Even before the pandemic, I never attended many conferences, food-focused or otherwise. I do, however, enjoy them. The last one I went to was a sous-vide conference in 2019, and I met a lot of interesting people there, including Cole Wagoner, who at the time was working for Anova Culinary.
Cole is one of those people who is always making food that lives at the intersection of accessible and aspirational. His dishes are pretty and inviting and always perfectly plated. His chicken thighs, for example, are golden and juicy, with crispy skin that shatters with the slightest bit of pressure.
The secret to that crispy skin? Humble water. Boiling water, to be precise.
Seeing as chicken thighs are my favourite part of the chicken, I messaged Cole on Twitter to see if he could share his experience with this method, and explain why it works so well. (The following interview was lightly edited for clarity.)
Where did you hear about this technique?
I have a friend who is a food scientist and we’ve worked together on some recipes over the years, and this is one of the coolest things she taught me! It’s used a lot in Asian techniques as well, and that’s where she learned about it.
What happens when you pour hot water on chicken skin?
The skin starts to immediately shrink, pull back, and get much thinner and translucent due to the subcutaneous fat rendering under the skin and between the meat. This renders down everything that we work to render out during a perfect cook — like getting enough time skin-side down to brown while the fat renders. A lot of competition BBQ people will pull the skin off the thigh, invert it, and scrape the fat off. I find this achieves the same result much more expeditiously and with way less work.
How hot does the water need to be?
When do you season the chicken?
I always dry brine my chicken overnight with 1-2% kosher salt by weight, in the fridge, uncovered. This helps the flavour a ton and also dries out the skin a good bit, which, when paired with the boiling water trick, gets the skin super crispy. I usually dust the visible salt off before pouring the water over it. After [pouring] the boiling water, pat the skin/chicken dry and season.
Besides the addition of the water step, did you change anything else about how you cook your chicken thighs?
Nope! This method just helps the skin get very crispy and brown, but doesn’t really impact the cook otherwise. [It] works well in any [cooking] method: grilling, roasting, sous vide, etc.
What temp do you use to cook them and for how long?
I pan sear at about 200°C, flipping as needed until internal temp is 73-80°C, but most of the time (about 80%), they’re skin side down. I’m also a big fan of doing this prior to a sous vide cook, as it really helps skin get crispy post-sous vide. It’s a must when I sous vide thighs, but a “nice to have” when cooking traditionally.
After talking to Cole, I bought a multipack of skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs to test the method out for myself. I salted four thighs, let them hang out on a wire rack in the fridge overnight, then poured boiling water over them until the skin became translucent. I then cooked them two ways — in the pan as Cole described, and in my air fryer at 400℉ for 20 minutes.
Both came out great. The pan-cooked thighs, pictured at the top of this article, were my favourite. They took on a ton of colour, got very crispy, and were nearly devoid of that jiggly subcutaneous fat that often hangs out under the skin of a chicken thigh, no matter how long you’ve roasted it.
Going forward, I will be pouring boiling water over every chicken thigh I cook. Even if you skip the overnight dry brine, this one quick step will render out that extra fat, resulting in some of the crispiest chicken skin you’ve ever experienced.
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