So it's Labor Day weekend, the holiday that offers up togetherness and honoring American labor as flimsy pretexts for men across the land to stand next to fire, poking things.
Even now the Dad types have begun the barbecue preparations: "Oh, that's a really good deal," they've said to their wives, eyeballing an ungodly expensive hunk of prime grass-fed cow the size of a recycling bin at Wegmans or Whole Foods or Costco, a free-range leg of emu at the spooky odd-smelling multi-ethnic grocer, 40,000 littleneck clams at a teeming wharf market. They're boiling vats of sugar and sea salt and aromatics to prepare brines; they're hand-grinding cumin and white pepper and fucking fenugreek and the ridiculous naga jolokia peppers they special-ordered six months ago from an inaccessible-by-car village in a lost corner of India; they are standing bunches of flat-leaf Italian parsley in coffee mugs of tepid tap water next to the sink. They are pre-filling the $900 Big Green Egg with hand-chopped cedar, and they are soaking mesquite chips in the guest bathtub.
But not you. You are cooking bone-in, skin-on, by-God barbecued chicken thighs, and you're doing it on an oversized ashtray full of cheap-shit charcoal, and you are doing this because you know what is good.
Most people are familiar with bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs as that 12-pack of vaguely parallelepiped shapes on which they rest the fingers of their left hand while poking through the boneless skinless breasts two shelves higher at the grocery store. If you've tried to, say, sauté them in a pan or roast them in the oven, no doubt you're acquainted with the gallon of liquefied fat each thigh manages to release during cooking. This fat, in addition to our culture's general aversion to things that are good, explains why chicken thighs are half as expensive per pound as boneless skinless breasts, which, unless handled with the care and attention usually reserved for fissile nuclear materials, combine the texture of a pencil eraser with the flavor of the rest of the pencil.
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Yes, there sits the bone-in, skin-on thigh, half as expensive per pound as the boneless skinless breast, a tenth as expensive as a sub-prime rib-eye steak, more delicious than either, and happy to be cooked in about the most haphazard fashion short of taping it to your car's exhaust pipe. Hell, for that matter, they want you to dump them on a hot grill and walk away for a while, so that the aforementioned fat, so inconvenient in a sauté pan, can render down into the coals and make lots of lovely smoke. Cheap! Easy! Delicious! Fire!
The great joy of barbecuing chicken thighs—well, apart from the taste, and the fact that you can cook a dozen of them for less than it costs to get a Frosty with your double cheeseburger at Wendy's—is that thighs themselves are so accommodating, so ready and willing to yield rich, juicy, tender delight, that damn near any cockamamie method you noodle up for barbecuing them will work. Want to marinate them for hours beforehand? Fine! Want to plop them on the grill straight out of the refrigerator? Grand! Cook them nearly to carbon dust on one side before flipping? Go for it. Turn them continually, reapplying sauce every two minutes like a neurotic? Why not? Go nuts. Chicken thigh don't give a shit.
That's not to say that there's no best method for barbecuing chicken thighs. Of course there is. And this is it.
Make a charcoal fire in your shitty little kettle grill. If you're working with a Big Green Egg or a Weber One-Touch Gold or some stainless steel propane monstrosity that looks like a giant came along, tore the house off a kitchen, and walked away wearing it as a hat, well, bully for you—I'm sure your seared leeks will taste just wonderful, Poindexter—but you don't need that shit, and your barbecued chicken thighs will not taste any better than those that come off of a shitty little kettle grill full of lump charcoal.
Got a fire? Good. Walk away from it for a while. Mingle, drink beer, and also make barbecue sauce. Or, hey, use some bottled crap if you want (your chicken will still taste like heaven), but we're talking about how best to do it, so get a friggin' cereal bowl out of your pantry, raid the fridge, and make your own. You'll need tomato paste, mustard (brown or yellow: if you use brown, you might also want to add a splash of vinegar to your bowl), honey, a little bit of ketchup, a glug of olive oil, a splash of beer, and some sriracha (or other chili sauce that will not taste as good as sriracha because that is the way of things). Also a spoon. OK, and you can add some smoked paprika and cumin if you happen to have them around. Mix these things in your cereal bowl , tasting and adjusting in small increments until your barbecue sauce is thick enough to coat the spoon and tastes like good barbecue sauce, which is when you will know that it is good barbecue sauce.
