Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Chicken Thighs, According to So Many Tests

September 26, 2020
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and roasted more broccoli than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles chicken thighs.


It was summer of 2013, hot and sticky in the city, and I’d just acquired 12 chicken thighs.

Perhaps if I’d used my kitchen for anything before that point—a piece of toast, a bowl of cereal—I’d have felt less panic staring down those lumps of poultry: glaringly pink, skin puckered and pooling around the edges like oversize blankets.

But I’d just moved into my first adult apartment a few days prior, and like anyone high on realizing they can shove several boxes in the crawl space next to their bathroom to deal with at another time would have done, I’d invited over four friends for dinner. And then panic-purchased more chicken thighs than I knew what to do with. So I called my mom.

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Top Comment:
“On Sear and Roast you write: Roast uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer and the skin is puffed and crispy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. ----> Is it 10 more minutes or 1 1/2 to 2 hours (can't imagine that, but...). Then a couple paragraphs down it says: The sear and roast approach is especially efficient (about 35 minutes all in) and user-friendly. Huh? Please clarify. Thanks.”
— Lisa
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“What would you do with 12 chicken thighs in 85°F weather, if you also only have olive oil, salt, and lemon, but there’s a Fairway nearby, but also it’s 85°F so you don’t particularly want to go to it?” I said.

“Is this one of your riddles?” she asked. “I have to get go—”

“Did I mention you have two stockpots! And pretty much nothing else,” I said. “Also one of them is burned on the bottom because your college roommate used it to make hot sauce but wandered from the room.”

An hour later, an email appeared in my inbox like an apparition, featuring a recipe for what my mom calls Joan Chicken: thighs rubbed down with olive oil and seasoned generously, slow-roasted at 350°F until their skin is crisp as fried cabbage. It’s her riff on something she claims her friend Joan once made many decades ago at the beach. (Unconfirmed.) Also included in the email: instructions for scrubbing a burnt stockpot, a recipe for stockpot lentils, and a gentle reminder to buy wine.

The dinner party was a success, in the sense that I forgot to serve the lentils à la burnt stockpot because I did remember to buy wine, and I managed to get the chicken thighs pretty crispy. In the ensuing years, I’ve expanded my chicken thigh canon a bit, though I often turn back to Joan Chicken for its reliable output of juicy, flavorful, and very crispy thighs. So when my editor asked me to compare as many cooking methods as possible for Absolute Best Tests, after confirming she wasn’t asking me to solve a riddle, I agreed to expand my chicken thigh repertoire even more. Behold, the results.


Controls & Fine Print

I used two bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, all roughly the same size (about 6 ounces) for each test. Each thigh was seasoned only with salt, black pepper, and oil, except in methods where otherwise noted (i.e., tomatoes and broth for the braise; buttermilk, flour, and spices for the batter-fry; flour and butter for the oven-fry). Each thigh was cooked until the meat closest to the bone registered 165°F on an instant-read thermometer. No stockpots were harmed in the making of this column.


Methods & Findings

Slow Roast (No Brine) & Slow Roast (Dry Brine)

  1. If brining: The night before you plan to cook the chicken, season the thighs with salt and pepper. Refrigerate uncovered overnight. If not brining, proceed straight to the next step.
  2. Heat the oven to 350°F.
  3. Rub the thighs with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place skin-side up in a roasting pan.
  4. Roast, uncovered, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer and the skin is crispy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

A pared-down take on Joan Chicken, this method was not the most efficient, nor did it produce the most aesthetically pleasing specimens. But the meat itself was delicious, more deeply flavored than almost any other method (save for the braise, below), if a bit less juicy. Notably, both the dry-brined and unbrined thighs shrank more than any other thighs, suggesting they rendered more of their fat and juices. The dry-brined thigh was significantly more succulent than the unbrined one, and both had incredibly light, crispy skin that puffed up like a balloon mid-inflation, despite the resulting lighter tones.

