Upgrade your chicken game

Jeanmarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

It happens to all of us. We finish our commute after a long day of work with no idea what to have for dinner. All too often, I pop into the local supermarket and settle on a rotisserie chicken. And I mean settle. Dry, bland, boring. Plus, all that plastic packaging feels wrong. We skip the fried chicken on the “hot bar” for nearly the same reason — unseasoned, dry meat.

This fall, I vow to stock up on fresh chicken parts so I have some on hand for weeknight cooking. I time-tested myself: I can roast half a dozen chicken pieces in less than 30 minutes — the same amount of time it takes to drive to the market, pick up a cooked bird and drive back. If I line my roasting pan with foil, the cleanup is barely more than rinsing the plastic containers to recycle.

I’ve gained a lot in those 30 minutes too. The house smells great, the oven warms the room and I have delicious, moist and juicy pieces left over for the next night’s meal.

My absolute favorite cut of chicken? The thigh. The meat has great flavor, stays juicy and reheats well. Thigh meat also tastes terrific pulled into shreds for tacos, sandwiches and salads. Chicken breasts, cooked on the bone and with the skin, come in as a second choice — however, I must be vigilant to find the fine line between too pink and overcooked. Roasting chicken on the convection setting yields crisp skin; use a higher temperature if using a conventional oven setting.

I see little reason to cook boneless skinless breasts. The bone and skin help retain moistness. The time saved cooking proves little, perhaps 10 minutes. If I’m worried about calories, I discard the skin after it has served its purpose of protecting the meat as it cooks.

All a chicken thigh needs for a great outcome is a rub-down with seasonings. Salt and fresh pepper yield versatile meat, but employing all the rubs I procure on vacations and at specialty shops keeps things interesting.

This fall, I’m partial to seasoning chicken with a few old standards: moderately spicy Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning and Old Bay, and aromatic Lawry’s Garlic Salt. If you haven’t used these in a while, give them a go. They’re flavorful and easy to use — just don’t add additional salt.

Trader Joe’s salt-free 21 Seasoning Salute tastes great on roast chicken, as do many of the Chicago-themed spice rubs from The Spice House. When I’m pining for holiday food, I sprinkle the thighs with poultry seasoning and coarse salt. If you are a planner, arrange the chicken on the foil-lined sheet, rub it with seasoning and refrigerate it covered up to 2 days. Then remove it from the refrigerator to warm up a bit while the oven preheats.

You can master fast roast chicken pieces with just a couple of tries. Then, you’ll wonder why you ever settled for supermarket rotisserie chicken.

Now, I’m eager to solve my craving for fried chicken. Fried chicken never goes out of favor — it solves weekday dinner challenges, proves a multigenerational favorite at large gatherings and inspires all manner of innovation. I’m currently crazy about a version I enjoyed at a local sushi spot; the batter was laced with Japanese togarashi spice.

I rarely fry anything, but fried chicken is worth the effort. So much better than takeout, but you’ll need an hour or so in the kitchen. Like oven-roasting, I use bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs for their inherent moistness, uniform shape and size. I practice my fried chicken skills over the weekend when less pressured to get dinner on the table. It gets easier and faster every time.

The key to home-frying is to use the best oil you can — I prefer grapeseed, sunflower and safflower oils for their neutral taste and high smoke point — meaning less odor and lower risk of burning. Expeller-pressed canola oil works, too, but do not use ordinary canola oil, or your house may smell funny for days. I open a window and use the exhaust fan when frying.

The trick to even browning is to keep fussing with the heat under the pan of oil to keep the cooking steady. Watching the bubbles will help: When the chicken first goes into the oil, it should bubble furiously. As the chicken cooks, the bubbles should be at a moderate, steady activity level. Of course, a good countertop deep-fryer, used according to the manufacturer’s directions, removes some of the fuss.

Four chicken thighs fit perfectly in my 10-inch, cast-iron skillet, enabling me to use only 2 cups of oil. I like to double-flour my fried chicken for a perfect crust. To feel virtuous, the chicken can be battered and fried sans skin. But at some point, try frying the skin and sprinkling the crispy goodness with a spicy chile blend or hot sauce. It’s fantastic.