(A note here: Sure, molasses is at least as good as honey if you have it; brown sugar is great, too; liquid smoke can be a nice addition if used sparingly; nobody's going to burst an artery if you add garlic powder or Tabasco or whatever-the-fuck, but don't go to the store for any of these things. It's my studied opinion that the best barbecued chicken thighs are the ones coated in a conglomeration of the sorts of things you have near to hand. A perfectly delicious barbecue sauce can be made from honey, what's left in that ancient jar of Grey Poupon in the door of every refrigerator on earth, and absolutely nothing else. Or tomato paste and maple syrup. Or sriracha and grape jelly. Use what you have. Unless you have Splenda packets and bug spray.)
So you've made barbecue sauce; you've mingled; you've nursed a beer. Now your fire has calmed down and retreated inside the ash-covered and sexily glowing coals in your shitty little kettle grill. It is now time to cook your chicken thighs. Place them on the grill skin-side-down; plunk the lid on top of your grill, make sure the ventilation holes are open, and walk away. Go have another beer, watch a half-inning's worth of baseball (or eight pitches worth of an AL East game), or watch your neighbor with the absurd propane abomination prod his stupid leg of lamb with a digital thermometer while his bored guests lose interest in their goat cheese-and-watermelon amuse bouche. Assholes.
Ten or 12 or 15 minutes have gone by: go back and check on your chicken. By now the skin is likely getting crispy and starting to blacken; if it's not, pop the lid back on and walk away for five more minutes. If it is, flip it over, pop the lid back on, and walk away again, for another 10 minutes.
I read a recipe once in which cooks were advised only to add sauce to barbecued chicken right at the end of the cooking process, lest the sugars in the sauce cook early and turn into a sticky caramelized mess. This is wrong. Wrong and stupid! Wrong and stupid and probably fascist. You want the sticky caramelized mess. The sticky caramelized mess is good. Therefore this time, when you return to your chicken thighs, you are going to slather a healthy coating of barbecue sauce onto the chicken's skin, flip it over, and slather a healthy coating of barbecue sauce onto the bone side, too. Then you're going to pop the lid back on and walk away for another five minutes.
You'll repeat this a few times: opening the lid, painting on sauce, flipping, painting again, covering, walking away. Eventually you'll get to a point at which your chicken thighs are covered in a dark, sticky, caramelized mess of barbecue sauce. They've been on the grill for about 40 minutes. How will you know they're done? Will you use your fancy instant-read digital thermometer? No! You will look at them, and you will poke them with a fork. Are they firm? Have they shrunk visibly? When you poke them, do they exude clear juice? Are you pretty buzzed? They're probably done. Give 'em another 45 seconds: time to paint on one last coating. They're done. Pile them onto a plate and serve.
Eating barbecued chicken thighs is rather like barbecuing them in the first place, in that you can do it any which way you damn please and they're still going to taste good. But, as with cooking them, there may be no wrong way, but there is a best way. Well, two best ways. The first is to hover your hand over the plate of sticky, messy chicken thighs, wiggle your fingers indecisively while making an expression of deepest concentration, then pick one up between your index finger and thumb, grip the other end with your other index finger and thumb, and eat immediately and with great relish, coating your cheeks with barbecue sauce so that you're like a more appetizing version of Heath Ledger's Joker. The alternative method is to hover your fork tines-down over the plate, wave it in a circle like a dowsing rod while making an expression of sly greed, then spear a chicken thigh, hold it up on the end of the fork in front of your face, and eat immediately and with great relish, coating your cheeks with barbecue sauce.
In either case, the third crucial element (after what you do with your hands, and what you do with your mouth) is what you do with your eyes: You watch your neighbor, across the way, wrestling with his gaudy steaks, poking holes in them with his thermometer every 10 seconds in pants-pissing fear at the money he might have wasted on these fickle slabs of cow ass. Has he watched any baseball? No! Has he walked away to drink beers and maybe idly toss a Frisbee around? No! Are his guests enjoying the social-boundary-dissolving effects of messy barbecue sauce faces? No!
But hey, he's laboring, anyway. Happy Labor Day.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home.