Sear & High-Heat Roast

  1. Heat the oven to 475°F.
  2. Set a cast-iron skillet or heavy nonstick skillet over high heat. Add about 1 tablespoon of canola oil and, as it heats, season the thighs with salt and pepper.
  3. When the oil is shimmering, add the thighs skin-side down. Sear for 2 minutes, then lower the heat to medium-high. Continue to cook the thighs skin down for another 12 minutes or so, until the skin is crispy and golden.
  4. Transfer to the oven and roast uncovered for 13 minutes. Flip the thighs and cook for another 5 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer.

This method was based on the technique in Bon Appétit’s Cast-Iron Skillet Chicken Thighs. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

These thighs were on the opposite end of the spectrum from the slow roast, both in terms of appearance (caramel-colored with dense, crunchy skin) and efficiency (just 35 minutes from start to finish). The meat was juicy, with very little shrinkage, and cooked satisfyingly evenly, as compared to the skillet-only method. The flavor of the chicken itself was nothing special beyond the usual salt and pepper highlights, but thanks to the juiciness, it would have made for quite an enjoyable dinner were it not 11:15 a.m.

Photo by Ella Quittner

Sear & Roast

  1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Set a cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add about 1 tablespoon of canola oil and, as it heats, season the thighs with salt and pepper.
  2. When the oil is shimmering, add the thighs skin-side down. Sear for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the skin is deeply golden and crisp.
  3. Flip and cook the thighs for another 5 minutes, then transfer to the oven.
  4. Roast uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer and the skin is puffed and crispy.

This method was based on the technique in Josh Cohen’s recipe for One-Pan Crispy Chicken Thighs, stripped down to just vegetable oil, salt, and pepper. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

This technique is very similar to the sear and high-heat roast, with two key differences. Firstly, this method features an oven temp of 400°F—75°F lower than the other method. And secondly, Cohen calls for the thighs to be flipped prior to going in the oven, so the undersides get about 5 minutes of direct heat on the stove. This produces a nice crust on the bottom of each thigh, not unlike the skillet-only method, which is a bonus complement to crispy skin. The sear and roast approach is especially efficient (about 35 minutes all in) and user-friendly. The thighs here were a hair less juicy than the sear and high-heat roast results, though I’m not sure I could’ve told the difference blindfolded.

Braise

  1. Season the thighs all over with salt and pepper. Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Brown the thighs on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the thighs to a plate and pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of rendered fat.
  2. Add roughly 10 ounces of canned chopped tomatoes, 1/2 cup of chicken stock, and a pinch of salt. Bring the liquid to a simmer, scraping up brown bits. Nestle the thighs in the sauce, skin-side up.
  3. Cook, partially covered, at a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes, until the thighs are tender and the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer.

This method was based on the technique in Merrill Stubbs’ Braised Chicken Thighs With Tomato & Garlic, stripped down to just olive oil, salt, pepper, canned chopped tomatoes, and chicken stock. Check out the full recipe for more details and tips.

Braised chicken thighs have a lot going for them. Namely, velvety meat that’s flavored with whatever you simmer them in, and a ready-made serving sauce. The main knock against braised thighs is the lack of bracingly crispy skin. While this technique does have you brown both sides of the thighs before braising, resulting in an initially golden exterior, the skin ultimately wilts during the partially covered braising step. Still beautiful and flavorful, but it’s not going to win any awards for structural integrity.

Photo by Ella Quittner

Batter & Fry

  1. Brine or marinate the chicken (in, say, water into which you’ve dissolved sugar and salt and added spices for a brine, or buttermilk spiked with hot sauce, garlic powder, and other seasonings for a marinade), for some hours in advance.
  2. If you brined in seasoned buttermilk, proceed to step 3. If you marinated in something besides buttermilk, you may at this stage dunk it in seasoned buttermilk. (Some recipes will also call for the addition of eggs and/or vodka to the buttermilk.)
  3. Dredge the chicken thighs in a mixture of seasoned flour (see the recipes above for specifics, but I used garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper, salt, cornstarch, and cayenne pepper).
  4. Heat neutral oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until it’s around 325°F to 350°F, then fry each thigh until golden, about 10 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels before serving.

