If you're a novice, boneless skinless breasts are about the most trouble-free kind of meat you can cook. Once you've gotten a bit of experience, you can expand your skill set by branching into inexpensive bone-in cuts like drumsticks or thighs. There are lots of good ways to cook those – fried and grilled are obvious places to start – but a lot of old recipes also suggest boiling your chicken legs.
Boiling Chicken Legs
The first thing you need to understand about boiled chicken is that boiling doesn't really mean boiling. Cooking chicken or any other meat at a full boil makes the muscle fibers contract and tighten, and that makes your food tough. You should never let the cooking liquid come to a full boil. Instead, bring it to just a bare simmer and then keep it barely simmering while the chicken cooks.
Whether the recipe calls for your chicken boiled, stewed, poached or braised, that's the most important part of the technique. Everything else, from how you prepare the drumsticks to your final cooking time, depends on the results you're looking for.
Poached Chicken Legs
If you're looking for the tenderest and juiciest chicken possible, poaching is the way to go. Poached chicken thighs or drumsticks have a moist and tender texture that's difficult to match with any other technique. You can poach in plain water if you like, but ideally, you should add flavor rather than just cooking it out. You can do that by adding fresh herbs, spices and aromatic vegetables like onions and celery, or you can start with a flavorful liquid such as wine, fruit juice or your favorite soda.
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Start the chicken in the cold liquid in a deep skillet or a small pot, and bring it to a gentle simmer. Once they reach that temperature, cook the drumsticks for 12 to 15 minutes, until they're cooked just through. Thighs can take a little longer. If you're starting with a bigger or older bird, poaching chicken drumsticks in milk, wine or cola can help tenderize them. The finished legs can be crisped in a skillet or on the grill if you wish.
Stewed or Braised Chicken Drumsticks
Most "boiled" chicken drumsticks recipes really make stewed or braised chicken. They're old-school recipes meant to turn a tough old rooster or mature laying hen into a tender and tasty meal, so they call for relatively long cooking time. The classic French country dish coq au vin, for example, simmers a leathery old bird in red wine until it finally becomes tender.
As with poaching, you can simmer the drumsticks in water, broth or something more interesting like wine or a concentrated marinade. These recipes call for longer cooking time, usually anywhere from 1 to 3 hours or perhaps even longer. The instructions may or may not call for browning the chicken pieces first, which adds a step but also adds flavor. If you're lucky enough to get one of these tough but tasty chickens from your local farmer's market, you can follow the recipes as they're written.
Adapting Your Recipe
If your drumsticks are from normal supermarket chickens, you'll need to tweak the recipe a bit. Modern-day chickens are young and tender, and slow-cooking them the old-fashioned way will leave the drumsticks sadly overcooked and stringy rather than tender and moist. One technique is to simmer your broth or sauce ingredients until the flavors are well developed; then add the chicken.
Lift out the drumsticks with a slotted spoon once they're cooked, and simmer your sauce until the other ingredients are tender and fully cooked. Thicken your sauce, or let it simmer until it thickens on its own; then add the drumsticks back in. You'll get the best of both worlds: old-school flavor with the tenderness of young, delicate chicken.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.