There’s a famous restaurant in Florence, Trattoria Sostanza, which prepares chicken breasts by briefly cooking them over hot coals and then braising in butter. I’ve never been to Sostanza, but back when people still blogged lots of people wrote about it. You can check out two good examples here and here. And long before bloggers came along, the great Elizabeth David wrote about it in 1954.
I can see why it’s such a popular dish. Chicken breasts need all the help they can get, both in flavor and texture. Naturally lean, they lack the flavor that comes from marbling with fat, and when overcooked they are truly dreadful.
Many chefs solve this problem by not serving them, choosing more impressive cuts for their restaurant menus. But for us it’s not an option. We’re committed to whole animal butchery, using every part of the animal and not leaving farmers stuck with the less sexy cuts (there are only two beef tenderloins, for example, per animal but hundreds of pounds of other muscles!).
When it comes to lean meats like chicken breasts and pork loin, I pull out all the stops. Chicken breasts are one of the few meats which I take the extra trouble to brine, using a solution of 2 quarts water, 125 grams salt, and 30 grams sugar. Other aromatics like bay leaves, garlic, black pepper, and lemon are worth a try, though I’m skeptical they really are absorbed into the meat. An 8 ounce boneless chicken breast needs 4 to 6 hours in the brine. Once brined, they can be removed and kept for an extra day or two before cooking.
I also leave the skin on, which provides an essential element of flavor and fat. I take the bone out, however, for ease of serving and eating, and the ability to easily cut the breast in half to serve.
Braising in a generous quantity of butter also helps this lean meat by allowing the butter to flavor the chicken as it luxuriates in its butter bath. Basting and pouring a little of the butter over the chicken when serving also helps enhance the chicken with a baroque richness.
My method is not an attempt to replicate Sostanza’s version. They use a live flame along with flour and egg. My version is simply an attempt to produce a delicious dish using the simplest possible means.
Chicken Breasts Braised in Butter
Begin by preparing the chicken breasts by removing the bones but keeping the skin on. Brine, as described above, but make sure the chicken is completely dry before browning. I aim for 8 ounce breasts, which is the size you get if you start with a 5 pounds chicken.
Quickly brown in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, about 2 or 3 minutes. The extra sugar from the brine might make the chicken brown quickly, so be careful.
Flip the chicken over and remove from heat. After about a minute, add a very generous quantity of butter, more than you think you need, at least 2 tablespoons per breast, maybe more like 4 tablespoons if only cooking one or two breasts.
Transfer to an oven heated to around 350 degrees and bake for about 10 or 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and baste with the lovely butter. Check the internal temp. It should be 165 degrees. But one of the beautiful things about brining is that it insures a tender result, even when cooked beyond 170 degrees. Once the chicken is cooked through, run briefly under a broiler to crisp the skin. I put the chicken far from the broiler element and give it a full 3 minutes to crisp up.
Add some chopped parsley, generous grindings of black pepper, and possibly a little lemon juice to the butter, pour a little bit over the chicken, and serve immediately.