This method was based on the technique in a few recipes, including Buxton Hall Barbecue’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Aaron Hutcherson’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and Chef James’ Classic Southern Buttermilk Bathed Fried Chicken. It’s worth checking out the full recipes for more details and tips.

I would eat battered and fried chicken at any time of day, at any time of year, in any emotional state. I would eat it even if my greatest enemy made it and thereby got to experience the satisfaction of my enjoyment. It’s a pretty much perfect food when done correctly, with a craggy, sapid shell that locks in the thigh’s moisture, so its interior remains juicy enough to inspire a Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion duet.

Oven-Fry

  1. Combine 2 tablespoons of salt and 1 cup of warm water in a large bowl. Add the chicken thighs and a tray of ice cubes to brine the meat for a few hours in the fridge. Heat the oven to 400°F and place a roasting pan with a few tablespoons of butter inside as it warms up.
  2. Combine all-purpose flour and a few pinches each of salt and ground black pepper in a zip-top bag. Pat dry the thighs and add to the bag. Seal and shake, then remove the thighs, tapping off excess flour.
  3. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and add the thighs, skin side down. Oven-fry for about 40 minutes, until the skin is crispy and deeply browned. Flip and cook for about another 20 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer.

This method was based on the technique in Judy Hesser’s Oven-Fried Chicken. Check out the recipe for more details and tips.

If you’re looking for something relatively low-mess that produces a satisfying crunch and juicy meat, the oven-fry technique for chicken thighs is a revelation. It’s not particularly hands-off, nor is it efficient when you factor in the brine (which you shouldn’t skip), but the meat turns out surprisingly tender and soft, with an exterior like a savory version of Magic Shell. Despite the thighs’ shrunken, wizened appearance, they were delightful.

Skillet Only

  1. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to a cast-iron skillet and place over medium heat. Season the thighs with salt and pepper, and add to the skillet, skin-side down.
  2. Cook, without moving, for 15 to 25 minutes, until the skin is golden and crispy. (If the skin begins to burn, reduce the heat.)
  3. Flip the thighs and continue to cook until the meat closest to the bone reaches 165°F, 12 to 15 minutes.

This method was based on a pared-down version of Canal House’s technique. Check out the recipe for more details and tips.

Of the bunch, these thighs had the best double crust, by which I mean a caramelized, crisp bottom as well as crunchy skin. (This is excluding the battered-fried and oven-fried thighs, which had unfair advantages in that department.) The skillet-only approach was fairly no-fuss, requiring only a stovetop, and took no longer than 45 minutes. The only disadvantage was that the meat cooked somewhat unevenly, since the thighs didn’t sit flat—I had to jostle them around to make sure the thickest parts were cooking through.


So, What's the Best Way?

  • Battered and fried chicken thighs are far and away the best combination of juiciness, crispness, and all-around deliciousness.
  • Should you love a breaded crust but find yourself short on oil, give Judy Hesser’s oven-fried chicken a try.
  • If you’re looking for a quick, relatively easy path to crispy-skinned thighs with juicy meat, call in the skillet-only method.
  • If you’re a stickler for even cooking, the sear and high-heat roast method is the way to go.
  • For beautifully flavored meat and a light, crisp skin, try the dry brine and slow roast.
  • For especially tender, fully flavored meat with a wonderful and simple pan sauce, try Merrill Stubbs’ tomato-braised thighs.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

39 Comments

Nan October 12, 2020
Magic Spice Blend Chicken Thighs from this website is one of my go-to recipes for a quick prep dinner. Delicious just as the recipe is written. I keep the Magic Spice in a shaker and can have the chicken in the oven in minutes. Line the pan with foil for a super quick clean up.
 
Lisa October 11, 2020
On Sear and Roast you write: Roast uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer and the skin is puffed and crispy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. ----> Is it 10 more minutes or 1 1/2 to 2 hours (can't imagine that, but...). Then a couple paragraphs down it says: The sear and roast approach is especially efficient (about 35 minutes all in) and user-friendly. Huh? Please clarify. Thanks.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 16, 2020
Thanks for flagging this! It was indeed a typo. Fixed :)
 
Laura H. October 11, 2020
hmm...I dry brine, give them time, and then roast in the oven at 325 degrees and they are done (165 degrees) within 40 minutes. Yet you need 1 1/2 - 2 hours?
 
