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Cooking Tips

Why It Can Pay to NOT Preheat Your Skillet

Conventional wisdom says to preheat your pans, but starting chicken thighs in a cold skillet can give them extra-crispy skin. 
By Published May 18, 2022

At culinary school, my chef instructors hammered into my head, “Preheat your pans!” I remember Chef Henri teaching that the pan should actually be smoking before any food touched its surface to keep food from sticking and to achieve nice browning. And he was very right. Most of the time when searing a steak, sautéing an onion, blistering a pepper, or performing any number of stovetop tasks, you want to start with a ripping-hot skillet. 

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But on occasion, this is a rule that can be broken. Enter skin-on chicken thighs. Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs have a thick layer of fatty skin. When you start them in a cold skillet and turn up the heat, the fat slowly renders until the skin turns golden brown and crispy. It means you get a thinner, crackly layer of skin that shields the tender meat.

When you start them in a cold skillet and turn up the heat, the fat slowly renders until the skin turns golden brown and crispy. 

The other advantage of this strategy is that you can take your time maneuvering chicken thighs into the skillet and pack more in. If you preheat a skillet, it’s a dangerous game to try to jigsaw pieces of sputtering chicken in a smoking-hot pan. But if the skillet starts cold, you can sit back, take your time, and move those thighs around as much as you want to make them fit comfortably.

Chicken thighs in a skillet

To do it:

  • Pat eight (5- to 7-ounce) bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs dry with paper towels and season them with salt and pepper. 
  • Place them skin-side down in a cold 12-inch nonstick skillet. The nonstick surface provides extra insurance against sticking and ensures that the flavorful browning stays on the chicken (not in the pan).
  • Turn the heat up to medium-high and let that fat slowly render out and the skin slowly brown, a process that takes about 10 minutes.
  • You can flip the thighs over and continue to cook them until they are done (at least 175 degrees for tender chicken thighs) on the stovetop, or flip them, add some aromatics to the skillet, and finish the thighs skin side up in a 350-degree oven.

For more practice, try your hand at our recipe for Chicken Thighs with Fresh Figs. Inspired by a recipe from chef Judy Rodgers, this dish features crispy chicken thighs cooked using this approach and served alongside sticky figs that are lightly cooked with butter, honey, and balsamic vinegar. It’s a quick dinner that feels fit for a summer patio meal. 

Or step up the game a little bit with a different fatty poultry: duck breasts. Here, you score the skin (to help the fat render even more) and then place duck breasts skin side down in a cold skillet. Next, you heat them slowly to render the fat, crisp the skin, and cook the meat gently. A simple sauce of port wine, vinegar, sugar, and dried figs gives an added layer of elegance.