When it comes to chicken, some cooks are beholden to the breast, but I’m a thigh girl—no ifs, ands, or buts.
I get the appeal of breasts. They’re easy on the eyes, unfussy, and dependable—the food equivalent of having a crush on the pretty-boy next door. Thighs, on the other hand, are rougher around the edges. Their sexy-ugly lumpiness might scare you a little, and you may not be sure quite what to do with them, but you’re drawn to them anyway. In other words, chicken thighs are the Dylan McKay to breasts’ Brandon Walsh.
But in terms of cooking, there are a few actual technical reasons why skin-on, bone-in thighs get a leg up: they’re fattier (read: more flavor), their dark meat is versatile and forgiving, and they’re affordable. Hence, why thighs always best the breast.
Lastly, once you master how to braise them, you—and your chicken—are golden. It’s the ideal method for getting crisp skin and tender, juicy meat. Case in point: a recipe from renowned NYC chef Marco Canora, which started my thigh infatuation. In his Mediterranean braise, thighs are seared in a cast-iron pan, turned and joined with whole cloves of garlic before being taken out. Onions and lemon slices are sauteed to add flavor, then the chicken thighs and garlic go back in the pan along with some olives and a squeeze of lemon. To finish it off, the whole thing goes into the oven at 350° F to finish cooking. It’s the perfect one-pan meal.
What I discovered after making the recipe a couple of times, first with his exact ingredients, is that his technique is foolproof. Every single time, the skin gets crisp and browned. Every single time, the meat is juicy and cooked all the way through. But as with all types of cooking, the fun begins when you start to experiment: You can try other aromatics (leeks, shallots), add-ins (beans, potatoes, greens, herbs, capers), and liquids (wine, stock, vinegar) to mix up the flavors, while still getting a perfectly cooked piece of chicken.
One of my favorite versions is also Mediterranean-ish in flavor: I slide some dill sprigs under the chicken thigh skin before I sear it. I still use garlic and lemons, but substitute the onions for leeks and add in some canned chickpeas. Kale goes in 15 minutes before the dish is done baking. Then I serve it all with chopped fresh dill and a dill-lemon-yogurt sauce.
But that’s just one variation. Once you have the technique down, the thigh’s the limit.
Here’s what you’ll need to braise like a pro:
Set the oven to 350° F and heat the oil in your cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. I always pat the chicken dry, and I like to stuff fresh herbs under the skin for extra flavor—but it’s a nice touch, not a requirement. Season both sides of the chicken aggressively, then plop it down in the oil, skin-side down, and DO NOT MOVE IT for about 8 minutes (this is more time than Marco recommends, but I like my skin really crisp). Seriously. Let it sizzle. If you attempt to move the chicken, it’ll stick to the pan. Turn the chicken over and toss in the garlic cloves (if using). Let them get nice and brown while the other side cooks for 3 to 4 minutes more, then remove the chicken and garlic from the pan.
This step is where you’re going to really build flavor. Marco’s recipe uses sliced onions and sliced lemons. (I’d recommend sticking with the lemons, because as they cook, their juices release all the browned meaty bits at the bottom of the pan.) Start with your alliums, like leeks, onions, or shallots, then build from there with beans and/or vegetables of your choosing. Add briny elements, like capers and olives, towards the end of this step. If you’re going the greens route, don’t add them until about 15 minutes before the chicken is done in the oven. Otherwise, they’ll get soggy. The chicken needs about 45 minutes in the oven, but cooking time will depend on the heartiness of your vegetables (potatoes and other starchy vegetables will take longer). You want everything to be just shy of cooked all the way through so it doesn’t break down too much in the oven, so make sure you taste and test along the way.
Nestle the chicken and garlic back into the pan, and pour any juices that have released from the bird over the top. Dress the entire thing with a couple of tablespoons of liquid (if using lemon, the juice of one will do). Put the entire pan in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is done.
To be honest, chicken braised in this way is so flavorful that you don’t actually need a sauce. But with my chickpea version, and with others, I’ve made a yogurt dipping sauce that brings everything together. My version is essentially 1 cup of yogurt, juice from 1/2 a lemon, 2 tablespoons chopped dill, and a pinch each of salt and pepper—but any kind of yogurt-based sauce works here.
Spoon a thigh and some vegetables onto your plate, making sure to get some of the pan juices as well. If you’re using, sprinkle some fresh herbs over the top. When you cut into the chicken and hear the skin crackle, you know the thigh is right.
How do you like to prepare braised chicken? Let us know in the comments!