Behind the Recipes

Real-Deal Chicken Teriyaki

The sweet, salty, umami-packed dish that’s ubiquitous in the United States is not what you’ll find in Tokyo. Japanese cooking authority Elizabeth Andoh helps set things straight.

Published Sept. 28, 2021.

I’ve never passed up a serving of chicken teriyaki, whether it was neatly arranged in a gleaming bento box at a Japanese American restaurant, charred on a backyard grill, or piled atop a disposable plate at a shopping mall food court. Because even when it’s not stellar, the salty-sweet, umami-packed chicken manages to hit most of the pleasure centers in my brain. But these versions aren’t much like the teriyaki that’s made in Japan.

“Teri” means “glaze,” and “yaki” means “seared.” Due to prohibitions on eating meat, the method was used on fish, not chicken, for most of the dish’s history. Japanese cooks would briefly sear yellowtail and then glaze it with a mixture of soy sauce, sake and/or mirin, and sugar. But when the emperor lifted those prohibitions in the second half of the 19th century, chicken teriyaki became an option, at least for those wealthy enough to buy or raise poultry. 

“The method of yaki is all about layers of flavor.”
–Elizabeth Andoh

During a call from her home in Tokyo, award-winning cookbook author and culinary instructor Elizabeth Andoh explained that cooks in Japan make chicken teriyaki with boneless, skin-on thighs because, unlike the skinless cuts that are often used stateside, they can withstand a thorough sear without drying out or toughening. Sizzling small, chopstick-friendly pieces in a skillet is the norm, whereas in the United States, it’s common to cut the chicken into pieces after cooking. Finally, Andoh pointed out that “the method of yaki is all about layers of flavor.” That means that the interior of the meat should be savory and juicy—pure chicken—while the exterior should be well seasoned but only slightly sweet. Armed with this knowledge, I set about devising a recipe that was reflective of the Japanese approach. 

The Skinny on Skin

Cutting the thighs into bite-size pieces prior to cooking made sense: It would create more surface area for flavorful browning and for holding glaze. Boneless, skin-on thighs aren’t available in most supermarkets, but they can easily be prepared at home. I removed the bone from 1½ pounds of skin-on thighs and cut the meat into 1½-inch pieces, leaving as much skin attached as possible. I seared the chicken in a nonstick skillet until the pieces were browned on the skin side and then flipped them and cooked them a bit more. Next, I added a placeholder teriyaki sauce—¼ cup of soy sauce, 3 tablespoons of mirin, and just a touch of sugar—and spooned the mixture over the meat until it thickened into a glaze. Andoh was right: The skin-on meat was tender, juicy, and ultra-chicken-y.

Deboning Skin-On Thighs

Traditional chicken teriyaki is made with boneless thighs with the skin still attached; the skin protects the meat and contributes rich, savory flavor. Most supermarkets don’t sell this cut, but it’s easy to strip out the bones from the thighs yourself. See the recipe for detailed instructions.

Illustration: John Burgoyne

Any lingering doubts that I had about using skin‑on meat were put to rest when I did a quick test using skinless thighs. The results weren’t even close: The chicken was tough and fibrous on the exterior and not nearly as savory. 

That said, skin-on thighs did lead to a glaze that was so greasy it didn’t cling as well. I’d stick with skin-on chicken, but going forward I’d swab up any excess grease in the skillet before adding the sauce. 

Gaman in the Kitchen

“Gaman” is a Japanese term of Buddhist origin that means enduring difficult circumstances with patience, perseverance, and dignity. In fact, gaman is considered to be one of the forces that sustained Japan’s recovery from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The concept touches almost every aspect of Japanese culture: Preschoolers are introduced to it when they learn to share and take turns, and it seems unlikely that Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station, which serves 3.5 million passengers per day, could function without it. 


Gaman has a role in cooking as well. In our recipe, we practice gaman by leaving the chicken undisturbed in the hot skillet for several minutes, resisting the urge to peek at the underside of the meat until the edges of each piece turn solid white, an indication that cooking is well underway. As Tokyo-based culinary instructor and cookbook author Elizabeth Andoh advised us, “If you’re able to engage positively in gaman, you will get that gorgeous sear and glaze.” And if you’re not able to, she warns, “it’s a mess.”  


Andoh suggested a strategy for those who struggle to practice gaman when cooking: Instead of agonizing, multitask. Distract yourself by tidying up or by chopping vegetables. You’ll get a couple small jobs done, and you’ll be rewarded with beautifully seared chicken.


Coat(ing) Check

I had set aside any recipes that called for marinating the chicken in the soy sauce–mirin mixture because I worried that the sugary mirin would scorch. But I was intrigued when Andoh mentioned that she tosses her chicken in a thick mixture of potato starch and sake shortly before searing it. 

Curious to try this myself, I prepared a batch with sake and cornstarch, which is a more common starch stateside. The cornstarch formed a barely there coating around the pieces of meat, protecting them from the heat of the skillet and making them especially supple. The coating also helped the reduced glaze cling, and some of the coating sloughed off into it, thickening the glaze a bit more. Finally, the chicken tasted more savory than before, as the sake provided a synergistic boost to its umami. Cornstarch and sake were in. Now I just had to dial in the glaze. 

Glaze of Glory

My glaze was mostly soy sauce and mirin, with a little bit of sugar. That’s not a lot of ingredients, but since I was already using sake to coat the chicken, I wondered if I could swap out the mirin in the glaze for sake. After all, sake is a rice wine like mirin. So I tried a common 3:2:1 ratio (3 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of sake, and 1 tablespoon of sugar) and microwaved the mixture briefly to dissolve the sugar.

This was very close. With both sake and soy sauce, the glaze had a lot of depth, but it lacked lighter notes. Andoh had mentioned that she sometimes likes to add a small amount of ginger juice, so while my last batch of chicken seared in the skillet, I grated 2 tablespoons of ginger, placed it in a fine-mesh strainer over my glaze mixture, and pressed to release the juice. 

Splatter Control

Searing chicken thighs on the stovetop can be a messy business. Placing a Frywall or splatter screen on the skillet keeps the spattering grease contained, but unlike a lid, it allows water vapor to escape, so the chicken browns readily.  

When the chicken was cooked through, I transferred it to a plate so that I could degrease the skillet. Then back in went the chicken, followed by the soy sauce mixture. The glaze bubbled and thickened as I stirred the chicken, and after a couple minutes it coated each piece lightly. I transferred the chicken to a serving bowl using a slotted spoon and, since the strainer was nearby, I passed the glaze through it for a little extra clarity before drizzling it over the chicken.

I stand by my assertion that all chicken teriyaki is good chicken teriyaki. But this one? It’s my new favorite. 

Balance the potency of the glaze by serving the chicken with unseasoned short-grain white rice, peppery greens, and scallions.

Chicken Teriyaki

The sweet, salty, umami-packed dish that’s ubiquitous in the United States is not what you’ll find in Tokyo. Japanese cooking authority Elizabeth Andoh helps set things straight.
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