Remember the Corn Flakes slogan that Kellogg’s ran in the late ’80s, “Taste them again for the first time”? This braising story is my culinary equivalent of that campaign—a pitch to rediscover an old classic. I recently spent some time reacquainting myself with the basic tenets of braising chicken parts—both white and dark meat—and learned several ways to make a good dish a whole lot better.
Before we dig in, a refresher on what exactly braising is and why it’s an ideal way to cook chicken: It involves browning food and then partially covering it with liquid in a lidded pot and simmering it gently until the meat is tender. As it simmers, the cooking liquid takes on the meat’s flavor to create a luxurious, deeply savory sauce that you spoon over the meat.
Chicken is great for braising. It’s got skin that renders loads of fat and collagen, which add flavor and lush body to the sauce, and meat that turns tender and gives up savory juices. But those assets can become liabilities if not handled properly. Chicken skin can stick to the pot and tear away from the meat, or its fat can make the sauce greasy. And then there’s the age-old issue when cooking chicken parts: Dark meat takes longer to cook than white meat does.
My goal wasn’t to reinvent the wheel. Rather, I put the classic method under the microscope to see if there were any improvements to make that would allow this technique to live up to its full potential.
I started with 4 pounds of split breasts and leg quarters. To shorten the cooking time and make it easier to arrange everything in the pot, I separated the leg quarters into drumsticks and thighs.
After patting the chicken dry, I browned the skin side of each piece in a Dutch oven to create a deeply savory fond. Some recipes call for discarding the skin at this point, but I left it on so that all that aforementioned fat and collagen would contribute to the braising liquid as the meat simmered (it could be discarded before serving). The fat would add savory flavor, and the collagen would transform into gelatin, suffusing the liquid with silkiness.
I set aside the skin-on chicken and sautéed finely chopped onion with garlic, thyme, and pepper in the rendered chicken fat, stirring a tablespoon of flour into the softened aromatics before deglazing with white wine and water. The starch in the flour would keep the chicken fat emulsified and thicken the sauce, as a roux does for gravy. Voilà—braising liquid.
Now for the timing issue. White meat is done at 160 degrees, and we’ve determined that dark meat turns ultratender and succulent at 195 degrees, which is perfect for a braise. We also know that as it heats up, the chewy collagen in dark meat turns into soft gelatin, and this reaction continues as the temperature climbs.
Most recipes for braised chicken call for starting all the pieces together and removing the breasts as they come up to temperature. The frequent monitoring required would take oven braising—our preferred approach since it cooks the meat so gently and evenly—off the table. Instead, I opted for a staggered method: I placed the browned legs and thighs in the simmering liquid and cooked them to 140 degrees, which took about 8 minutes. The breasts went in next, at which point I moved the pot to the oven, where everything cooked at a leisurely pace until the dark meat and the thickest parts of the breasts hit 195 degrees and 160 degrees, respectively. I was happy to have nailed those temperatures, but the breast meat—particularly the tapered ends—was dry and chalky.
The next time around, I halved the breasts crosswise, separating the thinner tapered ends from the thicker broad ends so that I could add the thin pieces to the pot last. I also brined the chicken before cooking. Meat destined for braising is not typically brined, but this unorthodox step greatly improved the white meat, keeping it moist and tender, and offered extra insurance that the thighs stay moist.
It took a few tries to find the final order of operations, but I eventually came up with the following routine: Give the dark meat an 8-minute head start, nestle the broad ends of the breasts into the pot skin side down, flip them 5 minutes later (I found that they needed to cook on both sides since they were so thick), and finally, add the tapered ends. (Try as I might, I couldn’t prevent the tapered ends from overcooking if I browned their skin, so I left them unbrowned.) Finally, I covered the pot and transferred it to a 300-degree oven, where the enveloping heat finished cooking the chicken at a bare simmer. After roughly 20 more minutes, all three cuts of chicken were as tender and juicy as could be.
The only thing that remained was to give the sauce some oomph. Whole-grain mustard, fresh parsley, and lemon juice perked things up. The recipe was easily adaptable by swapping out the mustard and herbs for other ingredients, such as tomato and basil for a Mediterranean version. These recipes will remind you why this technique is a classic.
Braising delivers succulent meat and a rich, velvety sauce—no wonder it's a classic way to cook chicken. But that doesn't mean there's nothing new to add.