Familiar but Fresh: Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs With Bacon

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Crispy and tender chicken with bacon and cabbage in a single skillet. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

People complain when movies are too formulaic, when they rely on rehashed plot points or when the relationships between characters become too familiar. Take the new Star Wars, for instance. That part when Rey and Finn are, like...okay, I won't be the guy who posts spoilers here, because some of you still haven't seen it. But suffice it to say, there are plot parallels between the new film and the original trilogy. LOTS of parallels. This doesn't bug me in the slightest. To me, it's the movie equivalent of a fallback technique. What do I mean by that? Well, it's a lot like cooking.

Some people have fallback recipes. The ones that they pull out again and again when they can't think of something new to make. I've got a couple of those, but I also have fallback techniques—basic blueprints for constructing a dish that can be infinitely variable depending on the specific ingredients you use. The main elements are instantly recognizable, but they're placed in a novel and thrilling context that gives them new life. Dishes like that are simultaneously exciting and comforting.

Exhibit A: crispy braised chicken legs or thighs. The technique is one I've used countless times, like in this Crispy Braised Chicken With White Beans and Chile Verde, or this Easy Skillet Braised Chicken With Peppers and Paprika, or several recipes in my book. But by changing the ingredients in the braising liquid, and the accompanying vegetables, you've got yourself a brand-new dish.

Wait, crispy and braised, you say? Isn't that kind of an oxymoron? Well, yes. To be perfectly pedantic, the chicken thighs are not braised, because they're cooked uncovered. However, the bulk of the meat is resting below simmering liquid while cooking, so the finished texture you achieve is the same as if it had been truly braised. The difference is that we get to keep our crispy skin.

I've been cooking a ton of cabbage in my kitchen recently, so it only made sense to come up with a cabbage-based version. Here's how to do it.

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I start by searing chicken legs or thighs in a straight-sided sauté pan: I preheat a little oil until it's shimmering-hot, then put in the chicken (which I've seasoned with salt and pepper) skin side down, nestling it to get good contact between skin and pan.

Once that's done, don't touch it, and I mean it! Don't try to lift that chicken until it's good and ready to be lifted. At first, the chicken skin will stick to stainless steel. This may give you a little scare, and your reaction may be to try to pry it or scrape it up off the metal. Resist this urge. As the chicken continues to cook and brown, eventually it will be crisp enough that it'll release almost all on its own, with just a little tug from your tongs to get it to lift cleanly. Remember: Your goal is to really brown the chicken skin. Not "pale-yellow" it or "off-white" it. Brown it.

After it's browned on both sides, I transfer it to a plate and set it aside while I build the remaining ingredients.

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To the empty pan, I now add some slab bacon that I've cut into chunky lardons. Strips of bacon cut into pieces would work fine, but I prefer the meaty texture of real lardons. I let them brown, using the liquid they exude to scrape up browned bits of chicken skin from the floor of the pan, then add onions. Once the onions have softened, in goes the shredded cabbage. I like to let the cabbage brown a little bit at this stage to give it a nice, nutty sweetness.

Fresh cabbage and pork are made to pair with bright sweet-and-sour flavors (think: sauerkraut), so I dollop in a good amount of whole grain mustard before deglazing the pan with apple cider vinegar and chicken stock seasoned with a little sugar. Finally, I add a couple of bay leaves and some whole thyme sprigs.

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I nestle the seared chicken back down in the liquid (making sure to tip any juices that have collected on the plate back into the pan—that's flavor you don't want to lose). At this stage, with a typical braised recipe, you'd cover up the pan and let the chicken simmer either on the stovetop or in the oven, letting the juices evaporate and drip back down over the top. With foods that don't have the protection of skin, like, say, chunks of beef or a lamb shank, this step is necessary to ensure that the portion sticking up above the level of the liquid doesn't dry out. Chicken legs and thighs, on the other hand, have a natural barrier in the skin, which prevents the meat from drying out even if it isn't completely submerged in liquid or cooked under a cover.

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We use this to our advantage here. By transferring the pan directly to the oven, uncovered, with the chicken skin exposed, we get chicken with fall-apart-tender braised texture in the meat under a shell of crispy, flavorful skin, giving us the best of both worlds.

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This takes about 45 minutes to accomplish, during which time your bacon lardons should also become meltingly tender and your liquid should reduce to form an intense sweet and sour sauce around the cabbage. (If you want to make it all pretty-like, you should discard the cooked thyme sprigs and replace them with either chopped thyme leaves or whole thyme sprigs—they'll still give off plenty of aroma as you serve the dish, which is their primary function.)

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There now, doesn't that look brand-new and exciting (even though it's totally not at all)? It's sort of like that scene in the new Star Wars where Han and Chewie reveal the secret romance they've been hiding from Leia all th...oh crap, now I've given it all away. You will forget that last sentence. These aren't the spoilers you are looking for.