Crispy Pan-Fried Chicken

In this mission, we’ll focus on two things: how to cook with a stainless steel pan so there’s zero sticking (It’s amazing and totally possible!), and how to control heat like a pro. We’ll practice by pan-frying chicken thighs. The result will be drool-worthy, juicy meat with golden-brown skin, ready in less than 15 minutes!

Now, if you don’t have a stainless steel pan, not to worry. This mission will also work with cast iron and non-stick skillets. The only difference lies in how you control the heat, which we’ll get to in detail in the mission walkthrough itself.

Pan-frying is a high-heat cooking technique that uses a thin layer of oil to fry the outside of meat or breaded vegetables. It’s ideal for relatively small pieces of food that can cook through to the center in a short amount of time. The main advantage of pan-frying is that It gets you that nice crisp, browned flavor on the outside of your food, without the mess of deep-frying. Plus it’s relatively fast compared to, say, baking. This makes it one of my favorite techniques for the summer months, when you just can’t have the stove on for that long.

But why chicken thighs? They’re one of the best cuts of meat, that’s why! They are relatively inexpensive, very forgiving (they don’t dry out easily like breast meat), and they have that beguiling layer of skin that crisps right up in the pan. You can buy either the bone in or deboned version. Just make sure it’s not skinless, or you will be experiencing some serious FOMO by the end of this mission.

Finally, a word on oil. Different oils tolerate different temperature levels, and in this mission, we want one that can handle the searingly high temperatures (in the 400-500˚ F range) of pan-frying. Some oils, like extra virgin olive oil, break down over high temperature, releasing a lot of smoke and forming cancer-causing compounds (yikes). Others are sturdier. These are the more refined, relatively flavorless oils like sunflower, safflower, canola, avocado, or clarified butter. They can stand up to the high heat, because they contain less “stuff” in them that can burn. So choose one of those.

Okay! Got your pan of choice, oil of choice, and chicken thighs? Let’s cook!

Tools Needed:

  • stainless steel skillet (preferred); cast-iron or non-stick are fine too

Ingredients Needed:

  • skin-on chicken thighs
  • canola oil or other high-heat oil (sunflower, avocado, coconut, safflower)
  • salt and pepper to taste

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  • This chicken turned out pretty good and the recipe was so straight forward I didn’t even have to refer back to it while cooking. Maybe a bit less salt next time, but other then that great. Also made some extra pieces to take to work for lunch!

  • It turned out wonderful. I served the chicken with Tuna salad and biscuits. I learned that the types of pans makes a difference in how long and well the chicken cooks.

  • Cooked by my 8 year old daughter Elizabeth! She did everything except turn the chicken over (she got an oil splatter burn and that was that).

    Chicken was delicious. She was deliberately short on pepper (“too spicy!”), but we were happy with the color. She came up with the plating with the guac and crispy kale chips. She made the guac from scratch herself. The family gobbled it all up.

    Great mission!

  • Ooooh did you manage to find skin-on breast? The highlight of this dish is really the skin, so I hope you did :)

    Pan-frying chicken breast IMHO is tough, because of its shape—there’s a thick end and a thin end, and the thin end gets dry easily. I like to cut it into medallions first (1/2″ thickness at an angle) so that way it cooks more evenly. I usually do no more than 3 min per side, and I go by color, and the firmness (poke the chicken) rather than the time. Keep practicing and you’ll get it right!

    Last tip: if it’s *under* cooked, you can always zap it in the microwave for 20 seconds. I find that this is easier than putting it back in the pan, and accidentally overshooting.

  • My first time doing one of these missions and I have to say, it was pretty dang fun. Love the urgency of these missions as they give me the motivation required to actually cook. I had no problems at all following the instructions step by step and it turned out delicious! Can’t wait for the next.

  • We put this delightfully crispy chicken over a scrumptious salad. The end result was a perfect exterior, but a slightly dried out interior (due to over cooking). We bought a chicken breast, which we cut in half, and apparently 4 min. per side was still a touch too long. Next time, I’ll check the temperature more regularly. I also think I used too much oil, as I splattered quite a bit all over the oven when I added the chicken in — oops! But we had frying oil leftover from making mozzarella sticks, so it was easy to just use the enormous amount of oil we already had ready to go.

  • Kudos for completing the mission, despite all the obstacles! This is actually quite a bit more challenging of a mission, because we’re dealing with bone-in meat and high temperatures here. But YOU DID IT! And trust me, the 2nd time around you will notice how much easier it is. Keep practicing!

    I will add a warning about the oil splatters—that is perfectly normal. It’s a sign that your chicken is juicy and giving off moisture (water is what makes oil jump). I find that quick swipe on the stove with a soapy sponge after dinner does the trick for cleanup. Any time you work with hot oil, expect to get a little messy, but know what the result will be so tasty as to make it worth it :)

    Re: not seeing the wisp of smoke – the wisp appears very subtly at first and can quickly balloon into smoke, so my advice is to heat gently and wait patiently. It will definitely appear (because science!); no need to add more oil.

    Finally, what kind of pan were you using? If it’s cast iron, it takes much much longer to heat, and consequentially, to see the smoke whisp and cook the chicken. I under-estimated on the times on purpose, so that you won’t overcook your chicken, and that you get some practice checking for done-ness.

    Like I said, you’ll be a pro in no time, so I urge you to try this again… and again… until it becomes second nature. And soon you’ll be able to apply this same technique to other things like pork chops, lamb, steak… the possibilities are endless!

  • Well, I’m feeling a bit mixed about this challenge. As you can see from the photo the chicken looks great–golden, beautiful, ready-to-eat. But as I cut into my crisp, juicy chicken and sample the delicious skin (this is why I always buy skinless, too decadent), I notice my third piece is not fully cooked. Back in the pan it goes but this was after cooking 6 min per side and then an additional 2 min per side.

    My favorite part of this dish was the flavors. Thanks for telling me to salt judiciously. And I loved the lemon flavor. It made the dish feel bright and less heavy than I would expect for fried chicken.

    I struggled with the temperature of the pan and oil. My pan was small so I could only fry one piece of chicken at a time. I might have put too much oil in the pan for my first piece and I definitely got the oil way too hot because when the chicken was in the pan oil was jumping everywhere. My stove currently looks like a splatter painting. I noticed the shine on the oil but keep waiting for the whisp of smoke which never really materialised until I added more oil and I realized it was way too hot. This is my first time working with sunflower oil so maybe that threw me off? I also didn’t have a meat thermometer so I was using the look and feel test for done-ness.

    Also, it helped knowing there might be blood near the bone. Both my pieces had it. I had a hard time determining if the part near the bone was cooked enough or not.

    Anyway, in conclusion: Flavor A+, ease of cooking C+, ease of clean up TBD.