Monday, February 8, 2010

How to Braise a Chicken

Well, I finally did it -- I announced Things with Wings. This latest addition to our class list is supposed to teach you everything you ever wanted to know about poultry but were afraid to ask.

Developing a new class also has a wonderful side effect of providing me with blogging material (or more precisely with a deadline). I can no longer procrastinate writing down these recipes, so I might just as well blog about them.

Today's topic will be how to braise chicken, which very conveniently applies to braising duck too. What is braising? Braising is a combination cooking method: first you brown the protein and then you cook it in liquid. There is an insane amount of braising chicken recipes in this world: coq au vin, chicken Proven├žal, chicken with 40 garlic cloves, chicken Cacciatore, Moroccan chicken tagine, etc. Most of the recipes I've seen for these dishes provide mediocre results: flabby skin and tough dry meat. Their only saving grace is the sauce.

Is it possible to make braised chicken that's all about the chicken? Turns out it is, but it took a bit of work to figure it out.

How to solve the dry meat problem:
Don't use breasts! Would you braise a beef tenderloin? No, not even the most idiotic of cookbooks would suggest that. But for some strange reason, most braising recipes suggest that you cut up the chicken into 8 pieces and cook legs and breasts together. Chicken breasts have no connective tissue or fat making them a terrible choice for a braise. Just like you wouldn't put tenderloin and chuck into one stew pot, you shouldn't put poultry breasts and legs into one stew pot either. The reason for braising a whole chicken is historic (or at least that's my best guess). If you wanted to braise a chicken in the old days, you had to buy a whole chicken at the market or kill one from your own backyard. Finding two different chicken preparations for legs and breasts when you had a large family to feed was simply not practical. But since it's very easy to go to the store and buy only legs or only breasts these days, why not use this to our advantage?

How to solve the tough meat problem:
Assuming you are using chicken legs, you are not likely to end up with dry results, but can easily end up with tough ones. Chicken legs need a good long time to become tender, and indirect heat, but most recipes tell you to cook them "just until done" and to use a stove top. That doesn't do braised chicken justice. I found that the optimal way to cook them (after you browned on the stovetop and assembled your sauce) is in the oven at a gentle 325F heat for slightly over an hour or until they are fork tender. Ideally, you'd braise at even lower temperature for even longer time, but that might pose a problem for you schedule-wise. For absolutely ideal results, braise at 250F for 2.5 hours. But 325F is as high as you can go without toughening the meat. Don't be alarmed if your thermometer registers 190-200F (not the usual 170F you expect to see in done chicken legs). That's the point at which the connective tissue melts and leaves you with the most tender results.

How to solve the flabby skin problem:
Oh, this has been the thorn in my side for years. No matter what I did, it seemed impossible to keep the skin crisp. I tried re-crisping it in the skillet or under the broiler when the braise was done, but results were never satisfactory. The answer finally came from my culinary heroine Judy Rodgers, the author of the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Only submerge the chicken in the sauce half way to make sure the skin stays above the liquid. Oh Judy, I love you! Finally, it's braised chicken skin that actually tastes good. I know what you must be thinking -- why not just remove the skin? Sure, you can do that, but I want my skin and I want to eat it too :)

Another tip from Judy Rodgers is to pre-salt the chicken 1-3 days in advance. It makes it way more flavorful and in my opinion improves the texture too. Though that's not just a tip for braising chicken, but cooking chicken in general.

That's all there is to it, and we are ready to braise.

Moroccan inspired chicken braise

Serves 6

12 chicken thighs (or 6 chicken legs, cut into thighs and drumsticks)
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp kosher salt (or 2 tsp table salt) or less if using chicken stock with salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 Tbsp canola or olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, sliced pole to pole
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp all-purpose flour
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 inch ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 preserved lemon (a.k.a Moroccan lemon), pulp removed, skin rinsed, and sliced paper thin
12 green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 and 1/2 cup chicken stock (plus more as needed), if possible home-made, unsalted

