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.
“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.
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.
Slow Roast (No Brine) & Slow Roast (Dry Brine)
- 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.
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Rub the thighs with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place skin-side up in a roasting pan.
- 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
- Heat the oven to 475°F.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Sear & Roast
- 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.
- 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.
- Flip and cook the thighs for another 5 minutes, then transfer to the oven.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Batter & Fry
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cook, without moving, for 15 to 25 minutes, until the skin is golden and crispy. (If the skin begins to burn, reduce the heat.)
- 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.
- 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.