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Making Hearty Chicken Braises

For rich flavor and fork-tender chicken, choose thighs and drumsticks and simmer them slowly

Fine Cooking Issue 82
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Rushing home from work on a cold winter evening, I dream of finding the kitchen filled with the heady aromas of dinner cooking slowly in the oven. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, given that I’m the one who does most of the cooking. But there’s a way I can fill my kitchen with those wonderful cooking smells—and satisfy my taste buds—within an hour or so of arriving home: I make a chicken braise. It’s relatively quick (compared to braising other cuts of meat) yet rich and satisfying.

Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks are best for braising. When chicken legs are simmered slowly, the meat becomes wonderfully tender and falls off the bone; at the same time, it develops a rich, deep flavor. Also, the bones and skin give body and richness to the final sauce, as the thin layer of fat under the skin melts and the collagen in the bones turns into gelatin during cooking. And there’s a bonus: With most people clamoring for boneless breasts, the overlooked legs are often a bargain. I like to use a combination of thighs and drumsticks, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make these braises with one or the other, if you prefer.

Key steps to a perfect chicken braise

When you’re braising chicken (or any other meat, for that matter), you can be as creative as you want with the flavorings, but the technique stays pretty much the same. Here are the steps to follow to get the best results.

Brown the pieces quickly over fairly high heat
This achieves two things: It gives the chicken skin a flavor boost and a nice brown color, and it leaves tasty browned bits on the bottom of the pan, which will dissolve into the sauce. After browning the meat, I remove the chicken pieces from the pan, add aromatics and vegetables (or even fruit), and brown them as well. This adds yet another flavor element to my chicken braises.


Deglaze the pan with a flavorful liquid
When you add liquid and scrape the bottom of the pan, all the caramelized goodness left behind from browning the chicken becomes part of your sauce. The more flavorful your liquid, the better your braise. I like to use a variety of cooking liquids to give my braises a new guise each time. I prefer homemade chicken broth because I know exactly what went into it—and it tastes better. White or red wine (in combination with chicken broth) adds tanginess and some welcome acidity. Hard cider complements the flavor of apples in a braise that’s both sweet and slightly tart. And I use carrot juice for a Moroccan-style braise with cumin, cinnamon, and dates.

Simmer the chicken in the oven
I like to braise in the oven because it provides an all-around even heat with no risk of the chicken sticking to the pot or cooking unevenly, which can happen on the stovetop. Slow simmering delivers a meltingly tender chicken dish, with rich flavors that intensify as it cooks.


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