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The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous-Vide Chicken Thighs
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Why Sous Vide?
Chicken thighs are forgiving enough as it is. Why bother cooking them sous vide? There are a couple of reasons. First, the method gives you unparalleled control over the final texture of the chicken thighs, allowing you to achieve results unattainable through more traditional methods. Without fail, chicken thighs cooked in a sous vide bag will come out juicier than thighs cooked using traditional methods when they're cooked to the same final temperature.
It also makes cooking chicken thighs more convenient and foolproof. I cook a batch of thighs over the weekend, chill them, and store them in the fridge. During the week, all I have to do is finish them in a pan, where they'll crisp up for dinner in just 10 or 15 minutes. This makes dinner party planning a snap, too.
What Temperature Should I Use to Cook Chicken Thighs?
Unlike chicken breasts, chicken thighs and drumsticks are high in connective tissue, with a more robust flavor and a texture that can withstand a bit more cooking. There are several conflicting recommended temperature ranges out there for chicken thighs, so I decided to test them out. I cooked batches of thighs for various times between one hour and 24 hours, at temperatures ranging from 140°F up to 180°F.
Any lower than 150°F (66°C), and they turn out almost inedibly chewy and tough. Once you get to 165°F (74°C), timing comes into play. With shorter cooking times, you end up with chicken that is more tender than chicken cooked to 150°F and just slightly more dry. With extended cook times, the chicken begins to fall apart much more readily. Expelled chicken juices and broken-down connective tissues start to collect in the bag, forming a gel that can subsequently be used to make a flavorful pan sauce. Any longer than eight hours at 165°F or above, and the chicken will get too soft, becoming mushy and unable to retain its juices as you chew.
After tasting, I settled on three different temperature and timing combinations, all of which offer excellent but different results. (For a discussion of food safety for chicken in sous-vide cooking, see our guide to sous-vide chicken breast.)
150°F (66°C) for 1 to 4 Hours: Very Juicy and Quite Firm
At the 150°F (66°C) mark, after a relatively short cooking time of between one and four hours, juices will just begin to run clear, but tougher connective tissue, like large tendons, will still be a little chewy. This is a good time and temperature combination if you like a very robust, meaty texture: The chicken will cook up almost like a steak.
165°F (74°C) for 1 to 4 Hours: Very Juicy and Fully Tender
Chicken thigh cooked to 165°F for a short period of time is more tender than chicken cooked to 150°F, but slightly less juicy. This is the closest texture you'll get to a perfect traditionally pan-roasted chicken thigh—though it is juicier than any pan-roasted thigh you've had.
165°F (74°C) for 4 to 8 Hours: Moderately Juicy, Pull-off-the-Bone Tender
Once you get past the four-hour mark, the chicken starts to take on the texture of a braised chicken thigh as its connective tissue continues to break down. The chicken will have a fully tender, shreddable texture that pulls right off the bone with little effort.
Temperature and Timing Chart for Chicken Thighs
Too much data? Okay, here's all of that compressed into only what you need to know:
Sous-Vide Chicken Thigh Temperature and Timing Chart
|Very juicy but quite firm, with a few tougher spots||150°F (66°C)||1 to 4 hours|
|Very juicy and completely tender||165°F (74°C)||1 to 4 hours|
|Moderately juicy, pull-off-the-bone tender||165°F (74°C)||4 to 8 hours|
Bone In or Out?
Chicken thighs usually come either bone-in and skin-on, or boneless and skinless. I knew right off the bat that I wanted my chicken skin-on, because what's tender chicken without crispy skin? Some recipes call for removing the bone before cooking, which you can do, following my guide to deboning chicken thighs, if you'd like to. Personally, I find it unnecessary. Unless you're experienced with a boning knife, it's plenty easy to remove the bone after the chicken has been cooked, or just serve it with the bone in. Your diners probably know how to use a fork and knife.
Speaking of crispy skin, how do you get the crispiest skin on a sous-vide chicken thigh? I tried cooking the chicken thighs straight out of the sous-vide bag, a method that works well for chicken breasts. However, chicken thighs have much more fat underneath the skin, which needs to be rendered out. Chicken thigh simply takes longer to crisp than chicken breast, and by the time the thighs get crispy skin, the meat underneath dries out.
To solve this problem, I recommend fully chilling your chicken thighs in an ice bath after cooking. This allows you to give the chicken a longer time over moderate heat in a skillet, just before serving, in order to get extra-crispy skin without overcooking the chicken underneath. Another trick I find useful is one I got from Michael Voltaggio's sous-vide chicken recipe. In it, he presses the chicken thighs so that the skin lies flat, making it easier to crisp.
