The first step is to get your chicken nice and dry.
Why? Moisture is the enemy of crisp skin. Any water that is left on the chicken will cause it to steam instead of fry. So get out those paper towels and dry ‘em off really well.
Next, season both sides of the chicken generously with salt and a bit of black pepper. You want to use quite a bit of salt—enough so that you see large chunks of it on the surface of your chicken. This will feel like too much, but it’s not—since you’re only seasoning the outside, all that salt has to do the work of flavoring the entire chicken. So sprinkle away!
Okay! And now it’s time to turn on the heat.
Before you get started with this step, read it all the way through so you know what to expect. Once the heat goes on, you won’t get a chance to pause and figure things out.
First we are going to pre-heat the oil in the pan. The goal of this is to make sure food does not stick. This is especially important if you are using a stainless steel pan, because it doesn’t have that non-stick coating. (Notes for other types of pans below.)
Food, especially proteins, are prone to sticking because the protein will literally form molecular bonds with the surface of the pan while raw. This does not happen with cooked protein, so the point of using oil is to create an intervening layer of some really hot substance that will flash-cook your protein on contact. By the time the protein comes into contact with the pan, it won’t be raw anymore, and therefore won’t stick. (How cool is that?)
But a word of caution about heating your oil: it can’t be too hot, otherwise it will start to give off a lot of smoke. Besides being unhealthy to breathe, this creates carcinogenic compounds in the oil that will get in your food. So you want to figure out that sweet spot—where the oil is hot enough to insta-cook the protein, but not so hot that it’s throwing off a lot of smoke.
How do we do that? Fortunately, all oils come with a built-in temperature indicator: the smoke point. The smoke point is when oil starts to, well, give off smoke. For refined oils like canola, sunflower seed, safflower, avocado etc. this is around 400˚ F or higher. That’s plenty hot to cook the surface of our protein on contact. So look for that precise moment when the oil starts to give off a tiny, barely visible wisp of smoke. You want your oil to be that hot, but no hotter!
And that is how you get food to not stick to a stainless steel pan.
If you are using stainless steel, a word of caution: this material has very high thermal conductivity. What that means is it transfers heat really fast. Ever get into a car on a hot day and burn yourself on the metal part of the seat belt buckle, but not the strap? Even though that strap and buckle are the same temperature, the buckle has higher thermal conductivity. Stainless steel pans work the same way. They have a tendency to heat really fast, and burn food really fast. So adjust the heat to low if you start to see too much smoke. Remember, you want to see wisps, not billowing clouds.
So let’s get started. Turn the heat on to medium, pour about a tablespoon of oil in the pan, and wait for that telltale smoke wisp. Then add your chicken, skin-side down, and let it cook for about 6 minutes. Use the timer on your phone, so you don’t forget!
Cast iron has relatively low thermal conductivity, so you can afford to be a little more aggressive with the heat. Turn the heat on very high. Then, when the oil smokes, you may want to keep the heat on medium-high the entire time, instead of lowering it.
Keep the heat on medium the entire time. Don’t let the pan get too hot, because Teflon breaks down at higher temperatures. You won’t be able to get the skin as nice and crisp, but it will still be very tasty.
This part’s easy—just let the chicken be. No touching—every time you pick up the chicken, you let its surface cool and prolong its cooking time.
Do stay and listen for the sizzle. If the sizzle goes away, turn your heat up slightly. Likewise, if it’s throwing off too much smoke, adjust the heat downwards.
Cooking is all about being able to make moment-to-moment decisions based on what you observe. Keep practicing until you find that happy medium between a good sizzle and not too much smoke.
When the timer goes off, check to see if the chicken is golden brown. If not, you may want to turn the heat up a tiny bit and give it another minute or two.
Then flip! Cook the other side another 6 minutes.
Doneness is defined by 2 things:
When you’re cooking meat, you’re basically raising its internal temperature slowly. Interesting things happen as meat gets hotter: the proteins start to toughen and coagulate, toughening and pushing out moisture. But the heat will also kill off harmful bacteria and pathogens. The trick is to find the happy medium, where enough pathogens are killed that the food is safe to eat, but it still hasn’t lost all its juiciness.
For chicken, this sweet spot occurs around 165 degrees F. If you have a meat thermometer, whip it out and stick it in the chicken—and look for the number 155. Why? Because meat temperature keeps rising even after you take it off the heat. Aim for 10 degrees lower so you don’t overshoot. By the way, I like to stick the probe in sideways so at least a good inch or so gets deep into the center of the meat—this helps you get a more accurate reading.
What happens if you don’t have a thermometer? Then cut it open to check. No biggie! Cooks have been doing it for centuries before digital instant-read thermometers were invented. Besides, sometimes thermometers can be inaccurate (if you didn’t calibrate it, or you stuck it in wrong).
With chicken, you’re looking for meat that’s opaque and white/gray, or very very light pink with occasional veins of red blood near the bone (see note on color below). The texture should reveal the individual muscle fibers; it should not look smooth and gelatinous like raw meat.
If you find that your chicken is under-done, put it back in the hot pan for 2 minutes per side. Then re-check. Make note of the total cooking time, the size of the flame, and the type of pan you used for next time. Over time you’ll get better at pulling the chicken off the heat at exactly the right time!
“Cook until juices run clear” is something you’ll often see in recipes and cookbooks. The thought is, if you poke the chicken and the juices that leak out are no longer pink, then that means it is safe to eat. Unfortunately, this is not a good indicator of doneness. Here’s why:
The red that you see in the juices is not blood, but something else entirely: myoglobin. It’s a protein that loses its pink color when it heated. But, at what temperature? It depends! Sometimes it can lose its redness well below the safe temperature of 165˚ F; other times it doesn’t until the temperature is much higher, leading you to overcook your chicken. If the chicken was stressed during slaughter, that impacts when myoglobin turns pink by changing the pH level of the meat. So it’s not a reliable indicator of doneness at all.
On the other hand, what if you find a red and bloody vein or bone in your chicken? Is it still safe to eat? Yep, you bet! You can find red on the bones even though the chicken has reached the safe temperature of 165˚ F. All you really care about here is the temperature, not the color. So get used to the red—your chicken will be much tastier for it.
Put the chicken on a platter, squeeze some lemon juice over it, and serve immediately so the skin is still crisp. Enjoy!