Baked marinated chicken is one of our favorite weeknight dinners. Just mix up some spices, soak chicken thighs in the mixture for a half hour, then stick them in the oven—yeah, sign us up. Marinating is a simple, straightforward process, but given how flavorful the results can be, it can seem downright miraculous. So it is with these Vietnamese-style chicken thighs.
There's a lot going on in the marinade, but one of the standouts—arguably even the key ingredient—is anchovy-based Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc mam. We use it here in a Vietnamese-inspired recipe, but regular Serious Eats readers know that its utility goes far beyond that; it can boost the flavor of all sorts of dishes, from stews and braises to pasta sauces. When used sparingly, it won't even add a fishy taste.
We're also using palm sugar to sweeten the marinade and lend the chicken skin a beautiful golden-brown color during baking. It's a traditional ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine, but it may be hard to find. If you are able to obtain it, you'll find that bricks of palm sugar are usually rock-hard. You can grate it for recipes that need just a little (we recommend using the wide shredders of a sturdy box grater), or you can use a whole brick by softening it for a few minutes in hot water. If you can't find palm sugar, you can substitute dark brown sugar.
The key to understanding marinades is knowing that they mostly don't penetrate deeply into the meat; it's little more than a surface treatment. Because of that, a half hour of marinating time is more than enough to get the flavor into the chicken thighs. You can leave them in for up to four hours, but any longer than that and the acid in the marinade could start to make the meat mushy.
Once it's fully marinated, take the chicken out, shake off any excess liquid (but don't rinse it off!), and bake it, skin side up, in a hot oven. You should check the temperature at 30 minutes, and make sure it's at least 155°F (68°C) on the inside before you pull it out. If you like, you can add a broiling step at the end to enhance the color and crispiness of the skin, but take care not to let the sweet marinade burn.
While the chicken is baking, get your sides ready. We like to make this with simple boiled or steamed rice and a salad of quick-pickled cucumbers and red onions. And hey, if you want to sprinkle a little more of that fish sauce over the plate, we won't tell. It's special stuff.