Weeknight Cooking

The Genius Way to Cook Chicken Thighs (That Are Better than Fried)

May  6, 2015

Every week—often with your help—Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Kristen is gallavanting around on the Genius Recipes cookbook tour, so she's sharing an excerpt from the book (and a new favorite chicken recipe). 

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"Short of turning chicken on a spit over live wood embers, I know of no better process for cooking chicken, nor one that delivers more satisfying or true flavors,” Paul Bertolli wrote of this technique, which he calls "bottom-up cooking," in Cooking by Hand.

You don’t sear, and you don’t roast, and you don’t grill—you don’t do any of the things we’re taught to do to chicken. Instead, you lay the chicken, skin side down, in a barely hot pan. Then you leave it mostly alone for about 30 minutes, flipping only once. The skin becomes impossibly crisp, enough so to satisfy your darkest fried chicken cravings.

Bertolli’s is a worthy technique to play with, but Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House have streamlined it for us. They use only thighs, which lie flat, maximizing the crisping area, and jigsaw easily into a round skillet. Unlike Bertolli, they also allow for a bit of olive oil to get the process rolling.

The simplest version of the sauce has only minced-up preserved lemon stirred into the pan juices at the end, but you can play with this technique as you like. Hirsheimer and Hamilton suggest two more seasoning variations—sherry and mushrooms, or bacon and olives. You can deglaze and make a gravy or a fancy pan sauce. Or just eat all the chicken as fast as you can.

Canal House's Chicken Thighs with Lemon

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Freshly ground black pepper
Rind from half of a preserved lemon, finely chopped*
Lemon wedges, for serving

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

*Please note this correction from the first edition of Genius Recipes, in which "finely chopped" was missing—the second typo we've discoveredThe first was weightier.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

The Genius Recipes cookbook is finally here! The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites—all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It's on shelves now, or you can order your copy here.

Photo by James Ransom

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  • Big D
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Big D. December 27, 2015
I discovered this recipe when you ran it about 4 months ago.. By far the easiest, best chicken recipe in the world. I've made it at least 5 times since.
Using the preserved lemon is a must besides the crisp skin, the lemon flavor is sooo yummy.
'Ome June 28, 2015
Chicken thighs are great and so forgiving to cook. I love cooking them like this but often season them first with Jerk; Cajun, Portuguese or any other tantalising seasonings I have on hand.

Try looking on www.omemade.co.uk for some great rubs to spice up your chicken thighs!
Nicole May 27, 2015
I have bone-in, skin on leg quarters and full breasts. Will either/both work?
Nicole May 27, 2015
I went ahead and cooked the legs and breasts, and they turned out great! The legs especially, as they were flat so a lot of the surface area hit the pan. 35 minutes on the skin side, 15 minutes on the underside. The breasts were a little trickier; since they're mostly bone on the underside I had to finish them in the oven for 10 minutes. Didn't have preserved lemons so I did a squeeze of fresh lemon and capers. Thanks for another genius recipe!
Deborah Q. May 26, 2015
You can buy preserved lemons at Trader Joes right now.
kay May 20, 2015
At what stage are the thighs flipped over?
Carol May 11, 2015
Would this work as well with skinless chicken legs
Alexandra S. May 12, 2015
Hi Carol — I don't think skinless legs will work here. You need the skin to protect the meat from getting dried out. And the crispy skin is SO good.
Lynette May 10, 2015
Maureen, thanks so much for the detailed instructions! I really want to try this and love the idea of no preservatives/added chemicals. I've made a similar dish from nomnompaleo called cracklin' chicken, leaving skin on thighs but taking bones out. We love it, because we feel better about eating semi-fried chicken and using ghee or avocado oil. It's similar, but no preserved lemons. I'd like to try something different and this sounds like it!
Andre'a May 10, 2015
Hate to be a bubble-burster, but my family has been cooking chicken thighs using this technique for years. I will have to try it with the preserves lemons tho, that addition sounds pretty yummy!
Pearl P. May 10, 2015
There's a lot of typos in theses recipes. The worst one I tried was the One Pot Mac and Cheese. You don't use water to boil the pasta you use milk at a lower temp and you don't pour it off when the noodles are tender, you add cheese. It was the biggest mess, lol. It came out to be one big glob. It was insanely starchy and tasted awful. You couldn't even spoon it out, it required cutting with a knife.
Lynette May 10, 2015
Where do you get preserved lemons?
Maureen May 10, 2015
Lynette, you can usually get them in Middle-Eastern or African grocery stores but just know that they are pretty pricey if you can even find them.

OR you can make your own [very simple process - find numerous recipes on internet or see below] They last a l-o-n-g time even without refrigeration or chemical preservatives, the salt does this job.

Making your own involves slitting washed lemons into quarters length-wise about 3/4 down [best if organic because there is no yucky resin/waxy additives to preserve the skin for longer shelf-life] but remember to leave the pieces attached/uncut at one end. Stuff each lemon with about 1 teaspoon of salt [I like sea salt or coarse/kosher salt], in between its quarters. Put the fruits into a jar where they are rather tightly-fitting, and leave them in a sunny window for a few weeks, then move them to pantry or cupboard. The salt will eventually cause the lemon juice to ooze out. When oozed liquid becomes thickish/gelatinous when you tip the jar, then they are ready to use.

"Lynette, it does require some lead-time but it's baby-steps simple and requires little attention, and is a LOT less expensive and more accessible than trying to find them ready-made. And you won't have the inevitable preservatives/added chemicals. I have made my own for >20 years and it works with limes also, never tried oranges. Good luck, it's worth it and you can even share with friends!
Pearl P. May 10, 2015
You can make your own preserved lemons very simply. Google "preserved lemons recipe".
sarah H. May 10, 2015
Thanks for the quick lesson
GrandmaGG November 16, 2015
Thanks for sharing your method for preserving lemons. What do you use the preserved limes for?
Alexandra S. May 7, 2015
This is my favorite chicken. I give people preserved lemons just so they can make this dish — it is so so good!
Barbara L. May 7, 2015
this sounds terrific. one question: boned or de-boned thighs?
Alexandra S. May 7, 2015
Bone-in thighs! So good!