Salting the chicken (if possible, do this 1-3 days in advance)
  1. Press the chicken pieces between paper towels to dry and sprinkle with salt on all sides.
  2. If possible let the chicken air-dry in the fridge for a day to help the skin crisp as it cooks. To do that, arrange it in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet skin side up and let sit in the fridge uncovered. If you don't have room in your fridge for this, just pile it all into a zip lock bag.
Browning the chicken:
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Press the chicken pieces between paper towels to dry before searing. Mix pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom and sprinkle all over chicken.
  3. Set a large (if possible NOT non-stick) skillet over medium high heat and add the oil (1 Tbsp for 10 inch skillet, 2 Tbsp for 12 inch). When the skillet is hot, add chicken pieces skin-side down without overlapping (if your skillet is not large enough, do this in batches). Do not disturb the chicken for at least 5 minutes. Regulate heat so that the chicken is making sizzling noises, but is not burning. When the first side is brown, flip the chicken to brown briefly on the other side. You'll have to rotate drumsticks more than 1 time to brown them on all sides.
Making the sauce and braising:
  1. Remove the chicken to a large plate and add the onions to the skillet. Turn down the heat to medium and cook stirring occasionally until tender, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook stirring constantly until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add flour and cook stirring constantly until no streaks remain, at least 1 minute. Add stock, olives, and preserved lemon. Bring to a simmer stirring constantly.
  2. If you are working in a large skillet that can fit all chicken pieces in 1 layer, put the chicken pieces into the skillet skin-side up. If your skillet is not large enough to fit all the chicken, pour the sauce into some baking dish (like 13 by 9 inch pyrex) and set the chicken on top. The liquid should come half way up the chicken pieces. Be careful to keep most of the skin above the liquid. If it looks like you have too much liquid, take some out. You can simmer it in a small pot and use it as extra sauce. If you don't have enough liquid, add some stock.
  3. Place the dish with chicken in the middle of the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until chicken is fork tender.
  4. Remove chicken pieces to a serving dish, tilt the pan, and skim off excess fat. Serve with rice or couscous.
Leftovers keep very well. To warm up, lightly brown chicken pieces skin-side down in a little bit of butter using a non-stick skillet. Flip, add sauce, and simmer on medium-low until heated through.


Ed Schenk said...

I enjoyed you post very much!

Ivan Seligman said...

Thank you for your study of braising chicken.

You've a common sense approach, and common sense is not common in other braising recipes across the net.

I too use only thighs, and keep the skin above the braising liquid as you do-that's braising, otherwise, for others, it becomes a fricassee or stew.

Wonder if there's a way to keep/make the skin a touch crisper before serving? Saute it at the end, skin side down?
Briefly removing skin and broiling it before replacing it, or "torching' it on the thighs? Just thoughts..
You make me hungry, and it's long past supper!

Helen said...

Hi Ivan,

If you find a way to crisp up the skin more, let me know. I've tried searing the thighs in a skillet before serving (a non-stick skillet works best) and broiling. They both helped a little, but it's definitely not like roasted chicken skin.


Marsha said...

I like the sound of this a lot - because flabby chicken skin is an abomination. But I had always understood that braising meant cooking the meat in liquid with the top on. I take it that I am wrong, right?

Helen said...

Hi Marsha,

Braising means browning the protein first and then cooking it partially covered in liquid. Sometimes it's covered, sometimes not, and sometimes it's covered with parchment paper to allow steam to escape while preventing the top from drying out. Most people confuse braising with stewing. They are very similar, but not quite the same. The difference is that in stewing the protein is completely covered by liquid and in braising it's partially covered. But most people use those terms interchangeably.


Sam F said...

Quick question: I've been preserving some lemons, but haven't done much with them yet.

What do you mean by "1 preserved lemon, pulp removed?" Do I remove all the yellow inside of the lemon, leaving only the skin?

This dish looks fantastic, thinking of making it tonight!

Helen said...

yes, you remove all the inside (the part you'd normally eat in a citrus fruit, like orange) and only use the yellow and white skin.

Teri said...

Sounds wonderful! Looking forward to trying in when DH gets back.

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

I made this tonight. The only thing I didn't have was the preserved lemon. I wonder how much of a difference it makes but the dish was absolutely delicious. Now I am kicking myself that I didn't use all the chicken thighs. I think I will also make this side dish that is also wonderful the next time I make it.

Thank you so much for sharing.

From another Helen

Lose Weight Fast said...

like this dish.its so delicious

Sam F said...

I thought you might like to know that I served this yesterday as a Valentine's Day dinner for my fiancee. It was delicious! I served it over couscous with some braised fennel on the side.

I doubled the amount of preserved lemon (by accident, -- I halved the recipe and didn't halve the amount of lemon) and it was perfect. I hadn't used my preserved lemons since making them six months ago -- a great first recipe for them!

The chicken remained both crisp and tender -- typically a paradox, as you say.

Thank you! --a fan in Cambridge

Helen said...

Hi guys,

So glad you enjoyed the chicken braise. About preserved lemon -- it adds a musky savoriness to the dish. It's an optional ingredient, but if you have it on hand, it's a shame not to use it. You can definitely up the amount. I was being a bit conservative in the recipe since some store bought chicken stocks can be very salty.


emiglia said...

Great post! I have a recipe for coq au vin that I love, but I think adding your tips will make it even better!