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By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2012

Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Published September 2012

How we tested

Americans roast plenty of whole chickens, but they cook even more chicken breasts. The lean white meat portions account for 60 percent of the chicken sold in stores, and the vast majority of those are the boneless, skinless variety. For that reason, we decided to follow up our whole chicken tasting with an evaluation of the most popular cut.

As it happened, we recommended only one of the eight breasts we sampled without reservations, and it was the only brand to track closely with its whole chicken counterpart. What’s more, tasters’ comments made clear that while flavor is paramount in whole birds, chicken breasts (which we tasted lightly salted and baked to 165 degrees) are all about texture. In fact, tasters deemed the flavor of this blandest part of the bird more or less the same across the board.

Our investigation homed in on processing. And it was only when we asked the manufacturer of our winner to walk us through its methods that we uncovered a good, albeit peculiar, lead for our findings: Once a whole chicken is broken down into parts, the breasts are “aged” on the bone in chilled containers for as long as 12 hours before the bones (and skin) are removed. This aging period, it turns out, actually improves tenderness.

“When you bone [too soon], the meat will be tough because there is still energy in the muscle,” said Casey Owens, associate professor of poultry processing at the University of Arkansas. “Cutting it can cause the muscle to contract, and a shorter, contracted muscle is related to tougher meat.” Owens also explained that while four to six hours of chilling before boning is effective—and 12 hours is ideal—many companies skip the aging process altogether. Why? Building time into the process costs money. Instead, some opt for shortcut tenderizing methods like electrical stimulation of the carcass, which forces the breast muscle to contract and relax, releasing its energy.

Tasters noticed the difference, lauding our winner for being “mega-juicy and tender” (not to mention praising their “clean, chicken-y” flavor) and deeming the texture of breasts that came from an electrically stimulated carcass “unremarkable.” Its $6.99 per pound price tag makes it the second priciest brand in our lineup, but we think the premium results more than justify the premium expense.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*