Friday, April 17, 2015

Beautiful Boneless Chicken Thighs

The thigh is my favorite part of the chicken.  I think I have always been of this opinion (I have always preferred dark meat turkey, too…).  For many years I was in the minority…the poor thigh was out of favor with most…no doubt a victim of the fear of fat.  In recent years, this most flavorful and moist part of the chicken has been gaining some ground….but mostly in its boneless, skinless form.  This new preference may have something to do with a still ingrained fear of fat (much of the fat resides in the skin), but I also suspect the fact that people want to purchase boneless thighs may have something to do with the fact that a thigh…when cooked surrounded by some kind of delicious liquid (which is one of the best ways to prepare and eat the thigh)….is not the neatest thing to eat.

A fried or roasted thigh is of course easily eaten with ones hands.  But most Americans…self included… are a bit disinclined to pick up a saucy piece of meat with their hands when in polite company.  Trying to remove all of the meat from the bone with a knife and fork can be done….but it takes more time and effort—and creates more of a mess on the plate—than most people seem to be willing to deal with at the table. 

Poulet à la Fermière

Despite all this, I still prefer to cook thighs on the bone…with the skin.  It is an undisputed fact that meat always tastes better when cooked on the bone.  Just as bones give flavor to a stock or broth, they impart flavor to the meat as they cook together.  I would also maintain that meat cooked on the bone is ultimately moister and juicer than corresponding boneless cuts.  As for the skin….besides being delicious in and of itself…I am convinced that since it provides a natural protective coating of fat, it is also responsible for a juicier and tastier final result. 

But just because something has been cooked on the bone doesn’t mean it must be served on the bone.  We routinely carve large roasts in order to serve the meat without the bone—a whole chicken, prime rib, leg of lamb, etc.  There is absolutely no reason not to treat chicken thighs the same way…removing the bone before it ever gets to the table so that you…and your family or your guests….can eat and enjoy a delicious, boneless piece of meat. 

Poulet Basquaise

So today, instead of posting a recipe, I thought I would explain the simple process of de-boning a cooked chicken thigh.  I hope no one minds the lack of a recipe (I have posted several in the past…and have provided images and links throughout this post—you can also find a list under the chicken section on my “recipes” page).  But if the popularity of my other basics posts (as tracked by my new “popular posts” feature below) is an indication, this is actually the kind of information that many people are looking for.    

Before I get started, for safety reasons I want to mention that when you are boning a piece of meat…whether raw or cooked… you should always keep the hand that is holding the knife (your “working hand”) clean and dry.  Use your other hand to handle the meat as you work.  If you allow your working hand to get wet or greasy (by touching the meat) your hand might slip on the knife handle, possibly causing you to cut yourself. 

To de-bone a cooked chicken thigh:  Let the thighs sit until they are cool enough to handle (they don’t have to be cold…in fact, the meat comes away from the bone more easily if it is still slightly warm).  Pick up a thigh with your non-working hand and lightly scrape any sauce clinging to the meat back into the cooking vessel using the back side of your boning knife.  Place the thigh on a cutting board skin-side down. 

While stabilizing the thigh with your non-working hand, 

use the tip of your boning knife to make a shallow incision from knuckle to knuckle along the length of the bone. 

Continue to run the tip of your knife over the incision until your knife is scraping the bone.  This should only take one or two passes with the knife—the idea is that you are “searching” for the bone with your knife tip so that you can actually scrape the bone clean of meat with the tip of your knife without making unnecessary cuts into the meat itself.     

When the bone is exposed, use the fingers of your non-working hand to grab one end of the bone.  Twist slightly while you simultaneously use the tip of the knife to slice and scrape the cooked flesh neatly away from the bone.  If the thighs have been cooked properly (until the meat is fork-tender), the meat will pretty much release itself from the bone.  You may need to do a bit of knife work on the opposite side of the bone from where you started…but not too much.  

Next, lift the bone up and away from the meat. 

Then, using the fingers of your non-working hand, gently probe the portion of the thigh where the knuckles of the bone were attached.  It is likely that the hard white cartilage that covered the knuckles has detached itself from the bone and is still attached to the meat.  If this is the case, simply pinch it away from the meat and discard it.  Check both ends.  

Now, tuck any bits of meat that have been separated from the main piece of meat back into the interior of the thigh (where the bone was).  Flip the thigh back over so that it is skin-side up. 

By way of encouragement...  I have been de-boning chicken thighs for years.  And because I like to serve chicken thighs to my classes, I have lots of practice.  Even with all of this practice, the bone does not always come away beautifully and cleanly.  

But rest assured, if you tuck all of the bits of meat back into the cavity that has been left by the bone, when you flip the thigh over, no one will ever know the difference.  You will still have a beautiful, boneless thigh.  

Since most of the saucy sorts of dishes that will benefit from this process are even better in taste and texture after they have had time to cool and sit awhile (overnight…or even just a few hours) it makes sense to take the few minutes necessary to remove the thigh bones.  If the sauce needs de-fatting, do this before you return the meat to the sauce.  After any de-greasing, place the boneless thighs back in the cooking vessel (skin side up), nestling them down into the sauce.  Refrigerate until an hour or so before you want to serve.  If you are serving your dish family-style, instead of putting everything back in the pan the dish was cooked in, take a minute to transfer the entire contents of the pan into a clean dish (preferably one with a lid) that is oven-safe and table-worthy.  As long as your pan is covered, there is no need to worry that the meat will dry out—one of the wonderful things about thighs is that unlike white meat, there is enough fat and collagen in the dark meat to keep them moist and juicy—even when reheated.

The beauty of this process is that it produces a beautiful portion of meat that still resembles a whole chicken thigh.  A chicken thigh that is cooked from its boneless skinless state may taste good…but the nubby and lumpy portion of meat that results is not terribly attractive.   Once you get the hang of it, removing the thigh bones is fast and easy to do….and in every way that matters—taste, texture, ease of consumption and appearance—it is totally worth the effort involved.  Certainly any guests you have will notice and appreciate the difference…and I would be surprised if even your family won't notice a difference too.  

Baked Chicken with Garlic, Leeks & Thyme

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