When you want to ensure that your chicken is moist, a braise is the way to go. Braising chicken—gently simmering it in a flavorful broth—doesn't just result in falling-off-the-bone tender meat, but it also creates a sauce perfect for smothering a side, such as mashed potatoes or noodles. The chicken (usually thigh or whole leg) is browned first, and while the crispness achieved is mitigated in the moist environment of the pot, the browning step adds flavor and helps render the chicken fat, giving the chicken that sought after melt-in-your-mouth texture.
For this braise, I combined flavors that are perfect for fall and pair well with chicken: apples, tangy whole grain mustard, smoky bacon, and fresh sage. The apple comes twofold in the sauce and the braising liquid. First, I sautéed slices of fresh, sweet-tart Granny Smiths until soft and caramelized and reserved them to mix into the sauce at the end. Second, I used hard apple cider for the braising liquid. (I thought about using apple cider but decided it would be too sweet.) The medium-dry, 4.5% ABV cider I chose had the flavor I was looking after: lightly sweet fruitiness balanced by fermentation.
Braising is simple. Cover and gently simmer whatever you're cooking in just enough liquid to cook, not enough to submerge it. The cook is low and slow, which makes the meat extremely tender. It's the perfect method to get the most out of that cheap cut of meat. And although chicken doesn't need hours to become tender, braising is the best way to get the great flavors in your sauce deep into the meat. There are usually a few steps before and after this type of cooking method—brown the meat, sauté the aromatics, finish the sauce in the end—but it's all done in one pot.
A braise can be performed on the stovetop or in the oven. While the oven is regarded as having the most even heat because it encompasses the pot, I usually reserve the oven for long braises with big hunks of meat. For the chicken legs in this recipe, the stovetop is sufficient and easier. (I try to avoid stove-to-oven moves when I can.)
Dutch Ovens Rule
Because the chicken easily fit into my straight sided skillet, I assumed it would be a done deal as far as the cooking vessel was concerned. After browning up some pretty damn nice crispy chicken skin, I also resigned myself to the reality that I'd be sacrificing crackly skin for moistness. But after the chicken was done cooking, sliding off the lid revealed that the tops of the chicken legs were soggy. The lid was just too close to the chicken, allowing moist droplets to drip from the lid right onto the skin.
For my second try I used my deeper Dutch oven. Even though it was still a moist environment, there was more space to breath and the chicken skin rendered perfectly.
The finished sauce—tangy, sweet, smoky, and full of apples—is addicting in its own right, especially over mashed potatoes.
From start to finish the whole dish takes about an hour, making it feasible for a special weeknight meal.