The key to cooking cast iron chicken thighs with crunchy skin is to start them skin side down in a cold cast iron skillet to start, then placed over a burner set to moderate heat.
You also need to give the chicken thighs some space to render their fat and moisture properly.
Did I mention that I didn’t use oil, flour, or anything else to achieve this golden brown, crunchy skin that’s very similar to the skin of fried chicken?
That’s right. You can cook crispy chicken thighs without olive oil or butter, just the fat rendered from the chicken skin.
This crunchy, golden-brown crust was achieved by the chicken thigh’s own rendered fat.
You can use this technique for multiple chicken thighs only if you have a large cast iron skillet, ideally the 12-inch size.
If you don’t have a cast iron pan that large, don’t fret, you can get very crispy skin on your baked chicken thighs using my cooking method outlined in my Crispy Baked Chicken Thighs post.
We have our technique, let’s cook some chicken.
Crunchy Cast Iron Chicken Thighs
The key to getting the skin extra crunchy on these cast iron chicken thighs is to start them in a cold pan placed over moderate heat and giving them space.
Ideally, you want to cook only 3 to 4 bone-in chicken thighs in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, 5 to 6 thighs in a 12-inch skillet.
The more room you give them the better the results.
Once you’ve cooked your chicken thighs on the stovetop and in the oven you can use the cooked bits in the skillet to make whatever you want to accompany your chicken thighs.
You can combine the leftover chicken fat and fond in the pan to make many things, including:
- A quick pan sauce or gravy using some onions, a little flour, and chicken broth.
- Vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, or potatoes.
- Mix it with cooked rice or pasta.
Here’s one such recipe that uses the leftover chicken juices and fat to cook onions, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes, a variation of the classic dish known as “Samfaina” in Spain.
Crunchy Cast Iron Chicken Thighs with Samfaina
- A cast iron skillet (10 to 12 inch size is preferable)
- Kitchen Tongs
- Cutting Board
- 4 - 6 to 10 ounce Bone-in Chicken thighs with skin
- 2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
- 1 tablespoon Black Pepper
- 1/4 tsp thyme
- 1 medium size Eggplant
- 1 medium Yellow onion
- 1 medium Red Pepper
- 4 large Roma Tomatoes
- 1 small lemon (optional) lemon slices for garnish
- 1 tablespoon Parsley (chopped) (optional) for garnish
- An hour before cooking, cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch cubes, place in a colander over a bowl and sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt. Mix well to coat. This will help the eggplant release its bitter juices.
- Right after you prepare the eggplant, sprinkle some salt on the fat side of the chicken thighs, both on top of the fat and on the other side of the fat. This will help expel moisture and allow the skin to crisp better. This should be done an hour before cooking as well. Place them in the fridge, preferably on a wire rack over a plate.
- Slice a medium size onion into thin slices, cut up a red pepper into 1/2 inch pieces, and peel 4 Roma tomatoes, then remove their cores and seeds and chop them into 1/4 inch pieces.
- When you're getting ready to cook, preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Pull your chicken thighs out of the fridge and dry them off thoroughly with paper towels. Don't forget to dry them off underneath the skin as well. Season both sides with pepper, but no salt. Arrange them in a cold cast iron skillet skin side down, giving them enough space to render their fat properly.Rinse off the salt on the eggplant in the colander over the sink. Take paper towels and squeeze as much moisture as you can from the eggplant, set aside.
- Place your cast iron skillet with thighs over a burner set to medium heat. If you're using gas, you might want to start off on medium-low heat. The thighs should start gently sizzling and releasing fat and moisture after 4 to 5 minutes. If you see smoke, turn your heat down and make sure the skin isn't sticking to the pan. Start checking the fat side underneath at the 8 minute mark, don't try and force the skin up if it's sticking, be patient. The skin should be golden brown by the 10 minute mark. Flip thighs over skin side up and transfer to the middle rack of oven. Place an oven-safe meat thermometer probe in a thigh to track its temperature. (optional)
- Cook your thighs for 15 to 20 minutes in the oven. An internal temperature of between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for the chicken thighs to convert their collagen into mouth watering gelatin. Remove from oven and set the thighs aside. Turn off oven. Place a towel or oven mitt over the hot handle of the cast iron pan.
- Once the oven has cooled down a bit, place the cooked chicken thighs back in the oven to keep warm. Add onions to the cast iron skillet on a burner over medium low heat. Again, watch the hot handle of the skillet so you don't burn yourself. Cook onions till soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the red peppers and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the diced eggplant and cook for 5 minutes
- Add the tomatoes and thyme. Cook until everything in the skillet is soft, adding water if necessary. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Place the chicken thighs over the top of the samfaina and serve. (Optional: Garnish with lemon slices and chopped parsley.)
How To Cook Chicken Thighs in a Cast Iron Skillet
Cooking chicken thighs in a cast iron skillet can be tricky. Cast iron cookware retains heat better than most cooking surfaces and you can really burn food if you’re not careful.
The key to cooking chicken thighs in a cast iron skillet is to place them skin side down in the pan before you put the skillet over moderate heat.
Starting your thighs on moderate heat while the cast iron skillet is still warming up allows the thighs a chance to render their fat and moisture leaving just the shell of the skin to get extremely crispy.
Putting your chicken thighs in a hot cast iron skillet with oil is akin to taking a flamethrower to a waterbed.
Sure, you’re going to get the outside nice and toasty but where’s the water inside going to go?
The problem with placing chicken thigh skin in direct contact with a hot surface is that although it is browning the outer surface there’s still a lot of water and fat underneath that hasn’t had a chance to escape.
The one drawback to this technique is the amount of space required for it to be effective.
The 10-inch skillet in the picture above can only fit three to four, 8-ounce bone-in chicken thighs and still produce ultra-crunchy skin.
You can fit five, 8-ounce bone-in chicken thighs in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet.
How Long Do You Cook Chicken Thighs in a Cast Iron Skillet?
A typical 6 to 10 ounce, bone-in chicken thigh will take 25 to 30 minutes to cook in a cast iron skillet.
Chicken thighs have more collagen and connective tissue than a chicken breast and benefit from a higher internal serving temperature.
Chicken thighs cooked to an internal temperature of just 165 degrees Fahrenheit still have a lot of collagen that needs to be broken down into rich gelatin. This collagen breakdown reaches its pinnacle in the 180 to 190°F range.
You should reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit at the 30-minute mark using the cooking method in this post.
This timeframe is based on the cooking techniques in this post.
The general timeframe goes like this:
- Start thighs skin side down in a cold skillet over moderate heat.
- The chicken thighs skin should be crispy and rendered of most of their fat after ten minutes.
- Transfer the thighs skin side up to the oven to finish cooking for 15 to 20 minutes more.
- Generally, your chicken thigh will reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit after 12 to 15 minutes in the oven (after its initial stovetop cook).
- A chicken thigh’s ideal internal temperature of between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit is achieved after 30 minutes of stovetop and oven cooking at 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cast Iron Chicken Thighs
Here are some of the questions people often ask about cooking chicken thighs in a cast iron pan.
- Can you use butter to cook the skin of your thighs?
You could, but it’s not really necessary and you run the risk of burning the skin because butter has such a low smoking point.
- Can I use boneless skinless chicken thighs in this cast iron chicken thigh recipe?
This recipe is designed for maximizing the crispiness of the skin of a bone-in chicken thigh with skin, a boneless thigh would dry out using the cooking method recommended in this post.