My first adventure, boneless, skinless chicken breasts -- not a screaming success, not a failure

For a long time, I have wanted to cook, vacuum seal, and freeze chicken, salmon, and other meats as an alternative to canned meats. The only problem was figuring out a low-salt, low-fat method to cook them that retained their natural flavors, texture, and moisture.

I had heard of sous vide cooking a long time ago, but the only machines available were the large and expensive commercial models. Fuggidaboutit!

For alternatives, I turned to the Internet and found a bunch of stovetop sous vide videos on (where else?) YouTube. Unfortunately, my efforts to duplicate them failed. I couldn’t control the cooking temperature terribly well and even the heavy duty freezer bags had a tendency to come apart along the seams.

Then one of my favorite cooking shows, America’s Test Kitchen, had an episode on poaching boneless, skinless chicken breasts using a method that borrowed from sous vide (Season 13, episode 14, “Waldorf Chicken Salad”). The first time I tried it, the chicken was almost perfect. But, again, I had trouble controlling the cooking temperature, somewhat overshooting the 170° mark given in the recipe.

Recently I stumbled across an article on kitchen gadgets that described the Anova Precision Cooker, which seemed like the perfect solution. I did a little research, discovering what a “thing” immersion cooking has become, what with dozens of articles and YouTube videos featuring all sorts of contraptions and techniques. I just wanted to keep it simple, so I ordered the Anova plus the SIOchef Premium Silicone Sous Vide Bags, intending to use them with my existing cookware.

My first adventure involved cooking four rather hefty, boneless, skinless chicken breasts, two per silicone bag. In order to keep things simple, I decided to cook them plain – no brining, no seasoning, no oil or butter.

Figuring out the temperature and timing was a head-scratcher. After reading several recipes, I settled on 150° F for one to four hours with plenty of testing along the way.

I immediately discovered that my dutch oven was not deep enough for both bags, so I cooked one bag at a time. (I have since ordered a 12-quart food storage container that is frequently recommended for immersion cooking and is a good three inches taller than my dutch oven.)

After an hour, I took out one of the breasts, temped it, sliced it open, and decided to give it another hour.

After a second hour, I repeated the temping and slicing and decided the breasts were done.

I was a tad disappointed. They seemed a little dry and, without seasoning, pretty bland, but they should be okay for chicken salad or adding to soups or vegetables. They did lose quite a bit of moisture into the bags during cooking.

So, my first experiment was not a screaming success, but not a failure, either. Next time, I’ll try seasoning the breasts. Not sure about oiling them, though.

Any advice?

Welcome Nellie, and don’t give up. Your Anova Precision Cooker provides the solution you seek. Your writing indicates you are likely an accomplished cook so it won’t be too difficult to master SV.

The 170F temperature was deliberately used by ATK was for the purpose of having very solid piece of chicken to be diced and used in a salad, not as the advanced meal preparation technique you desire. In successful SV cooking select your cooking technique according to your purpose.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • The first and most basic factor in SV cooking is using the item’s thickness to determine cooking time.
  • Second factor is using your desired degree of doneness to set the temperature, not some YouTubber’s.
  • Third is Keep it Simple as you begin.
  • And above all, to support your learning maintain a detailed record of every cook in a permanent notebook.

You don’t disclose the thickness of the chicken you cooked nor the internal temperatures achieved. Details are important for competent SV cooking. Hefty is not sufficiently precise to determine a cooking time. If they were 2-inches thick a minimum of about 135 minutes at 150F would have been needed which is a little higher than my personal choice of 145F.

Oiling helps long distance swimmers, it will only annoy your food. Seasoning before cooking is useful, but not everyone here does it. As you discovered, without any seasoning and post-cook browning the result can be disappointing.

Loss of moisture is normal in all cooking. Packaged and cooked food just captures it. To minimize moisture loss cook at the lowest safe temperature you can tolerate. The resulting liquids can be used to enhance your result when used in a sauce or gravy.

To best understand how to proceed to achieve your stated objective of producing alternatives to canned meats i advise you to read the first two Parts of Douglas Baldwin’s A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking. It’s here:

It will fill in a lot of the details i have omitted in this response.

Do well.

Just to add a little to the Cat’s explanation. The temperature you use for your chicken will impact you final outcome. A high temperature, like that used by ATK will give a very traditional finish to a chicken breast, very firm and stringy, ie) well to over done. At this temperature any bacteria in the chicken is instantly killed.

Because sous vide lets you control the temperature accurately you can cook at lower temps while cooking long enough to pasteurise the chicken and make it safe.

I’m a big fan of 140F/60C for chicken breast, even to use in salads.

Something else worth thinking about is the quality of your chicken. If you can get good quality, small producer chicken you will have a fabulous eating experience.

1 Like

One thing Chatnoir normally recommends is that you keep a log of what you do and your results. This will help you repeat cooks that were successful. As you try new things such as time and temperature, seasonings in the bag, pre or post searing techniques and longer cooks become hard to remember for the wide variety of things you cook.

I have been thinking about keeping my notes in Microsoft’s OneNote application. This gives me a digital record of my cooks along with any pictures I want to add and I can clip recipes and notes from the Internet. I use OneNote extensively at work and I just have to get started with a sous vide notebook. Another nice feature is that you can share all or any part of your notebook and collaborate on cooks if you want to.

1 Like

Thanks, y’all, for your suggestions. I was thinking that a lower temperature might give me a better result, so I’ll try that next time. Come to think of it, maybe I should have cooked each of the chicken breasts at a different temperature! Comments elsewhere on this board sound pretty mixed as to seasoning. Maybe I’ll experiment with that, too, once I find the perfect temperature!

John, thank you for your compliment and useful post about OneNote. Its sharing capability could be particularly valuable in supporting competent cooking techniques for the Community.

In reading many posts here it can be observed that a significant amount of wasteful guess work is employed in SV cooking. Too many users appear to follow flawed recipes instead of gaining and sharing successful SV cooking experiences.

In working together we all improve.

My first sous vide attempt was also boneless skinless chicken breasts and I had the same results. Dry meat. Not terrible but then not what I was hoping for either. Then I stumbled upon the following article where they ran tests at various temperatures and times and was able to dial in just the right temp/time values to get it the way I like it.

It’s all about the time and temp. 150F will give you around the traditional texture tending toward stringiness. 145F will be slightly better. But for me it is impossible to beat 140F for chicken breasts. Time for chicken should always be ‘until pastuerised’ as per Baldwin’s tables found here: Practical Guide to Sous Vide.

For me, I like it at 140 F but it has to cook for 3 to 3 1/2 hours to achieve the texture I like and that is well past the pasteurization time for 40mm thick. As stated elsewhere in this forum, there is a great deal to be said for personal preference as to doneness and texture so times and temps can vary widely when looking for advice. That’s why I started keeping a log. Otherwise I forget what I liked or didn’t like for various cuts/types of meat. That guide is a wonderful resource. I’ve checked it before. Thanks for sharing it again.