Barbecue chicken is one of my favorite summertime dishes. I like every part of it – the tomato-based sauce (the spicier the better), the crispy skin, even the bones.
And taste aside, it’s also relatively healthy, at least as compared with such sundry first cousins as grilled and/or smoked ribs, brisket or pulled pork. It’s chicken, after all, and it wears that lean protein halo. Unfortunately, when it’s prepared with its skin and bones, and slathered with a sugary sauce, barbecue chicken is very nearly as caloric as its brethren. Know why chicken skin is so delicious? It’s high in fat.
So I set myself the task of coming up with a recipe for a leaner version of barbecue chicken that somehow still boasted the most lovable aspects of the classic version – a mouth-watering sauce and an element of crunch.
I started by enlisting the usual lean poultry suspect, the boneless, skinless chicken breast. The one problem with this virtuous ingredient is it’s tough to cook just right. Undercook it, and you risk getting sick. Overcook it, and you’re faced with a slab of protein as dry and tough as cardboard.
And then, as I discovered while developing this recipe, there’s another problem – chicken breasts come in all different sizes and thicknesses. Generally, if it’s labeled “cutlet,” it’s fairly thin. If it’s labeled “chicken breast,” it’s rather thick. But there’s a range of thickness within these categories, too.
I tried both and opted for the latter because the thicker breasts were simply harder to overcook.
The breasts also are covered for two-thirds of the cooking time, which helps keep them moist, further ensuring perfectly cooked barbecue.
By the way, the internal temperature of the cooked breasts should be 165 degrees F. And be sure when you take the temperature to insert the thermometer sideways into the center, and not straight down from the top. That way you’ll get a more accurate reading. Also, don’t forget to let the chicken rest for a few minutes after you pull it out of the oven. It’s another way to maximize the juiciness.
For the sauce, I wanted to conjure up something with big flavor that wasn’t too sweet and somehow didn’t require hours of simmering on top of the stove.
I started with the usual ketchup base, balanced off the sugar with acid and Dijon mustard, then spiked it with a secret weapon – adobo sauce from canned chipotles in adobo. Chipotles are smoked jalapeños; they are hot and smoky, as is the adobo sauce they swim in. You also could use an actual chipotle, finely minced, but I found that a tad too fiery for this small amount of sauce.
By the way, if you open a whole can of chilies to make this sauce, you can freeze what you don’t use by putting a chili with a little sauce into each cube of an ice cube tray. Caution: after this baptism by fire, this particular tray will be usable only for freezing other spicy or tomato-based preparations.
Finally, I needed to add some crunch to the recipe to replicate the missing skin and bones. Panko breadcrumbs did the trick. One of my favorite ingredients these days, these fantastically crispy Japanese breadcrumbs are available at most grocers (check the international aisle if you don’t see them in with the regular breadcrumbs). I sautéed them in a little olive oil with some fresh thyme until they were nicely toasted, then topped the chicken with the crumbs for the last 10 minutes of baking, which guaranteed the crumbs would stick to the chicken, but not get soggy.
I was very pleased with the end result: a juicy, spicy, slightly crunchy, easy-to-make chicken barbecue that happens to be tasty hot, cold or at room temperature.
Easy Baked Barbecue Chicken Breasts
Start to finish: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)
1/2 cup ketchup
1 to 2 tablespoons adobo sauce (from a can of chipotles in adobo)
2 teaspoons packed dark brown sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts without the filet (a total of 2 to 3 breasts, each about 3/4- to 1-inch thick)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl combine the ketchup, adobo sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
Line a shallow baking dish with foil, leaving enough excess to generously overhang the sides. Spread half of the sauce on the foil in an area just the size of the chicken breasts. Arrange the breasts on top of the sauce and spoon the remaining sauce over them. Bring the edges of the foil up and over the chicken and fold it to enclose them. Bake the breasts on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, thyme, a pinch of salt and some pepper. Saute until light golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.
After the chicken has baked for 20 minutes, open up the foil and spoon any sauce that has fallen off the chicken back on top of it. Sprinkle the crumb mixture evenly over the chicken. Continue baking, uncovered, until the chicken is just cooked through, another 8 to 10 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes.
Carefully slice the chicken, then divide between 4 serving plates, spooning any sauce and crumbs that have fallen off over the chicken slices.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”