Cooking vacuum-packed food in a warm water bath, or sous vide as the French call it, is all the rage nowadays in fashionable restaurants and homes, so I've been experimenting with it, with excellent results so far. This recipe certainly produces by far the best chicken breast that I have ever tasted. Since the cut is very lean, and tends to dry out very quickly at high temperatures, it is ideally suited to this method of low-temperature cooking.
Note that you will need to spend some time working out an improvised way of doing this, or buy some expensive equipment. You will at least need an accurate food thermometer which can be immersed in water.
2 chicken breasts (skinless, but remove the skin and use it if you have it - see below)
2 tsp of chicken stock (optional)
salt and pepper
a little vegetable oil
First you need to vacuum pack the chicken. Season the chicken breasts and place each one in a separate zip-lock food bag and flatten it out. Add a teaspoon of chicken stock for a bit of added flavour, if you like. Then, in a water bath (I use a small drainer sink in my kitchen full of tap water, but a large bowl would do) slowly immerse the open bag into the water, bottom first, making sure that no water enters the bag at any stage. The pressure of the water should force the air out. Sink the bag until you get to the zip lock, then carefully and slowly close the bag, expelling all of the air. Repeat for the other breast.
Now to set up the water bath. I have used two methods. One uses an insulated coolbag, the other uses a rice cooker. The basic principle is that you get the water to 62 degrees C, add the vacuum-packed meat, and then maintain that temperature by adding more hot or cold water, monitoring the temperature carefully with a thermometer. The cool bag will be good for maintaining temperature, and will just need topping up from the kettle from time to time. The rice cooker (on 'keep warm' setting) might tend to allow the temperature to creep up, so will need the occasional addition of cold water.
Cook the chicken in this manner (sous vide) for around 2 hours at 62 degrees C. To be sure about food safety and pasteurization, and much more on this method of cooking, read Douglas Baldwin's notes and charts in his excellent online guide to cooking sous vide.
When the chicken is done, heat a frying pan with a little vegetable oil to a very high temperature. Remove the chicken from the bag, pat dry, and flash fry in the pan for a few seconds on each side. This will add a more pleasing appearance and taste to the otherwise slightly anaemic-looking, but extremely moist and tasty chicken breast. Don't be tempted to let it cook for more than a couple of seconds, or you will undo all of the good work of the past few hours of creating a juicy piece of meat.
If you have the chicken skin, you can make 'chicken scratchings' as a snack while you are waiting, or as an accompaniment to the chicken. Chop it into very small pieces, then fry in a very hot pan (I use a small wok) with a little oil, ground pepper, sea salt and crushed garlic until brown and crispy. Add the garlic late to avoid burning it.
I served this with risotto, and local asparagus which was in season, which worked well. We drank a white Rioja with it;.
You can buy a sous vide cooker with thermostatic temperature control from Lakeland for £250. I'm also wondering whether I can lay my hands on a second-hand piece of laboratory equipment that can do this.
If you are researching sous vide cooking online, you will find many (mainly US) recipes that suggest brining meat before cooking. Americans seem obsessed with this technique, but, as far as I can tell so far, it only dries out and oversalts meat cooked sous vide.