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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Here's a statistic for you. Americans eat more chicken than any other kind of meat, on average 87 pounds a year per person. Our next guest has spent a lot of time pondering that statistic and is prepared to make this pronouncement.

CHRIS KIMBALL: Most of the time, people are over-cooking it.

MONTAGNE: So we're a nation eating overcooked chicken.

KIMBALL: Bad, overcooked chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Chris Kimball says it does not have to be that way. He's the host of "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS, and he's tested hundreds of recipes for his new cookbook devoted exclusively to the bird.

KIMBALL: Pan-roasted Chicken Breast with vermouth, leek and tarragon pan sauce.

We're going to start at the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

MONTAGNE: Not quite the beginning. We wheeled our cart through the aisles of this supermarket in Santa Monica to the poultry section.

KIMBALL: We have probably 15 feet of chicken. They are grown to have small legs and large breasts. Everyone likes white meat. So this is just average chicken.

MONTAGNE: For an above-average bird, Chris Kimball recommends you search out a kosher brand.

KIMBALL: Yeah, here's a kosher bird.

MONTAGNE: Koshers birds have what going for it that the average chicken doesn't?

KIMBALL: Well, there's a few things. First of all, they're slaughtered individually by hand, and a lot of people will claim - this is not going to increase anyone's appetite - but they're bled out properly, and as a result, the meat is better. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is they're salted. The salt and the water get into the meat, adds flavor and also makes a juicer chicken because when you roast it, the salt helps the meat, the protein, retain water.

And the last thing is salt tends to make chicken a little more tender. So for all those reasons, kosher is a good place to start.

MONTAGNE: And we choose a couple of packages of bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts. Another tip from Chris. They're more flavorful than the boneless, skinless kind.

Throw this in? That's it? Okay, we're set.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIMBALL: (Singing) Yeah, chicken, I said (unintelligible) chicken. (Unintelligible), anytime chicken, boiled chicken, fried chicken, (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: All right, let's head to the kitchen. The oven's pre-heating at 450 degrees, but this recipe begins on the top of the stove in a pan. Start with a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

KIMBALL: And when the oil just starts to shimmer and a little bit of smoke comes up, that's when you know that the pan's hot. People at home, they don't use enough heat. If you go in a restaurant kitchen, there's a tremendous amount of heat because if it's not hot enough, if you put chicken in, you're going to steam the food. You're not going to sauté it. You're not going to get any browning.

And by the way, when you take something like chicken and put it in the pan, you want to start it close to you and then put it away from you like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING FOOD)

MONTAGNE: For safety's sake.

KIMBALL: Safety's sake, right.

MONTAGNE: What is the seasoning on these chicken breasts?

KIMBALL: Salt and pepper. That's all we have. You want a lot of noise, and you want smoke and steam coming up because we're going to brown them skin-side down. This is four individual chicken breasts.

Now another thing is you don't want to check the chicken in the first couple minutes when you put it in the skillet because the skin's going to attach itself to the bottom.

I caught you. See I knew that's something you did. So you want to give it a minute.

MONTAGNE: You don't want to take your tongs and peek underneath.

KIMBALL: Well I'm not patient, so once in a while in the test kitchen, I'll do it, and everyone yells at me, and they say I have to wait.

So it should start to release. Like this will release nicely, okay?

MONTAGNE: Oh, gosh, it's nice and brown.

KIMBALL: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: This is splattering a lot.

KIMBALL: Yeah, it's messing. It's cooking - called cooking, yeah.

MONTAGNE: When the chicken is browned on both sides, that'll take about eight minutes, pop the pan into the oven. That's another 15 minutes or until cooked through, and one thing Chris always insists on: a good digital thermometer.

KIMBALL: And now we're reading 157, 159, 160, 161.

MONTAGNE: What are we going for here?

KIMBALL: One sixty-five.

MONTAGNE: Maybe it's overcooked.

KIMBALL: Do you see overcooked?

(Soundbite of chicken clucking.

MONTAGNE: And now for the pan sauce. One big payoff of browning the chicken in a skillet is that you're left with lots of tasty brown bits at the bottom. So we're going to stir in a bit of flour, three-quarters of a cup of broth and a half cup of vermouth, and we begin with one medium leek.

KIMBALL: So now we have just the white part of a leek.

MONTAGNE: Chopped up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

KIMBALL: And we're just going to soften the leek. We're not going to brown it or sauté it.

MONTAGNE: Don't forget to scrape up the good stuff on the bottom, and don't worry about remembering all of this. You can find the complete recipe at NPR.org along with a couple of others.

We're hungry, so let's skip ahead where we stirred in butter, whole-grain mustard and fresh tarragon.

It's beginning to look nice and rich. It went pretty quickly from liquid to being almost sauce.

KIMBALL: Most people serve chicken, they just serve it plain, and this is seven or eight minutes of work. It's very simple at the end.

MONTAGNE: So far, nothing's gone wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: Oh, if we spend enough time together, Renee, something will go wrong, as usual. Well you know, actually that's funny, but we learn everything - I've learned everything - just by making really bad food. I mean, if you make mistakes, that's when you learn how to cook because you make the mistake, and you say well gee, you know, why did that happen? And you go back and make it over and over again. So you know, making bad food is the beginning of becoming a good cook.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, Chris Kimball, who cooks for us on many a holiday. On this Memorial Day, we've been talking chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHICKEN DANCE")

MONTAGNE: And those, by the way, were cartoon clucks you just heard.

Chris Kimball hosts "America's Test Kitchen on PBS, and his new cookbook is called "The Best Chicken Recipes." And Robert, have you ever done the chicken dance?

SMITH: I've spent a lot of wedding avoiding doing the chicken dance. You're not going to rope me into it, are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: No, I'm not going to make you bend your arms into wings and flap them up and down.

SMITH: All right, look, I'll do it this once, but if you make me do the Macarena, outta here.

MONTAGNE: Let's go, go, go.

SMITH: Ok, everyone, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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