I also tried cooking it in various types of material. Cast iron and nonstick proved to be the most effective at crisping the chicken thighs without letting them stick to the pan (though nonstick showed a slight advantage in that arena).
Saucing the Chicken
Sous-vide chicken is so darn juicy, it doesn't really need a sauce, but it seemed a shame to waste the gelatin-rich meat juices that collect in the sous-vide bags after cooking chicken thighs. I used that gelled liquid as the base for a quick and easy pan sauce with whole mustard seed, wine, and butter.
How to Cook a Chicken Thigh or Drumstick Sous Vide, Step by Step
Step 1: Preheat Precision Cooker
Preheat your sous-vide precision cooker to the desired final temperature according to the chart above. Allow the water bath to come to temperature before adding your chicken.
Step 2: Season Chicken
Season bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, drumsticks, or legs generously with salt and pepper.
Make sure that you season both sides.
Step 3: Bag and Seal the Chicken
To bag the chicken, start by folding the top of a vacuum-seal or zipper-lock bag back over itself to form a cuff. This will prevent chicken juices from getting on the edges of the bag, which can interfere with the seal or provide vectors for contamination. Add aromatics, such as thyme, garlic, or rosemary, as desired.
If using a vacuum sealer, place the edge of the bag in the sealer with the chicken oriented skin side down. Press the chicken so that the skin is as flat as possible, then remove the air and seal the bag. Flattening the chicken will help the skin make good contact with the pan later on.
If using a zipper-lock bag, seal it by using the displacement method. To do this, slowly lower your bagged chicken into a pot of water, letting the pressure of the water press air out through the top of the bag. Once most of the air is out of the bag, carefully seal the bag just above the water line.
Step 4: Cook the Chicken
Drop the bag in the water bath, making sure not to block the intake or output sections of your precision cooker. If properly sealed, the chicken should sink. Cook according to the timing chart.
Step 5: Chill the Chicken
Once it's cooked for the desired time, transfer the bagged chicken to a prepared ice bath to chill completely. At this stage, the chicken can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days before finishing and serving.
Step 6: Remove the Chicken From the Bag
Remove the chicken from the bag, discard any aromatics (if using), and place it on a paper towel–lined plate.
Step 7: Remove the Gelled Juices
Scrape off any gelled juices from the bag with your fingers and transfer them to a small bowl to use for a pan sauce later on.
Press the chicken between layers of paper towels, with the skin side facing down, in order to dry the surface and flatten the skin side for good contact with the pan.
Step 8: Preheat a Skillet and Add Chicken
Place a high-quality nonstick or cast iron skillet, coated with one tablespoon of vegetable, canola, rice bran, or grapeseed oil, over medium heat until the oil is shimmering. Carefully add the chicken to the hot oil, skin side down.
For best results, use a flexible slotted fish spatula or your fingers to press down on the chicken slightly, so you get good contact between the skin and the pan. I recommend wearing gloves and long sleeves if you are sensitive to small oil splatters.
Cook the chicken, occasionally lifting the corner with your spatula to peek underneath. (If the chicken doesn't immediately lift easily with the spatula, do not force it. Let it cook longer until it releases naturally.) Continue cooking until the skin is very brown and completely crisp, four to five minutes total.
Step 9: Cook Second Side
Flip the chicken and cook the second side just until the chicken is warmed through, about one minute longer. Transfer the chicken to a paper towel–lined plate while you make a pan sauce, if desired.
Step 10: Add Aromatics and Deglaze
If you'd like to make a pan sauce, start by adding a few chopped aromatics to the pan, such as minced shallots or garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add a glass of wine or a shot of liquor, along with the gelled chicken juices you reserved from the sous-vide bag. Add secondary flavorings, like whole-grain mustard, if desired.
Step 11: Swirl in Butter
Swirl a pat of butter into the sauce, along with chopped herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice as desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the sauce looks greasy or broken, add a few tablespoons of water and stir vigorously to loosen it up and emulsify.
Step 12: Serve
Serve the chicken and sauce immediately.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sous-Vide Chicken
For more information about sous-vide chicken, please see the FAQ section of our Complete Guide to Sous-Vide Chicken Breasts.
This guide was produced in partnership with Anova Culinary, makers of the Anova Precision Cooker. Got an iOS device? Download the Anova app for built-in temperature and timing guides, along with full Bluetooth control over the Anova Precision Cooker.
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