A Complete Guide to Cooking Chicken Thighs
Whether you're working with bone-in, skin-on or boneless, skinless, we have you covered. Here are the best cooking methods for each type of chicken thigh.
Not all chicken thighs are created equal — and though they may all be the same part of the bird, this doesn't mean that they should all be prepared the same way. With so many different ways to cook chicken, it can get a little tricky to know which method you should use to prepare a certain cut of chicken. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding the different techniques you can use on chicken and deciding if you're better off using bone-in, skin-on thighs or boneless, skinless. The days of staring at your chicken thighs and asking yourself "how the cluck do I cook this?" are over.
Bone-In, Skin-On Chicken Thighs
The beauty of this cut is that it is cheaper per pound than boneless, skinless, so not only will your dollar get you a little further, but they're also more flavorful (when cooked properly) because the bone and skin are still intact. When you cook with the bone in, all that juicy bone marrow leaks out and flavors the chicken for an extra-succulent piece of meat. On top of that, you can use the skin to render out lots of chicken fat for cooking and then crisp up the skin for a salty, crispy bite.
So, how do you make the most of a skin-on, bone-in chicken thigh? You cook it in a way that can result in delightfully crispy skin and succulent meat. This includes pan frying, oven roasting, braising and deep frying. The first thing you should always do with skin-on thighs is pat them dry with a paper towel to remove excess moisture, thus promoting the crunchiest results possible.
Starting your thighs, skin side down in a cold pan over medium heat is a great way to render out maximum fat. From there, you can crisp up the skin until it's golden-brown and remove them from the pan. The more you let them cook undisturbed, the darker and crispier the skin will be. Saute up whatever veggies or beans you might have on hand, nestle the thighs back in the pan, skin side up, and finish 'em up in a 350°F oven. Keep in mind, because you're pan frying, there is a good amount of oil splattering that's bound to happen on your stove, so fry with caution. Pan frying skin-on thighs is preferable to boneless, skinless not only because you get crispy skin, but also because the latter does not have a flat surface. This makes it difficult to cook boneless, skinless thighs evenly in the pan. If you are going to pan fry boneless, skinless, it's probably a good idea to cut them into 1-inch cubes.
If you want to skip the action on the stove, you can also yield golden-brown crispy skin solely from your oven. In a large baking dish, arrange potatoes and/or veggies dressed in oil, salt, and pepper. Then, nestle in raw chicken thighs, skin side up, over the veggies. Drizzle the thighs with oil and season with salt and pepper, then pop the dish into a 425°F oven for fully cooked veggies and succulent chicken thighs with oven-roasted, crispy skin. You could also use this cooking method without the vegetables and just roast your thighs straight-up on a sheet pan. The skin may not be as crispy as the stovetop method, but it allows you to skip a step for nearly similar results.
If you decide that you want to braise your bone-in, skin-on thighs, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to keep your braising pot uncovered at all times. (If it's covered, then you'll steam the chicken, resulting in supple, flabby skin.) You'll start by searing the chicken skin just like you would for the stovetop method, using the Dutch oven or other cooking vessel you intend to braise in. You'll remove the thighs after the skin is golden-brown, and then saute any vegetables or aromatics for the braise. The thighs will go back in the pot, skin side up, and when it's time to add your braising liquid. Make sure that the liquid does not fully submerge the crispy chicken skin that you worked so hard to achieve by searing. When it comes time to plate the crispy skinned, braised chicken, make sure to drizzle the braising liquid around the chicken and not on top of it, as that will also undo all of your efforts to preserve crispy skin.
The final method that is great for bone-in, skin-on thighs is deep frying. To prep your chicken, you can either opt to dry brine the chicken by making a dry rub with salt, a little sugar, and spices, then let that sit on your chicken in the fridge, uncovered overnight. If you prefer a wet brine, you can soak your chicken in a salted and spiced buttermilk mixture overnight, as well. Both methods help to season the chicken while tenderizing the proteins for super tender, succulent meat. Then you can batter the dry brined chicken or dunk the buttermilk-brined chicken in flour and drop it in a pot of at least three inches of 375°F neutral oil. The skin crisps up and the meat is incredibly juicy. If your thighs are on the bigger side and you're not sure if they're fully cooked, you can always slide the deep fried chicken onto a sheet pan and finish it off in a 350°F oven.
Boneless, Skinless Thighs
Now that we've gone through all the cooking methods that are ideal for bone-in, skin-on, let's discuss what to do when you've got boneless, skinless chicken thighs. This cut is slightly less rich than bone-in, skin-on, because you lose the perks of the bone and skin. However, boneless, skinless dark meat is still much more flavor dense than chicken breasts. The cooking methods that are ideal for boneless skinless thighs are grilling, roasting, and slow cooking.
Technically yes, you could throw some bone-in, skin-on thighs onto your grill. But the skin on the thighs will render fat that when dripped onto the grill flames, can cause flare-ups… which can impart a slightly burnt flavor onto the meat. That's why boneless, skinless fare much better on your grates. If you can, give your thighs a marinade moment in a spiced yogurt or herby, garlic olive oil for an hour or so before you grill them. They cook quickly and get that nice char quite easily. Unlike chicken breasts, you don't need to worry about thighs drying out, so if they stay on the grill for a few extra minutes, it's no big deal. If you're up for it, you can also cut up the thighs into 1-inch cubes and thread them on a skewer to throw on the grill.
Like skin-on thighs, you can also roast boneless, skinless. While you miss the crispy skin, you still have a tender piece of meat with tons of fat and flavor. Make sure you season 'em well with salt and pepper, drizzle them with oil — and maybe you throw them in the oven with potatoes, beans, veggies, and a store-bought sauce.
If you're going to slow-cook a chicken thigh, you definitely want it to be boneless, skinless. Dropping a skin-on thigh into your slow cooker is a one-way ticket to flab city, which if you're asking me, is a destination I'd like to never visit. Instead, reach for a package of boneless, skinless thighs and slow-cook them whole or in cubes. If you prefer, you can buy bone-in, skin-on thighs and remove the skin before you cook them so that you reap the benefits of bone-in meat in your slow cooker (remember, marrow!). Either way, this is a great method if you just want to slide your chicken in a machine with some veggies or a sauce, and come back in 6 hours or so to succulent, tender-as-ever meat.
Clearly, there are lots of decisions to be made when it comes to cooking chicken thighs. Once you decide if you're going for bone-in, skin-on or boneless, skinless, you then are left with the choice of how you'll cook them. Ultimately, skin is the biggest factor here. If your thighs have skin on them, cook them in a way that will highlight the absolute treasure that is crispy chicken skin (i.e., no high moisture cooking methods, like steaming or slow cooking). If your thighs don't have skin, cook them in a way that will highlight the beauty of dark meat. Give them an overnight brine or marinade, and grill or roast them. Not all thighs are created equal, but they are all absolutely delicious.
Related: Our 20 Best Chicken Thigh Dinners