Lisa October 11, 2020
I submitted the same. Most likely an error in editing. Feel bad for the inexperienced cook that may follow those directions! :D
 
Lisa October 11, 2020
On Sear and Roast you write: Roast uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the meat closest to the bone registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer and the skin is puffed and crispy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. ----> Is it 10 more minutes or 1 1/2 to 2 hours (can't imagine that, but...). Then a couple paragraphs down it says: The sear and roast approach is especially efficient (about 35 minutes all in) and user-friendly. Huh? Please clarify. Thanks.
 
bgibbs October 11, 2020
Since you laud the original "Joan" chicken, why not give us the recipe for that? I'd like to see it as the base line against which the other methods are measured.
 
Pamela_in_Tokyo October 12, 2020
She mentions where to find the Joan recipe in the article: https://food52.com/recipes/81613-one-pan-crispy-chicken-thighs-with-roasted-potatoes-zucchini-tomatoes
 
bgibbs October 12, 2020
Well, I don't think so. The link you give takes you to Josh Cohen's recipe for skillet roasted chicken with potatoes, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and oregano, which does sound delicious, but it's not Joan Chicken. The author says the Slow Roast (Brined or No Brine) is a "pared down" version of Joan Chicken. I'd like to know the full, original recipe.
 
Pamela_in_Tokyo October 12, 2020
I’m sorry, I misread the sentence, you are right, that is Josh Cohen’s recipe.
 
Alex October 11, 2020
Skillet Only method is my current favorite, when i don't have time to prep fried chicken (which is always the best) :D

In love with One-Skillet Smoky Turmeric Chicken With Crispy Chickpeas
https://food52.com/recipes/83166-turmeric-chicken-recipe-with-crispy-chickpeas
 
Marketmaster October 11, 2020
My favorite recipe for thighs is actually written for a whole cut up chicken, but I think it works best with thighs. It comes from Susan Herrmann loomis’s French Farmhouse Cookbook by way of David Lebovitz. You basically toss the chicken with some chopped shallots, a little red wine vinegar, soy sauce and olive oil, and roast at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes, turning a couple of times. You can find the recipe along with one of David’s mouthwatering photo at davidlebovitz.com. It’s simple and the thighs turn out velvety and delicious. I use less oil than the recipe calls for because the thighs render enough schmaltz as they roast
 
Teresa D. October 11, 2020
Maybe you could re-post and correct your "cut & paste" error? It's in "Sear & Roast." 1st you say "ten minutes," and then you add a comma and "1 1/12 - 2 hours." I think you cut and pasted from the sentence above and forgot to delete the last few words. If I'm wrong, then I have NO CLUE why anyone would cook a 6-ounce chicken thigh for two hours!!??!! I could roast - and did last night - a 5-pound chicken in 1 1/2 hours (90 minutes). The WHOLE chicken I roasted last night (Martha Stewart's thyme, garlic, lemon, butter stuffed) was moist, crispy skin, and delicious. The only thing you could do with a chicken thigh cooked for 90 minutes is play hockey with it.
 
Bruce W. October 11, 2020
Essentially the headline promises but the article and conclusion don’t deliver.
Stream of conciousness is all the rage but I lose patience with literary meanderings while looking for the point.
 
GDad October 11, 2020
I am disappointed; you really didn't answer the question: "What is the absolute best way to cook chicken thighs". A definitive answer would have been nice. Let me put it another way: If you could only cook chicken thighs one way for the rest of your life, what ways would that be?
 
Glenn October 12, 2020
Wasn't that answered by this statement at end: Battered and fried chicken thighs are far and away the best combination of juiciness, crispness, and all-around deliciousness.
 
Gillian M. October 11, 2020
No mention of Airfryers - so many people are using them especially when cooking for one or two people.
 
