Whole black pepper on wooden spoon

In this chicken recipe, the fiery pop of black pepper (above) combined with the cool, herb flavors of ranch dressing elevate baked chicken breasts to a new level.

Whenever I’m thinking about ways to add variety to chicken recipes, my spice rack always provides inspiration. Freshly ground peppercorns add a much-needed boost to the mild flavors of chicken, pork and fish. They come in a variety of shades, including white, green, pink, red and black. The color depends on the maturity of the berry.

All peppercorns come from the seed of the tropical “Piper nigrum” plant. About 50 berries grow in spiky clusters on long vines supported on posts. Black peppercorn berries are picked before fully ripening and allowed to ferment for two to three days. Then the berries are spread out in an even layer and sun-dried for two to three days until shriveled and nearly black.

Crushed black peppercorns or freshly ground black pepper combined with ranch dressing makes a spicy, flavorful coating for baked chicken. Ranch dressing has been one of America’s favorite condiments for more than 40 years. It’s used on everything from salads to pizza to potato chips.

One of the best-known brands of ranch dressing was created by Steve Henson. Steve and his wife, Gayle, purchased 120 acres of picturesque ranch land outside Santa Barbara, California, in 1954. They named their new property Hidden Valley and started a dude ranch.

Every night, they treated their guests to a homemade meal featuring a salad topped with a creamy, herb- and spice-flavored buttermilk dressing that Steve had created in Alaska. Guests loved his ranch dressing and asked for jars to take home. Soon there was so much demand that the Hensons started a mail-order business, shipping bottles and dry package mixes of their Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing around the United States. The brand was bought by the Clorox company in 1972.

In today’s recipe, the fiery pop of black pepper combined with the cool, herb flavors of ranch dressing elevate baked chicken breasts to a new level.

Baked chicken breasts in spicy ranch dressing

Panko breadcrumbs are made from a light, Japanese-style bread. When used as a coating, Panko breadcrumbs add an extra crunch without deep-frying, making it the perfect coating for baking in the oven or stove-top cooking methods. Regular packaged breadcrumbs also will work for this recipe.

2 to 3 pounds (4 to 6 pieces) boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 (16-ounce bottle) ranch dressing

1 small onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons black or mixed peppercorns, freshly ground or finely crushed

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups Panko or dried breadcrumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cooking oil spray

1. Heat oven to 375 F. Spray a large, 13-by-9-inch oven-safe baking dish with cooking oil spray and set it aside.

2. Rinse and pat dry the chicken breasts with food-safe paper towels. Season both sides of the chicken with 1 tablespoon of the poultry seasoning and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine ranch dressing, onions, garlic, black pepper or peppercorns, and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Using a large plate, combine Panko or breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and remaining tablespoon of poultry seasoning and salt.

4. Place chicken in ranch dressing mixture, coating each piece. Roll chicken in breadcrumb mixture until coated on both sides. Place chicken in the prepared baking pan. Spray chicken with cooking-oil spray.

5. Place chicken in the oven and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until chicken is tender and golden brown and no pink remains in the center. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

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