Failures in Chicken Braising

Last night, I attempted to make chicken paprikash. I suppose that technically speaking, I succeeded, as I did end up with fully cooked chicken and a sauce that had all the right stuff in it. However, the end result was quite the disappointment – the sauce was both too watery and too schmaltzy, the skin was a sodden mess, and, in the most miraculous of the many shitty miracles that manifested in the final product, the chicken was overcooked in the braising liquid, meaning it was simultaneously soggy, dry, and flavorless.

It is imperative that I save you from repeating my failures.

The original sin, if you’ll pardon the expression, was the chicken itself. Paprikash is traditionally made with a whole chicken split into parts, but I had done it previously with leg quarters (thighs with the drumsticks still attached) to great success. So when my wife and I bought groceries on Sunday, we got this giant fuck off pack of chicken leg quarters. The guy at the store said they were on sale and it was a great deal to boot, so we were excited.

But the reason they were so damn cheap is that they were these mutant-sized, farm raised monstrosity chicken quarters, and this set us on the road to ruination.

The last time I had done this, I was able to squeeze four quarters into the bottom layer of our dutch oven. (This is another break from tradition – ideally, you would use a large sauté pan, but we don’t have one of those so the dutch oven is the next best thing.) It was a little tight, and while everything mostly turned out fine, the skins didn’t brown as nicely as I would’ve liked. Therefore, I resolved to brown the quarters two at a time to avoid crowding. Once I put the first batch in the pan, it became clear what abominations these things were. Last time, I got four quarters in the bottom of the pan, but these two by themselves took up the entirety of the surface area. This was my first sign that something was amiss, and while I certainly noticed, I didn’t think much of it. The quarters were browning better than the last time, and that’s what was important to me in the moment.

Once all four quarters were browned, I had about a half-inch layer of rendered schmaltz in the bottom of the pan. Because I am a foul grease pervert, I chose to leave all of this liquid fat in the pan for cooking the aromatics. It smelled great! How was I to know that this would only make everything worse? (Don’t answer that!) After that, it was time to return the quarters to the pot and cover with chicken stock. But, since I could only get two of the four quarters on the bottom of the pot, I chose to make two layers of two, cover the whole thing, and then rotate the quarters about halfway through. This proved to be an irrevocable fuckup on my part.

See, because the chicken pieces were no longer in a single layer, I had to add a bunch more stock than you’re supposed to need, and because the top layer pieces needed to cook in the liquid just as much as the bottom layer pieces, I half-covered the pot so the liquid wouldn’t cook off too quickly.

So, to recap, I have chicken pieces that are way too large, that are also too submerged in too much braising liquid, with too much excess fat and a half cover over top, which seemed necessary at the time (and quite possibly was) but also ensured that none of the liquid would cook off, meaning the greasy stock water wouldn’t cook into an actual sauce.

The finished dish bummed me out. My wife insisted that while it wasn’t perfect, it was fine, but as I slogged through the consumption portion of the proceedings, I resolved that I would not fuck up this catastrophically again.

Here is what I learned, and how you can avoid this fate should you choose to take on the glorious burden of braising chicken. (This assumes that you follow the standard braising procedure of brown meat/cook aromatics/return meat/add stock/braise.)

Don’t crowd the chicken while browning. Never crowd anything you’re trying to brown on the outside, whether it be chicken pieces, steaks, chops, mushrooms, meatballs, etc. Crowded pieces do not brown as nicely, because science, so make sure you don;t crowd anything at this stage. Work in batches if needed.

Drain excess fat before sautéing your aromatics. Having some fat from browning in the bottom of the pot is fine, and even desirable. However, having a standing pool of fat is not. Once you start simmering the liquid, that fat is going straight to the surface of your braise, and it isn’t going to reduce either. You’ll be stuck with a layer of grease forming the top layer of the dish, and that’s just kind of gross.

Do not try to braise more than one layer of chicken, for any reason. I know I said above that the ultimate problem with the chicken I made last night was that it was too large, and yeah, they weren’t the best chicken quarters I’ve ever had, but really, the dish would have been just fine had I only attempted to cook two quarters. (Also, I don’t want to engage in class warfare by telling you the key to good chicken braising is to spend extra money that you might not necessarily have in order to get the nicer chicken. As long as you’re not braising frozen chicken nuggets, you can do a good job of this.) A good braise is a harmonious union of a browned outside and well-cooked inside. If you layer your pieces, you will have to submerge some of them, meaning the browned outside is going to get soggy and disappointing. You have to get all your pieces in a single layer so that none of them are fully submerged, and all of them cook evenly on the inside. 

Make sure the braising liquid is reducing into a sauce. This requires that you leave your pot or pan mostly uncovered. Some of the liquid has to cook off, otherwise you will end up with hot chicken water and not delicious sauce. Last night, after eating, I pulled the remaining chicken from the pot and cooked the sauce way down in an effort to salvage the leftovers. The chicken itself will still be a soggy disappointment, but perhaps the sauce has hope.

I urge you, please learn from my mistakes. Anyone can braise chicken well – it really is quite easy, but be mindful of the potential for fuckups. You got this!

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