Why It Works
- Cooking chicken sous vide allows for unparalleled control over cooking temperature and, therefore, level of juiciness.
- Following our precise temperature and time chart gives you the ability to get exactly the result you want.
- Chilling the chicken in between the sous-vide cooking step and crisping makes it easy to prep ahead of time and ensures the juiciest meat.
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 those 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 have a lot of 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.
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.
Tips For Cooking Sous-Vide Chicken Thighs
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.
Season Chicken Before Bagging
Before bagging, season bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, drumsticks, or legs generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Add aromatics, such as thyme, garlic, or rosemary, as desired.
Fold Over the Bag
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.
Flatten the Chicken During Sealing
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.
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.
Remove and Save 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.
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.
4 thigh with skin chicken thighs
1/4 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp rosemary
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
1 shallot shallot
1 cup white wine
1 tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon fresh juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
Preheat a water bath to desired final temperature using a sous-vide cooker, according to the chart below. Season chicken generously with salt and pepper. Place chicken in a single layer in zipper-lock bags or vacuum bags and add thyme or rosemary sprigs, if using.
If Using Zipper-Lock Bags: Remove air from zipper-lock bags by closing bags, leaving the last inch of the top unsealed. Slowly lower bagged chicken into the preheated water bath, sealing the bags completely just before they fully submerge. Cook according to the chart below.
If Using Vacuum Bags: Seal according to manufacturer's instructions. Add bagged chicken to preheated water bath and cook according to the chart below.
When chicken is cooked, transfer bags to an ice bath and chill completely. Proceed to step 5 or store chicken in refrigerator for up to 4 days before finishin
To Finish: Remove chicken from bags, reserving any gelled liquid, and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels. Place chicken on a cutting board, skin side down, and press firmly with your hands to flatten the skin against the board
Heat the oil in a nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Gently lay the chicken in the skillet, skin side down, using your fingers or a set of tongs.
Hold the chicken down flat in the pan with a flexible metal spatula or your fingers (be careful of splattering oil). Cook until golden brown and crisp, about 8 minutes, reducing heat if chicken starts to singe. Flip chicken and warm second side for about 2 minutes. Transfer chicken to a paper towel–lined plate.
Return pan to medium-high heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring, until softened, about 30 seconds. Add wine and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Stir in gelled chicken juices and mustard. Off heat, whisk in butter, lemon juice, and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve chicken immediately with pan sauce.
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|
This guide was produced in partnership with Anova Culinary, makers of the Anova Precision Cooker.