D M. October 11, 2020
I'd agree. I was skeptical of the air fryer but after begrudgingly getting one, I think it deserves a serious mention. Ive had good results just throwing them in salt and peppered or brined but the absolute best results come from sous viding them first and finishing in AF. So crispy yet like butter on the inside.
 
abevrob12 October 11, 2020
This article was really well written, I not only enjoyed reading about the different methods, but will use 3 of them without doubt. Thank you for a tutorial even a new cook, which I am not, can follow.
 
james October 11, 2020
Why no wet brine? I find that a 2hr wet brine followed by a couple of hours in the refrigerator uncovered, to dry the skin out, then a 40 minute cold smoke sets the thighs up for nice oven roast. Thighs are flavorful and juicy with crisp skin. Takes planning time but minimal active work time.
 
Leslie L. October 11, 2020
Chicken thighs are always my go to. I could feed chicken to my DH daily and would not get a complaint. I have always cooked them at 400 degrees with a dry brine the only thing I do different is I cook the thighs on a wire rack with a roasting pan underneath to catch all the fat that drips off. There is a nice crust both top and bottom. I never find them dry. Lately I have been putting fingerling or small potatoes under the rack. They come out perfect and make a nice dinner. The chicken thigh is cooked in an hour.
 
Marguerite September 30, 2020
What? The article suggests that dipping the marinated or brined chicken thighs into flour was the “batter” method. But that’s not a batter — it’s “breading.”
Even the three-dish method (coating the chicken with flour, then dipping it in beaten egg mixture or other thick, sticky mixture, and then coating with breadcrumbs) is “breading” the chicken.

For an example of “batter fried chicken,” see this
https://leitesculinaria.com/89229/recipes-batter-fried-chicken.html
 
Rachel P. September 29, 2020
This was really interesting, but why so much oil? When I'm searing them first yes I put a little in the pan to get things started and prevent sticking, but you don't need to oil chicken skin at all if you're just roasting them - there is enough fat in that skin for them to go beautifully crispy on their own! I would have liked to see that discussed, too.
 
Karen October 11, 2020
I agree with Rachel P. I never rub chicken thighs with oil before roasting. I salt and pepper them, roast at 375 degrees, and baste them with their own pan juices after half an hour of roasting time. If if remember, I baste them once again about 5 or 10 minutes before they are done. They always come out perfectly crispy and can be served with a side of barbecue sauce, fresh lemon, or whatever else strikes your fancy that evening. Easiest meal ever, because it's no fuss and you can prepare side dishes while the thighs roast.
 
Amber H. September 28, 2020
The way I have done my chicken for years is a combo of Batter & Fry with Oven Fry. I marinate my chicken in buttermilk overnight till close to supper the next day. I drain the chicken, give a quick rinse then break a egg over top, add paprika, mix by hand. Then dredge in salt and peppered flour ( lately almond or gf flour). Heat oven (400) before taking chicken out of fridge so oil is hot enough after Chicken is dredged. put all pieces in large oil heated cake pan. turn after 20 mins and finish cooking. I started oven frying chicken after reading the "Aunt Bea's Mayberry Cookbook".
 
Jody September 28, 2020
I believe that your bake time on the Sear and Roast version is incorrect. It cannot take 1 1/2 - 2 hours at 400 to finish cooking them. I like Judy Hesser's oven-fried version, but mine have never come out as dark as the ones you have pictured. Now I want fried chicken....
 
brnpttmn September 28, 2020
Of all the things a Kamado cooks well, chicken thighs and brats are the best. Chicken thighs (seasoned how you prefer) skin up at 375°-400° indirect heat with some cherry wood chips for 30-45 minutes. Serve with a 2:1 mix of Franks and bleu cheese dressing.
 
SarahWarn September 27, 2020
Far greatest return on (nearly no) effort (to make OR to clean up): Salt the thighs generously, add some pepper and garlic powder if you like. Throw them in a 425 degree oven, with convection is you can, until the skin is crisp on top (about 20-25 minutes).

If you're really lazy put them in a cold oven and let the meat start cooking as the oven warms up. Remember to put them on parchment or else your cleanup will involve a lot more effort. Cook gets to dip bread in the pan renderings, if that's how you like to roll.