While developing a home fries recipe years ago, I devised a simple, but effective, technique for producing diced potatoes with delightfully crisp, brown crusts and moist, fluffy interiors: Briefly parboil the potatoes with a bit of baking soda; drain, dry, and toss them with fat; and cook them in a very hot oven. Why the baking soda? Because boiling the potatoes with it quickly broke down the spuds’ outsides, and when they were roughed up with some salt, the starch developed into a paste that would easily brown and crisp. Baking soda also sped up browning, encouraging the potatoes to develop deeply browned crusts in no time.
While those home fries can certainly stand alone, I had a hunch that they’d be the perfect candidate for a sheet-pan dinner. The convenient method of roasting a whole meal’s components on the same pan is at its best when you pair proteins that throw off abundant flavorful fat with vegetables and/or starches that grasp those juices.
Because the baking soda treatment breaks down the pectin in the potatoes’ cell walls and roughs up their exteriors, my parboiled spuds have more surface area, which allows them to grab on to more flavorful liquid. As for their ideal sheet-pan mate? Rich, lusciously tender chicken thighs. Chicken thighs are stress-free to prepare as their plentiful fat, skin, and connective tissue protects them from overcooking; they remain juicy up to 190 degrees. Best of all, they render substantial golden, chicken-y fat when roasted, which I usually save for roasting vegetables later anyway. These two components had the potential to be a perfect match; I’d just need to employ a bit of strategy to ensure that each was cooked to perfection.
Don’t Toss Your Trim!
Those flabby bits you trim off your chicken thighs aren’t scraps here: When roasted, that trim renders around 2 tablespoons of fat, the liquid gold that is key to crisp, ultrachicken‑y potatoes.
All the Trimmings
I kicked off testing with the simplest formula: tossing the raw chicken and peeled, cubed and oiled spuds onto a baking sheet and roasting (I’d introduce the 2-minute parboil from my home-fries technique later on in testing). This method was a bust—I liberally oiled the spuds so that they wouldn’t stick to the pan, but once the chicken fat rendered, they tasted far too greasy. I tried skipping the oil and tossing the potatoes in later, once the chicken fat and juices had begun to flow, but this robbed them of the time they needed to brown and cook through.
Arranging the Chicken and Potatoes
After roasting the potatoes on their own, shift them around to create evenly spaced empty spots for the chicken thighs. Distributing the thighs across the pan ensures that the juices flow evenly into all the potatoes.
Because I couldn’t see a way to eliminate that initial glug of oil, I began to trim the chicken thighs, but this seemed like a shame, since I had chosen thighs because of that very same flavorful fat I was cutting away. I wracked my brain for a better solution—and when my gaze fell upon the pile of discarded chicken trim, I was reminded of another test cook’s discovery that I could employ here. Years ago, my former colleague Andrew Janjigian developed a recipe for beef top loin roast and potatoes in which he saved the sinewy strips of meat and fat that run along either side of the roast—which are usually scrapped—and browned them alongside the roast, creating more flavorful fat and fond for the potatoes to soak up. What if I riffed on this technique and rendered my chicken thighs’ trim by itself in the oven first and then used that chicken fat to coat the potatoes in lieu of oil?
I trimmed some more thighs, sprinkled the bits of trim over the sheet pan, and roasted them. After 10 minutes, about 2 tablespoons of fat had collected in the pan, so I discarded the trim and tossed the potatoes with the fat. I arranged them on the sheet along with the chicken and slid the whole package into the oven. It worked like a charm: The rendered fat was just enough to encourage the potatoes to brown and keep them from sticking; plus, using it in place of oil eliminated an extra ingredient and amped up the chicken flavor. The only problem? The potatoes were still bland. It was time to bring my home fries technique into play.
I brought a pot of water to a boil and then added ½ teaspoon of baking soda and the diced potatoes. I boiled them for just 2 minutes, drained them, returned them to the pot, and dried them on the stovetop, forcing steam out of the potatoes and creating pathways for the chicken’s juices to enter. I stirred the potatoes with the rendered chicken fat and a couple teaspoons of salt until they were coated with a starchy paste.
Science: The Key to Crispy, Schmaltzy Potatoes? Parboiling and Drying
Parboiling potatoes with baking soda is one of our favorite cooking tricks. First, the alkalinity of the soda quickly breaks down the potatoes’ exteriors, and when we stir the parboiled potatoes vigorously with some salt, it roughs up their outsides, creating ample surface area to crisp. What’s more, baking soda speeds up browning, ensuring that the potatoes boast richly browned exteriors.
But we found that when we roast dried baking soda–treated potatoes on the same baking sheet as chicken thighs, they can get even better. The roughed-up exteriors cling to the chicken’s flavorful juices, and quickly drying the potatoes on the stovetop after their parboil drives off moisture and creates pathways for those juices to suffuse into the spuds as they roast. The result? Potatoes that are supremely crisp on the outside; creamy on the inside; and infused with savory, chicken-y flavor throughout.
Remembering how pallid earlier batches of potatoes had been, I gave these a head start. They went into the bottom of the oven for 15 minutes, at which point they’d begun to brown and crisp. I stirred them around a bit to expose more of their surfaces to the hot pan and added the chicken. Then I slid the pan into the top of the oven to render and crisp the chicken skin.
With the thighs juicy and moist and the potatoes browned and creamy, the dish was almost complete—it just needed a little jazzing up. A simple spritz of lemon juice and a scatter of herbs would work well enough, but I also devised a couple of spice rubs to add to the chicken before cooking: a punchy chili spice blend and a musky, aromatic baharat.