The eternal Thanksgiving debate: Which is the best part of the bird? You can discuss thigh versus breast and wings versus legs, but we went to a prime arbitrator.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Where do you stand on this debate?
Francis Lam: I would vote for the thigh, but I think the whole conversation misses a key element. It’s not just thigh or breast or wing or leg. Where's the skin? That’s my question.
One of my problems with turkey is you have this big bird and you have so much meat on the bird, but it’s covered by this super-thin skin. You never hear about, "Oh, I love the skin," because you don’t get any! You get sliced turkey and maybe like a quarter-inch strip of skin on the edge of it.
Chef Anthony Myint (of Mission Street Food in San Francisco) told me he likes to cut against this system a little bit. Instead of worrying about the turkey skin, he goes ahead and gets chicken skin. He might get some from the butcher or even in one of those big family packs of chicken thighs, but he gets a whole bunch of them. He grabs the skins from those (you can freeze the thighs and use them later), and he will bake them until they're super crisp, almost like a chip, and just serve them along with the turkey meat.
LRK: That’s a brilliant idea. The skin is where all the flavor is. So how does he bake it?
FL: Oh, it's the easiest thing. You spread the skin out in a sheet tray, salt it a little bit and leave it in the fridge overnight. You have to do that to dry it out. The next day, sandwich the skin with another sheet tray on top, just to keep them flat, all in one layer. Bake it in a 300-degree oven for 40 minutes. They'll be golden brown and crisp. When you take it out, you’re like, "Wow, this is the greatest thing on earth! I might just stay in the kitchen with this."
What I like to do is a different technique. Chicken cracklins. It takes more time and it’s a little less foolproof, but I think it’s fun.
I take all the fat off the skin. If I'm using a whole bird, I'll get some fat off the tail area. Just get all the loose fat lying around. Chop it up, throw it in a heavy pot with a little bit of water and get it going over low or medium-low heat. The water is just there to help the fat melt a little. While the fat is kind of rendering, go slice the skin to half- or quarter-inch strips. Throw those pieces into the melting fat and stir it up. It gets warm and it gets cooked and it’s kind of turning gray; it’s pretty gross, but keep stirring. Every 5 or 10 minutes, while you're doing something else, give it another stir. Eventually, you'll see the skin wanting to stick together and kind of getting clumpy. This is when you've got to stir mercilessly; you want to break it all up.
It starts to fry very slowly, very slowly. Eventually, you’ll notice a change, and instead of it being all clumpy and sticky, it starts to make a sandpapery sound like ish, ish, ish, ish in the pot. And that’s the sound of crackling; that’s what you want. Just keep frying it slowly until you eventually evaporate all the rest of the water. When it's crisp and hard, take it out, strain it and put a little salt on it. It keeps for a few days.
What I love to do with it: Instead of putting fried onions on the green bean casserole, use the fried chicken skin bits instead. And it’s just so out of control.
LRK: You could put that on mashed potatoes, you could put that on the sweet potatoes, you could put that on the turkey. OK, is there any other way we should know to use the skin of a chicken?
FL: There is. And this is also from Anthony Myint. He uses it in gravy. I'm thinking, Oh, you’re making these crispies to put on top of the gravy. "No, no, no, no, no," he says, "you cook it in the gravy."
He takes off the skin and wraps it up in cheesecloth, just to keep it together. Then he pops it in the pot of stock for the gravy. It simmers there with the bones for a few hours, and what happens is that chemical change where you’re breaking down all the protein, all that collagen and all that tough tissue. You strain the stock, cool it overnight so that you can skim off all that fat, but you now have this thing of skin. And what he does is, he puts it in a blender, puts in just a little stock to keep it moist and to keep the blender going, and he purees it. He uses that to thicken the gravy instead of a ton of roux.
LRK: So you don’t need flour. You have something that has immense flavor and gives something back.
FL: The chicken is giving back to the turkey community is what’s happening here.