I'm three days into my second Whole 30 and happy to report that it was a much easier transition this time! I had some mild headaches for the first couple days and felt a little under the weather, but haven't experienced the extreme mood swings that I did last time. I'm a bit cranky, a little more hungry than I have been in awhile but also consciously aware that it's likely my brain chasing a sugar high. Knowing what to expect this time is a relief and I'm confident I'll feel like myself again by the end of the week. The support from my social media following has been incredible! It's exciting to hear from so many women who've reached out to tell me they're giving Whole 30 a try in October. I definitely didn't expect that at all when I decided to share my journey, but it was the icing on the cake for me. Now that a little community is growing it feels great to know that we can lean on each other and share our experiences. Knowing you aren't the only person out there trying to run past bakeries without breathing is oddly reassuring!
Today's post is a recipe that will work for just about any diet. Well, except vegetarian. No disrespect to the non-meat eaters out there but today is all about the chicken. This is not going to be anything complicated or earth shattering, just some good tasty chicken. Boneless skinless chicken breasts get a bad rap, and I admit I used to skip over them myself. They can be unforgiving and too often end up on your plate overcooked and underseasoned. Nevertheless, it's not that hard to get right with a few easy tricks of the trade. Pounding the breasts flat helps them cook evenly, salt brines the meat to season all the way through the interior, and using an instant read thermometer monitors doneness to ensure meat isn't overcooked. I've been grilling my chicken cutlets this way for more than a year now and this technique has never failed me. Every time, I get tender and juicy chicken breasts that are evenly cooked and perfectly seasoned. This recipe is great for meal prep if you like to cook big batches of meat for your lunches or dinners in advance. You'll end up with plenty of lean, healthy chicken that's great to slice up for salads, grain bowls, wraps, or whatever else you desire. It's something I do at the beginning of every week to be sure I have an easy protein fix for my Whole 30 plan. Oh, it's also a good one if you have any stress to work out. You know, like the "I just gave up sugar and want to hurt somebody" kind of stress. You're going to love the meat pounder.
I do switch up the spice blends for my grilled chicken from week to week, but the recipe I'm sharing today is my favorite and the one I do most often. When classic poultry herbs and spices meet fresh lemon, you can't really go wrong. Side note: I love how fresh rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley smell. I call them my Thanksgiving herbs because every holiday, I chop up a gigantic mound to use in everything that day from the turkey to the dressing. Mmmm...especially the dressing. Okay, let me get on to this recipe before I start hallucinating aromas of fresh baked bread over here.
Lemon & Herb Grilled Chicken Breasts
4 lbs all natural boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 c. chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
3 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
4 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup high smoke point cooking oil (like canola or grape seed), plus more for the grill
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Prep Time: 20 min, plus at least one hour to brine
Cook Time: 15 min
Suggested Equipment: Grill or grill pan, meat pounder or rolling pin, instant read meat thermometer
Buy decent chicken breasts for this recipe; the big meaty ones that come in family packs are perfect. I tend to stay away from frozen chicken breasts unless it's a really good deal and even then they just don't cook up the same. Avoid buying chicken that is labeled with any kind of flavoring or retained solution. When you see that it means the chicken was already injected with a brine and god only knows what was in it. Use poultry shears or your chef's knife to trim off excess fat, if any. Now here comes the fun part.
Place one chicken breast at a time in between plastic wrap or a ziploc bag, and use your meat pounder or rolling pin to flatten out the thick part of the cutlet. If you're using an actual meat pounder, you'll smash down and outward, so that it glides off the chicken in one smooth motion. The rolling pin is more of a crazed whacking maneuver but it gets the job done. I only recently graduated to buying a real meat pounder/tenderizer and I feel like an adult now.
As you pound the chicken breast you'll see it spread out and flatten. Don't smash it to the point of breaking up the meat though. Chicken breasts are naturally unevenly shaped, with a big thick middle that takes longer to cook than the flatter ends. Pounding the breasts out creates a uniform shape that will cook in the same amount of time all the way through. Now you won't have to dry out half your chicken waiting for the thicker part to finish cooking.
On to seasoning now! Chop up the big pile of herbs as finely as you can, discarding stems. Zest the lemons and grate the garlic cloves. A microplane gets both of those tasks done.
Combine the salt, pepper, paprika, celery seeds, red pepper flakes, garlic, half of the lemon zest, and half of the herbs with enough cooking oil to make a thick paste, about 1/4 cup or so. Add the juice of one lemon, reserving the other. I used a canola & olive oil blend here which works great with high heat. This is your brine/marinade for the chicken breasts.
In a separate small bowl, combine the remaining herbs, lemon zest, and olive oil with a pinch of salt. This will be for basting the cooked chicken, so set it aside. Don't waste your extra virgin olive oil on food that will be cooked at high temperatures; instead use it as a finishing oil to retain all of its flavor and health benefits. You could also use melted butter or ghee in place of the olive oil here. I prefer olive oil when I'm going to be eating most of the chicken as cold leftovers, and butter if I'm serving it hot.
Place your pounded chicken breasts into a resealable plastic bag or bowl, then pour in the marinade and massage it into the chicken. Make sure it's all evenly coated. The salt will do its job best if you give it at least an hour to penetrate the meat. However, unlike soaking chicken breasts in a super salty traditional brine, there's no risk of over salting your chicken here, so you can marinate it overnight if you want. I usually give my chicken a full day to hang out in the fridge before cooking. Just take it out about 20 minutes or so before you plan to grill.
Prepare your grill for direct heat, or if using gas just turn it on high. I also totally recommend doing this indoors on a cast iron grill pan if you don't have access to grill a outside, it will likely just take a little longer to cook in batches. After learning how to use a charcoal grill this summer, I'm realizing how much more convenient it is to just step outside and turn on the gas grill for quick things like this! I love charcoal but it feels silly to spend more time waiting to light a grill than it's going to take to cook the meat!
When your grill is hot (400 to 450°F is a good window) oil the grates really well and place the chicken breasts presentation side down, a couple inches apart. (Technically there's no skin on the chicken so I can't say skin side down, but I'm sure you can tell which side is the prettier, smoother side.) I also like to grill my remaining lemon. The juice from a charred lemon adds such a beautiful finishing touch.
For large chicken cutlets, you're probably looking at 8 to 10 minutes total cooking time. Turn them over halfway through to grill on the other side. In the last minute of cooking, baste with the reserved lemon, herb and olive oil mixture.
Even though the chicken was brined it's still important not to overcook it, so pull any smaller breasts off if they're done before larger pieces.
And how do you know when it's done? You've taken all my advice and finally got an instant read thermometer, right? Good. Because that's the only way to know that a piece of meat is properly and safely cooked. Not time, not "juices running clear" and not even by feel. Nobody wants to eat raw chicken, and nobody wants dry chicken. Get a thermometer and everybody stays happy.
USDA guidelines call for an internal temperature of 165°F for poultry. I'll tell you that if you wait to pull your chicken off when it's already 165°F, it'll be dried out by the time you eat it. Start checking the temperature in the last couple minutes of cooking, pull it off at 155°F and let the residual heat carry it over while it rests.
Give the chicken breasts five minutes or so to rest before slicing to retain optimum juiciness. If you have any basting oil left, go to town with those herbs! Don't forget to squeeze all that charred lemony goodness all over.
These are tender, moist chicken breasts that are packed with flavor. Whether or not you're on a diet, I think we can all agree that this is the kind of healthy eating everybody can enjoy!