When it comes to chicken, we are a nation obsessed with the breast, especially the boneless, skinless variety. Now, I’m not anti-breast—it’s certainly quick, easy, and versatile. But if it’s flavor you’re after, look to the thigh. Chicken thighs have more chicken flavor and a smooth, almost silken texture, and they cost less than breasts. And nowadays, you can even find them conveniently packaged boneless and skinless.
Chicken thighs can do everything chicken breasts can do and more. You can grill and sauté them just like breasts, but their superiority is most apparent in stews and braises, where long, moist cooking can easily overcook and toughen the more delicate breast meat. And, unlike legs and wings, which can contain gristle and sinew, thighs have large sections of easily accessible, tender meat.
Trim always; skin with restraint
Bone-in, skin-on thighs are a staple in every butcher case. For many recipes, I prefer to leave both skin and bone intact, as in a dinner made from crispy pan-fried thighs, for example, or the broiled coconut-lime thighs. The skin protects the thigh meat so it doesn’t dry out in high heat. I also like the bone in and the skin on for stews and braises; the bones add flavor and if you brown the thighs in the pan first, you’ll add tons of flavor to the sauce. In most recipes, the fat rendered from the skin is poured off, but you still may need to degrease the dish before serving it.
Even if you’re leaving the skin on, you’ll want to trim any skin that extends farther than the edges of the chicken thigh. This is also the time to remove any excess fat from the underside of the thigh. Use a small, sharp knife and a cutting-scraping action to pull the fat away from the meat. For recipes that call for skinless meat, all it takes is a good strong tug to remove the thick skin.
Boneless thighs work best in quick-cooked dishes. At many markets, you can buy thighs already boned, or you can do it yourself. (One benefit of boning them yourself, aside from the fact that bone-in thighs cost less, is that you can save the bones and use them for homemade chicken stock.)
A boneless chicken thigh gives you the same ease of cooking and preparation as a boneless chicken breast but with more flavor and less of a chance of drying out during cooking. To see for yourself, make your favorite chicken breast recipe but prepare it half with breasts and half with thighs. Take a bite of each and compare. Boneless thighs can also be cut into small pieces for stir-fries, kebabs, and fajitas.
A fully cooked thigh can look pink
If you’re used to cooking white meat, the tricky thing is to remember that dark meat cooks darker. Breast meat clearly changes color (from pink to white) when fully cooked, but thighs look pinkish-brown even when thoroughly cooked.
To test for doneness, I press the meat of the thigh. There should be a good amount of resistance. If the meat is mushy, the thigh is undercooked. If you stick a skewer or small knife into the thickest part of the chicken thigh and the juices run clear, the thigh is done. You can also use a small knife to cut into the thickest part of the thigh towards the bone. If there’s no sign of red toward the bone, the thigh is done. Finally, use a meat thermometer for the most accurate test; it should read 170°F for fully cooked chicken. You can even go as high as 180°F because juicy thighs can stand up to a little overcooking without becoming unbearably dry. (Just try that with a breast.)