Tender, juicy meat
Thin, crispy skin
One of my earliest cooking memories is of my dad positioned at the grill, squirt bottle in one hand and grill tongs in the other, working furiously to rescue chicken thighs from a three-alarm blaze. In a rush to get dinner on the table, he would position the thighs directly over the fire to cook them quickly. Within minutes, their rendering fat dripped into the flames, ignited, and grew into a blaze that forced him to shuffle the chicken around the grate while he simultaneously tried to quell the fire with water from his squirt bottle. I can’t lie: The pyrotechnics were pretty thrilling to watch as a kid. But eating the chicken was less thrilling—the chewy meat tasted of acrid smoke and was covered with rubbery, badly charred skin.
Chicken thighs have a lot going for them: They’re more flavorful and less prone to overcooking than leaner breasts, boast a relatively high ratio of meat to bone, and have a flat layer of skin that is prime for browning and crisping. What makes them challenging to cook, especially over a live fire, is that they tend to have more subcutaneous fat than other parts of the chicken, which means the skin is at risk of not thoroughly rendering and remaining chewy and flabby, which will cause flare-ups.
My goal: a recipe that would produce juicy, flavorful meat and well-rendered, crispy skin—minus the inferno.
A Leg Up
My colleague Andrea Geary recently developed a recipe for Grilled Spice-Rubbed Chicken Drumsticks (May/June 2017) that I thought might be a good blueprint for thighs, too. The key is to cook the chicken over indirect heat for about an hour, during which time fat and collagen in the meat and skin render and break down, respectively, so that the meat is tender and the skin is primed for crisping. We also arrange the drumsticks in two rows alongside the fire and rearrange them halfway through cooking—those closer to the heat go to the outside, and those on the outside go closer to the heat—so that they all finish cooking at the same time. Then we move the drumsticks directly over the heat to briefly brown and crisp the skin. I placed eight thighs skin side up over the cooler half of a grill, thinking that the fat in the skin would lubricate the meat as it rendered. After 20 minutes, I rearranged the pieces and then let them cook for another 15 to 20 minutes until they registered between 185 and 190 degrees. That’s well past the point of doneness for white meat (160 degrees), but we’ve found that dark meat benefits from being cooked much more thoroughly, especially if it also cooks slowly. That’s because the longer the meat spends cooking at temperatures above 140 degrees, the more of its abundant collagen breaks down and transforms into gelatin that lubricates the meat, making it seem juicy and tender.
The method was dead easy, and all seemed to be going well until I moved the thighs to the hotter side of the grill and flipped them onto their skin sides to crisp. Fat poured out from under the skin, dripped into the fire, and sent flames shooting up. I managed to salvage some of the thighs and was pleased that the meat was, indeed, quite tender and moist after the lengthy stint over indirect heat. But the skin wasn’t nearly as nice to eat—not just because it was burnt in spots, but because it was still flabby and chewy beneath the surface.
Crispy, evenly bronzed chicken skin is a real treat, but it takes both ample time and heat to produce those results. That’s partly because chicken skin—particularly the skin on thighs—is padded with fat that must render before the skin can crisp. But fat isn’t the only factor that makes chicken skin flabby and chewy; skin, like meat, contains collagen that must break down in order for it to turn tender. Only once the skin is tender can it then crisp.
Science: What’s Good for Tender Meat Is Good for the Crispiest Skin
We know that cooking chicken thighs low and slow is a surefire way to produce tender meat. But it’s also a great way to ensure crispy skin. Like thigh meat, chicken skin is loaded with collagen. During cooking—especially lengthy cooking at relatively moderate temperatures—collagen breaks down into a protein called gelatin. That gelatin forms a mesh that holds on to water and makes the skin soft and tender.
Then, when the tender skin is seared over high heat, the gelatin strands become rigid and the water evaporates out from among them so fast that it leaves behind tiny air spaces in the mesh—or, as we perceive it, crispiness.
The thighs were already spending a long time on the grill, but maybe the skin wasn’t getting hot enough to shed fat. So I spent the next several tests exposing the skin to more heat. Making a hotter fire helped but at the expense of the meat, which moved too quickly through the collagen breakdown zone and was thus not as tender. I had better luck turning the thighs skin side down midway through cooking instead of at the end; more direct (but still gentle) heat melted the fat, which now dripped out of each piece instead of puddling under the skin. But I got the best results yet when I cooked the chicken skin side down from start to finish. By the time the meat was tender, much of the skin’s fat had rendered and the skin had become paper-thin and soft, so all I had to do to crisp it up was slide the thighs over to the hotter side for about 5 minutes. The method was so easy, and the results were perfect—if a bit plain.
Aced the Paste
I didn’t want to thwart my skin-crisping efforts by dousing the thighs with a wet marinade, so I rubbed a few robustly seasoned pastes onto the chicken: a version that tapped into my love of Korean fried chicken with gochujang and soy sauce, a mustard and tarragon paste with loads of garlic, and an Indian version with garam masala and ginger.
The trick was applying it strategically, since even the moderate moisture in the paste could soften the skin. I found that spreading two-thirds of the paste on the flesh side of each thigh worked best; there were lots of nooks and crannies to capture the paste, and the remaining third that I rubbed over the skin seasoned and flavored it without adding so much moisture that crisping was inhibited. The only hitch: Since the chicken cooked skin side down the whole time, the paste on the flesh side looked and tasted a bit raw. So after the skin crisped over the hotter side of the grill, I flipped the pieces onto the flesh side for a minute or two to take the raw edge off the paste.
Perfectly tender, juicy meat; thin, crispy skin; bold flavor; and a method that requires practically zero work. Dinner’s in the bag—not in the fire.