Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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The Dark Side: Chicken Thighs Want flavorful, versatile and economical all in one cut of meat? Try the thigh.

The technique of brick-pressing chicken yields crisp skin and succulent meat. Set thighs atop a bed of roasted potatoes and vegetables for a satisfying meal.

As chefs and operators seek ways to hold the line on rising commodity costs, one winning strategy has been to make use of less costly core ingredients while investing higher levels of effort, skill and creativity to produce truly special dishes that satisfy consumer demand for both compelling flavors and solid value.

In this arena, few center-of-the-plate ingredients have achieved the rapid rise in status that the boneless, skin-on chicken thigh currently enjoys.

Chicken thigh-based dishes are increasing in popularity throughout full-service segments. The thigh’s versatility is apparent in the wide variety of menu parts where it appears, including appetizers, sandwiches, salads, shared plates and entrées.

One key to creating a satisfying chicken thigh dish is ensuring that the skin is cooked until crispy. Chefs use a variety of aggressive cooking methods to achieve this end, including wood grilling, brick pressing, oven roasting and pan frying.

A resulting side effect of this boost in popularity is the growing number of dining consumers who are discovering the joys of dark-meat chicken, which possesses levels of flavor and juiciness that white meat cannot match.

The following examples clearly illustrate the significant potential to increase menu differentiation and profitability with chicken thigh dishes that are boldly flavored, crowd pleasing and cost effective.

The Ultimate Crunch: Crispy Fried Thighs
Given the recent rise of fried chicken joints popping up across the country, all vying for the title of “best fried chicken,” it’s only natural that chefs in full-service restaurants would create their own versions. Some have made the decision to use only the thigh.

At Chicago’s Carriage House, chef Mark Steuer serves a sharing plate of fried chicken thigh featuring a thick, crunchy, Southern-style coating, and garnished with housemade bread and butter pickles, sweet potato hot sauce and a finishing drizzle of local honey.

In Los Angeles, chef Kuniko Yagi of Hinoki & the Bird marinates chicken thighs with soy and mirin before coating and deep frying them to a crackling crunch, serving them simply with a wedge of lemon and a ramekin of lemon aïoli for dipping.

At Joe & Misses Doe in New York City, chef/owner Joe Dobias fries a crispy thigh for his Hot Dipped Chicken, coating the bird with housemade pepper sauce and serving it on a bed of thinly shaved housemade pickles with “cool cucumber” yogurt dip on the side.

The common elements in all of these dishes are a crisp, crunchy coating that locks in the juices, and a flavorful sauce that is either ladled on or served alongside for dipping.

Unique Handhelds: Chicken Thigh Sandwich
Skin-on thighs make an ideal sandwich ingredient: a richly flavored whole muscle cut that retains its moisture when cooked. Consuming a well made and flavorfully layered thigh sandwich may require several napkins! While any number of cooking methods could be employed, deep frying and grilling seem to be the most common.

The Southern Fry at Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Los Angeles is a great example of a juicy, multi-napkin sandwich: a crunchy buttermilk-fried thigh layered with country ham, sliced pickles, tomato aïoli and a generous slathering of spicy green pimento cheese. Chef Johnny Anderes of restaurant Reno in Chicago wood-grills the thigh for his Pine Sandwich, topping it with melted white cheddar, housemade pickle slices and a drizzle of honey-hot sauce.

Being first to market with thoughtfully constructed thigh sandwiches, featuring flavorful cheeses, signature condiments and fresh toppings could be a competitive game changer for virtually any menu.

On The Lighter Side: Chicken Thigh Salads
Flavorful new variations of chicken salads are also getting the thigh treatment.

The lunch menu at The Pikey in West Hollywood, Calif., features a Crispy Chicken Thigh Salad layered with baby arugula, shaved fennel, toasted bread soldiers and salsa verde vinaigrette. At Dixie Restaurant in San Francisco, chef Erik Hopfinger simply tops an herbed fingerling potato salad with a crispy chicken thigh and fresh dandelion leaves.

Few items in foodservice are as common as a salad topped with chicken breast. The creative switch to thigh meat can breathe new life into this menu staple.

En Casserole: Chicken Thigh Pastas, Paellas & Bowls
Chefs are also creating new dishes that combine chicken thighs with grains or pasta.

Los Angeles restaurant Tapenade serves Crispy Parmesan Chicken Thigh atop fusilli pasta tossed with white wine, cream, mushrooms and capers. At Avec in Chicago, chef Perry Hendrix oven roasts chicken thighs “paella style” in a cast iron pan with bomba rice, charmoula, red kuri squash and apple. And chef Pat Sheerin of Chicago’s Trenchermen fries chicken thighs and serves them atop pan-toasted “popcorn” grits with hot sauce and thinly sliced raw mushrooms.

These dishes exemplify the concept of cost containment via the combination of economical ingredients and inventive flavor treatments.

Mixing It Up: Smoked, Skewered & Crusted Thighs
Several other Chicago restaurants are expanding the variety of cooking methods used to create new and unique thigh preparations.

The Chicken Thigh Kebabs at chef Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s Purple Pig has been a menu favorite from day one: skewers of crispy-skinned griddled thigh and smashed fried golden potatoes surrounded by a swirl of thick tzatziki sauce. At The Dawson, chef Patrick Russ smokes chicken thighs and then bastes them with an apple-miso glaze before serving them atop a toss of wild rice, bok choy and kohlrabi. And at Latin restaurant La Serena Clandestina, chef John Manion pan-roasts thighs crusted with crushed peanuts, which are served with garlicky greens and chiles.

Amidst all of this flavor innovation, as an ingredient, the boneless, skin-on chicken thigh is still a fair distance from the mainstream. This leaves ample opportunity for forward-thinking chefs and operators to distinguish their menus with this delicious and versatile cut.

About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.