Which are best chicken thighs or breast? How do you get crispy chicken skin and what’s the best way of roasting a chicken? These questions are all answered in this post.
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Chicken thighs or breast?
Years ago a friend told me that she always cooked curries with thigh meat because it was tastier than breast. She claimed it was the bones that gave extra taste and I’ve since read this elsewhere. But Kenji Lopez-Alt in The Food Lab debunks this myth. He takes four beef rib roasts, cooks the first one with the bone on, the second with the bone removed but tied back on, the third with the bone removed covered in foil and then tied back in place, the fourth with no bone. He says the first three tasted exactly the same. The fourth was a little tougher were the meat had been. He concludes that the bone insulates the meat, meaning it cooks slower and there is less surface area to lose moisture.
My friend was right though, thighs are tastier but that is because of the additional fat in a thigh as compared with breast. The most flavoursome part of a chicken is brown meat where the meat is found with fat. Thighs, legs, wings are all brown meat. The breast, white meat, lacks that tasty fat. Before you get worried about the amount of fat in a chicken thigh, jump to the calories infographic below where I explain more.
Hot crispy chicken skin is amazing. Do we agree on that? Calorific yes, but tasty. Kenji Lopez-Alt in The Food Lab is clear that chicken skin is crucial in retaining the moisture of a chicken breast. I wholeheartedly agree. Why is this? Well Kenji Lopez-Alt says that the skin acts as an insulator, “allowing the meat to cook more gently and evenly, as well as preventing it from losing too much moisture by keeping the surface covered“. If you don’t like hot crispy chicken skin, by which I mean you don’t like the calories, then cook the breast with the skin on and remove it before serving. That way you get the benefit of the insulation but not the extra fat.
The ultimate roast chicken
Delia Smith in her Complete Cookery Course taught me how to roast a chicken. Use kitchen towel to dry the bird well. Smear with butter and season generously. Put in an oven at 200C/180C fan/400F/Gas mark 6. After 20 minutes, baste the bird – using a spoon pour the juices in the roasting tin over the bird. The basting helps the skin brown. Do this every 20 minutes until the skin is a golden. Then do the three tests below to check if your bird is cooked.
• Pierce the thickest part of the thigh – the juices that come out should run
• Tug the leg – it should give at joint.
• Tip the chicken and the juices coming out of the cavity should be clear, not pink.
If it passes all three it’s done. Put your bird on a carving board and cover with foil to let it relax for 10 minutes before carving.
Leiths Techniques Bible adds that if the chicken is small, roast it breast side down to start with. This protects the breast from drying out during cooking.
Kenji Lopez-Alt is clear that the ultimate way to roast a chicken is to spatchcock and cook on a rack with a tin below, so it doesn’t sit in it’s own fat. To spatchcock, cut the chicken in half down one side and spread it out before cooking it so the legs are out to each side. (Many remove the back bone, but I don’t think this is necessary.) Why is this so good? Well
1. When you roast a chicken which hasn’t been cut the thighs and legs are protected while the breast is upper most in the oven. But in a spatchcocked chicken the thighs and legs are exposed and the breast is no longer up high. This means that the dark meat, the thighs and legs can cook at a higher temperature than the more delicate white meat of the breasts.
2. You expose all the skin, rather than leaving a good portion of it hidden under the chicken itself. This means that the fat from the skin can drip out, resulting in roasted skin that is crisper and dryer.
3. It cooks far quicker, because it’s thinner. Kenji Lipez-Alt suggests 230C/450F and the chicken will cook in about half the time an uncut bird would have taken.
Here is a great post on how to spatchcock a chicken.
(Kenji Lopez-Alt doesn’t agree with smearing butter on the bird or basting. He argues that the moisture in the butter stops the skin from crisping – a charge he also levels at basting. Basting he says increases the rate at which the breast cooks which helps create dry white meat. Instead he prefers to just brush the bird with oil before cooking it.)
Roasted chicken parts
If you are roasting chicken parts you want chicken with skin on and I prefer thighs. As discussed chicken breast just doesn’t have the flavour of thighs.
If you want an individual stuffed piece of chicken, say with brie and cranberry (Dave’s favourite), mozzarella and pesto, spinach and feta the list is endless. The thick cut of the breast is perfect for slicing into and filling with goodies. You could then wrap the breast in bacon or scatter over breadcrumbs. You could de-bone a thigh and stuff it, but a breast would be neater.
In a chicken stew, Coq au Vin for example, thighs or legs would be best. That slow long cooking will work well with the dark meat. In other stews bulk and texture can be added by cooking whole chicken breasts in the stew and then when cooked shredding them before mixing with the rest of the stew. Here is a recipe doing just that – http://pinchofyum.com/slow-cooker-creole-chicken-sausage
Chicken for a film night
If you want something delicious to munch with a cold beer in front of a film, you can’t get much better than chicken wings in a crunchy, sticky sauce. Their skin to meat ratio is the highest of all the chicken parts so giving you more of that delicious skin per mouthful!
J. Kenji López-Alt The Food Lab 2015
Delia Smith The Complete Cookery Course 1983
Susan Spaull and Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne Leiths Techniques Bible 2015