Both of these recipes taste good when made with skinless chicken thighs; the cooking time will be the same. If you prefer, boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, be sure to reduce the cooking time by a few minutes.

Basic, But Delicious, Roast Chicken Thighs

Note: I usually double this recipe; leftovers are terrific to have on hand for adding to salads, sandwiches and soups.

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

4 to 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 21/2 pounds total

1 tablespoon favorite spice rub

1/2 teaspoon salt (if spice rub does not contain salt)

Heat oven to 375 degrees on convection or 400 degrees on conventional. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Rinse the thighs, and pat dry. Put them onto the prepared baking sheet, bone side up. Sprinkle with the spice rub. (Sprinkle with salt if the rub has no salt.) Turn the thighs over, skin side up, and sprinkle with more of the rub and optional salt.

Roast in the middle of the oven, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking time, until the juices run clear, 20 to 25 minutes. If desired, broil, 6 inches from heat source, until skin is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Let rest a few minutes before serving. Refrigerate covered for up to 3 days.

Nutrition information per serving: 251 calories, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 144 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 25 g protein, 304 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Fried Togarashi Chicken With Wasabi Mayo

Change up the spice in the chicken by substituting 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne for the togarashi. You will have enough egg mix, flour mix and oil to cook 8 chicken thighs, but you will need to work in two frying batches. Packaged chicken thighs are usually sold with plenty of extra flaps of skin still attached; trim them off and use them to test oil temperature — and fry them separately for a cook’s treat.

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 cups grapeseed, sunflower, safflower or expeller-pressed canola oil

2 eggs

2 tablespoons half-and-half

1 cup white whole-wheat flour or all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon togarashi spice mix

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 2 pounds total

Wasabi mayo

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 to 2 teaspoons wasabi paste, to taste

1 teaspoon store-bought lemongrass puree, optional


Small Thai basil leaves, optional

Togarashi spice mix, salt and/or sesame seeds, for garnish

Position a wire rack over a baking sheet. Pour the oil into a deep, 10-inch cast-iron or other heavy skillet.

Crack eggs into a shallow bowl or pie plate. Add half-and-half, and beat with a fork to mix well. Put flour, 1 teaspoon salt and spice mix (or one of its substitutes) into another shallow bowl or pie plate. Mix well with a fork.

Rinse chicken thighs and pat dry with paper toweling. Use kitchen shears to trim excess flaps of skin from the thighs. Reserve the skin if desired; it is delicious battered and fried.

Dip one chicken thigh at a time into the flour mixture to coat it well. Shake excess flour back into the bowl, then slip the thigh into the egg mixture, and turn to coat it with egg. Put the thigh back into the flour and coat it again. Set the coated thigh on the wire rack and repeat to coat all the chicken. If desired, coat the trimmings of skin the same way and place those on the rack.

For wasabi mayo, mix the mayonnaise, wasabi paste and lemongrass puree in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt. Scatter the basil leaves over the top if using. Set aside.

Turn on the exhaust fan. Heat oven to 200 degrees, and place baking sheet inside.

Set the heat under the pan of the oil to medium. When the oil is shimmering and starting to have an aroma, the oil temperature should be about 325 degrees. Gently dip chicken skin into the oil; it should bubble furiously. If not, let the oil heat a few minutes more. At no point should the oil smoke. If it does, then it’s too hot, and you’ll need to cool it down a few minutes. When the oil is the right temperature, carefully slip 3 or 4 pieces of the chicken skin into the oil if you are using them. Cook, turning occasionally, until crisp and golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with tongs to a plate.

To cook chicken, carefully add 4 thighs to the heated oil. Cook, without turning, until the bubbling has calmed down a bit (adjust the heat if chicken is browning too much) and the chicken is beautifully golden, about 10 minutes. Use tongs to carefully turn the chicken over. Continue cooking until the underside is golden and no pink juices are visible, 8 to 10 minutes more. Remove first batch to a baking sheet in the oven. Cook the rest of the thighs, and place on a paper towel-lined plate.

Transfer the hot chicken (and fried skin pieces if you made them) to a serving platter. Sprinkle with a little salt and more togarashi mix. Pass the wasabi mayo for dipping.

Nutrition information per serving: 801 calories, 56 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 361 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 52 g protein, 353 mg sodium, 3 g fiber