How to Cook Chicken Thighs Perfectly, According to a Chef Who Makes Them Every Day
Right this way for the juiciest meat and crispiest skin imaginable.
Have you ever ordered chicken at a nice restaurant and wondered why it tastes so much better than that which you make at home? Same. The tender, juicy meat that practically melts off the bone! The burnished copper skin that audibly crackles when you take a bite! How?
I chatted with Nick Perkins, chef-owner of the restaurants Hart’s, Cervo’s and The Fly in New York, to answer this question. Although all of his restaurants have chicken on the menu in one form or another, The Fly restaurant in particular brands itself as: "A chicken bar with wine, cocktails and beer," meaning that they serve a lot of chicken, and really darn well. In fact, based on the several times I’ve dined at The Fly, I can confidently say it’s some of the best poultry I’ve had in my life.
During our interview, we focused on how to cook bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs at home. Although they’re not as large and unwieldy as whole chickens, chicken thighs have the potential to become just as juicy and tender.
The Most Important Thing You Should Do When Buying Chicken
You might have noticed that chicken packaging has lots of different labels on it. Do the labels matter? Which ones should you pay attention to? Perkins says that a chicken’s diet has an impact on its flavor: "You are what you eat, and I think that’s true of animals. A varied died ends up making a tasty chicken," he explained. An example of the impact of diet? Some of the chicken served at his restaurants come from a farm where the chickens eat lots of marigolds, which actually turns their backs a really beautiful, special orange color. In the grocery store, the best thing you can do is look for the organic and free-range labels, which mean that, more often than not, the chicken has some room to forage for part of its diet.
How to Make Perfect Chicken Thighs
Although careful to point out that there are many different ways to cook chicken thighs, Perkins walked me through the way his restaurants might cook them (tailoring the technique a bit so it’s suitable for home cooks). The secret? Searing chicken thighs and then braising them, low and slow.
You’ll see the technique detailed below, but first, note that you can and should make them ahead of time, if possible. Perkins recalled that his Italian grandmother always impressed upon him that roasted, marinated dishes become better the second day: "She would make these amazing roasted marinated vegetable lunches. We’d be like, 'grandma, this came out great.' And she’d be like, 'oh yeah, the peppers came out well, but they’ll be better tomorrow.' I think that’s true of braising,” he said. In his restaurants, Perkins tries to braise the chicken thighs, let them sit overnight in the refrigerator and warm them up the next day with a little bit of that braising liquid over really low heat.
- Season the chicken. Season the chicken thighs with sea salt all over. Rub the flesh sides of the chicken thighs (you know, the sides that don’t have skin) with a spice rub. Keep things simple! Hart’s uses one with ingredients like fennel seeds, coriander, garlic and lemon zest, while The Fly leans on paprika, garlic and lemon zest. Drizzle olive oil over the spice rub.
- Marinate for 1 to 2 days. Place the chicken thighs skin-side up on a plate and allow them to sit, uncovered in the fridge for 1 to 2 days. This is a step that restaurants make time for, and it makes all the difference in terms of added flavor.
- Brown the skin on the stove over medium heat. Heat a large skillet over high heat, add some olive oil and place the thighs in the skillet skin side down — they can be touching, but need enough room to move around. Reduce the heat to medium. Many recipes call for high-heat cooking the whole time, but medium heat actually makes for crispier skin and gorgeous, unburnt pan-drippings (more on those later). Now let the chicken thighs cook without futzing with them, shaking the pan every now and then. When the chicken thighs release from the pan and are able to move around, you can gently grasp their sides with a pair of tongs to check for golden brown color.
- Transfer the chicken to a plate, skin side up. At this point, the chicken will be still raw, so it’s okay to use the plate you used for marinating. It’s best to transfer the chicken to a plate, not a wire rack or paper towels, because you want to save all the juices that come out of the chicken. That’s the good stuff.
- Cook other vegetables in the same pan. Cook vegetables and aromatics like onion, garlic and herbs in the same pan you cooked the chicken in – yep, in the rendered chicken fat with all of those golden-brown pan drippings. Add three parts stock and one part wine to the pan and bring that to a simmer. Transfer the mixture to your Dutch oven and add your chicken thighs, skin side up — plus any juices that accumulated on the plate. The liquid should go 2/3 of the way up the thighs.
- Braise the chicken until it’s tender. Cover the braiser, transfer it to an oven preheated to 275 or 300 degrees F and braise the chicken for about 1 and a half hours. By this time, the chicken will definitely be cooked through, so the indicator you’re looking for is tenderness. If the chicken thighs look rubbery and seized up like little pucks, they’ll probably be cooked through but not tender yet. Keep cooking. You want them to be practically falling off the bone.
- Serve the chicken and all its juices. At this point, a beautiful light sauce will have formed from all the natural chicken juices and the aromatics you cooked around the chicken. Spoon it onto the plate with the chicken for tons of flavor.