How to Make Easy Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts With Morel Mushroom Pan Sauce

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Juicy pan-seared chicken with crisp skin and a restaurant-quality mushroom pan sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've always maintained that technique is at the soul of creativity and freedom in the kitchen—once you learn the basics, you have the tools to start cooking the way you want, whether that guiding principle is history, family, tradition, Pastafarianism, or in the case of this simple pan-roasted chicken with morel mushrooms, seasonality. This recipe combines two simple techniques into one brand new dish.

If you've been following along, you've already learned exactly why pan sauces are better at restaurants than at home and the steps you can take to remedy that situation. It all comes down to gelatin. Restaurant-quality chicken stock, made in large batches with a high ratio of chicken bones and meat to water, is loaded with protein and gelatin, giving it a rich, luxurious mouthfeel and a texture that emulsifies into a creamy, smooth sauce when mounted with butter.

At home, on the other hand, the vast majority of us are using store-bought chicken stock* which, while it can be tasty, generally has very, very low levels of protein and gelatin, if any at all (a quick perusal of the commercial chicken stocks available at my local Whole Foods showed some brands with less than 1 gram of protein per 8 ounce serving!). With stock this thin, you end up with watery sauce, often with a broken, greasy layer of melted butter on top.

*And if you're making your own chicken stock at home, then good on you! You will be able to make restaurant-quality pan sauces without the need for any tricks.

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Add gelatin to that store-bought stock, and suddenly you've got something that behaves much more like the real deal—enough so that your sauce is gonna come out as tasty as the best pan sauce you've had at any restaurant.

In this recipe, I'm combining that technique—pan-roasting chicken breasts skin-side down until crisp, finishing them in the oven, then forming a pan sauce with gelatin-enriched chicken stock—with our technique for maximizing the flavor of pan-seared morel mushrooms. (The recipe will work equally well with any number of mushrooms like button, cremini, shiitake, or oyster.)

The secret is to sauté the mushrooms in oil (or in this case chicken drippings and oil) which can stand up to searingly high heats, giving the mushrooms a chance to brown before adding some shallots and deglazing with some white wine and that gelatin/stock mixture.

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As the mixture hits the pan, it allows you to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom (that's fond if you've got your fancy pants on), adding to its flavor. It'll eventually reduce into a rich, creamy glaze that seeps into the deep pores of the mushrooms. Some butter enriches it while a splash of soy sauce brings out the umami flavor of the mushrooms.

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I finish it all off with a handful of chopped chives. It's hard to say which technique is more important here, the chicken or the mushrooms. Let's just say that it's a safe bet that by the time dinner is over, there will be no evidence of either one left behind.