem with doing it this way is one, you are creating a different texture to the chicken by baking it versus sautéing and two, you may lose some of the fond (brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan) for making the pan sauce.

Another alternative would be to brown the chicken at a high heat to caramelize, then reduce the heat and add a little wine, chicken stock or water. This will create an even heat on the surface of the pan, preventing hot spots and limit the maximum temperature of the heating surface to a short period of time. This way you can cook the chicken at a slightly lower temperature for a little longer.

Chef Alan also suggested another technique of building the sauce right in the pan. Start by sautéing the chicken briefly, maybe 45-60 seconds on each side, then continue with the recipe (including deglazing) without removing the chicken.  Add the garlic, shallots, and liquid right in the pan with the chicken.

Not only will the addition of other ingredients and liquids make cooking the chicken a less harrowing experience (each time you add an ingredient, you lower the temperature in the pan), but you’ll also add some really great flavors into the meat itself, instead of simply putting a tasty sauce over flavorless chicken.

Hope this helps.

Last modified on Wed 3 October 2018 3:18 pm

Comments (3)

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  1. Dina at says:

    Dear RG,

    Thank you again for answering my cooking question before I asked it. Although I consider myself a pretty good creative cook, I always seem to overcook the chicken, whether I’m following a recipe or, ahem, “winging” it.

    I’m going to try your “brown for under a minute” and then simmer with rest of ingredients and liquid, lowering as I go.

    If my chicken finally comes out right, I’ll let you know.



  2. Hamish says:

    Hi RG,

    I just cooked this for 3 today for lunch and threw in some corn kernels and finally asparagus spears with the pan sauce. It came our well, but there were some challenges along the way.

    Firstly after 3 minutes either side, the chicken was beautifully browned but still did not feel cooked in the middle (these were thick chicken breasts) but I had smoking oil! I’m using a DeBuyer carbon steel fry pan, very heavy, with extra light olive oil, which apparently has a high smoke point, on maximum burn on my largest burner. No butter – I’m dairy free – but this shouldn’t make a difference. If anything, I should have more leeway with the oil.

    So when the oil started to smoke, I threw in some hot water/stock I had for emergency, and put a cover on, which would have helped cook the chicken through, then I removed it from the pan and threw it in the oven to keep warm and maybe give it a few more degrees to finish cooking.

    It came out looking and tasting great, but I think I was lucky – could have gone either way – and I’m a bit worried that maybe I’m cooking on too high heat as I know smoking oils are a no no! The pan sauce came out well but again I’m concerned that the smoked oil would have ended up in the sauce.

    I think for future I will lower the heat and start the pan sauce with the chicken – as suggested by you – that seems like to safe bet to both prevent smoking oil and cook the chick right through.

    Thanks for the tips and teaching us the fundamentals for this type of cooking!

  3. Karen says:

    Many recipes call for pounding the chicken before sauteing. This makes all the pieces a uniform thickness so it cooks evenly and faster. TIP: You can put the chicken breast in a large zip lock bag, lay it flat on your cutting board and pound it, not too thin, just even out the thickness. It makes for quick and easy clean up. You want to cook it quickly at fairly high heat. If you cook it too slowly the meat will be tough and dry. Happy Cooking!

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