Don’t Throw Out That Chicken Skin (Also: A Meditation on Self-Control vs. Self-Denial)

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At the grocery store, you may have noticed, you can’t buy skinless chicken thighs that have bones. You can buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs or you can buy chicken thighs with the skin and bones still attached. If you want your chicken thighs to have bones and no skin, you’ll have to remove the skin yourself.

Which is precisely what I did, the other day, when I made that unbelievably good chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. I just yanked that skin right off and there it sat on the cutting board, looking like flabby detritus destined for the garbage can, or Buffalo Bill’s chicken skin cloak. But then I had an idea.

I laid each piece of skin in a non-stick skillet, trying to touch as much of the chicken skin to the pan surface as possible. I drizzled on a drop of olive oil to get things started and then turned up the heat.

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Look how ugly that looks. To me that looks positively disgusting. But what happens next is really remarkable, one of the great transformations that can happen in your kitchen: that flabby patchwork begins to shrink and over time, about 20 minutes (if you monitor the heat), you’ll have a pan full of luscious chicken fat (called “schmaltz,” see Michael Ruhlman’s book!) and the most delightful chicken skin chips you could imagine. Sprinkle them with salt, blot them on paper towels and you have a little snack to eat with a glass of wine when your guests arrive.

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I never say the word “dude” but dude. These were so good. Crispy, salty, chicken-y and weirdly light. Perfectly matched with a glass of chilled white wine or fizzy wine at the start of a meal.

Though, it’s a tough sell. When my guests arrived on this particular night (they shall remain nameless although I already named them in the chicken tagine post) I think they were a little freaked out when I was like, “Here, eat this chicken skin.”

I mean if you’re not a food person and you show up at someone’s house and they say, “I cooked you chicken skin” it might freak you out too. I get that.

It got me thinking about the weird carefree way most food people approach fatty foods. Chicken liver mousse? Pile it on. Foie gras dumplings? Sign me up. At a certain point, we have to exercise a certain amount of self-control or we’ll gain thousands of pounds. But where do you draw the line between self-control and self-denial? When is saying “no” the right thing to do? Or, as an adventurous eater who craves experience, is it always wrong to say “no”?

It’s actually a rather spiritual question. When you think about people who devote their lives to serving God or serving others, they positively thrive on self-denial. Instead of feeding their bodies, they feed their spirits. To them, crispy chicken skin is pure excess, entirely unnecessary and, worse, gluttonous. (They should see the meal we ate at El Bulli.) In a way, focusing on fatty foods is as indulgent as focusing on showy jewelry or fancy cars. It’s putting an emphasis on the material world in a way that the self-deniers find unseemly. (This is dramatized perfectly in the movie Babette’s Feast.)

Where things grow complicated, though, is the way that food brings people together. A plate of crispy chicken skin eaten alone is kind of a gross indulgence; a plate of crispy chicken skin passed around a room is a cause for celebration. To deny yourself the fun of sharing a plate of bacon wrapped dates or a platter of rich, buttery cheeses with good friends is to skip one of life’s greatest delights. To me, it’s as if someone built an entire amusement park just for you and because you’re afraid you’ll have too much fun if you go inside, you stand outside and pout.

So what’s a greater sin: having too much fun at the amusement park or ignoring this extraordinary experience standing there in front of you?

You know where I stand. I say: eat the chicken skin.

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36 comments

  1. I roast bone-in skin-on chicken breasts for chicken salad and I always make sure to give the skin a lovely rub of olive oil, salt, and pepper. But I’m only allowed to eat one, otherwise I spend the rest of the afternoon wracked with fatty guilt.

  2. Seriously, can I just tell how much better you make my days at work. I love reading food blogs but too many of them are getting so frou frou (is this even a word?) and whiny and too personal and just annoying in general. Yours always entertains me, makes me contemplate on life and food, and answers important questions in life – like, should you eat the chicken skin. Yes. The answer is always yes. I’ve been a long-time reader but just had to comment on the great work you’re doing. Thanks for the laughs, the recipes and showing true snapshots of your life and kitchen.

  3. I’m glad you saved and used and offered the chicken skin. I’m so with you! I would have been all over your offering. Growing up I always want to pick up the chicken skin my brother peeled off and would just eat that as a side snack to eating my chicken. I also stare at the chicken skin that has been removed by others, sitting there discarded on the plate, and wish to offer to eat them since they aren’t, but it’s probably not proper etiquette to do that outside my family…

  4. The same thought crossed my mind the other night to remove the skin and reserve for frying. Alas, guilt got the better of me and I proceeded to bake the chicken skin-on… then who likes soggy, baked chicken skin? So I peeled it off and relegated it to the corner of my plate. Wish I had made those chicken skin chips instead…. :)

  5. these crispy chicken skins are called “gribenes”, in yiddish. Love these and sometimes buy them in kosher supermarkets. Have made them many times.

  6. these crispy chicken skins are called “gribenes”, in yiddish. Love these and sometimes buy them in kosher supermarkets. Have made them many times.

  7. these crispy chicken skins are called “gribenes”, in yiddish. Love these and sometimes buy them in kosher supermarkets. Have made them many times.

  8. Another great post!!! I could never make a Top 10 list of my favorite posts of yours – after number three, it is a constant rotation!

  9. Amen brother, eat the skin! Just go easy the next day or even it out over the week. Everyone needs indulgences and sharing them is the best way. Really enjoy your work…

  10. Good post there Adam, and I love chicken skin, usually left ON the bird when you roast it, or fry it, or…

    I have not thought of doing what you did with your skins and to be quite frank, I would wager that chicken skin is less harmful to you than other types of fat as not all fat is created equal.

    That said, I think in this country, ultra thin, and marketers etc telling us to reduce our fat intake, and in the process make us feel guilty for indulging in our pleasures from time to time.

    I say to heck with that, and enjoy them, from time to time. Don’t want to over do it now. :-)

  11. Bring on the crispy chicken skin! I’ll choose something else to feel guilty about… or not. Flashback to Thanksgiving, when we all fight over the lovely, crispy turkey skin and ignore the breast meat under it.

  12. good job on this blog, a lot of cooks get away from good cooking and get into political correctness..one of our problem is a lot of folks thinkthis is gross when thats where our modern cookery came from.thank adam!!

  13. First, I’m glad you shared pics of the crispy skin. My uncle always told me how he ate chicken skin sandwiches as a kid…and I had some pretty bad thoughts in my head!

    Second – I heard someone once say about “to eat or not to eat” – if you really want to eat, then eat it. But if you’re going to eat it just because it’s sitting there, then skip it!

  14. When I buy a rotisserie chicken from the store, I look for the one that is the darkest, almost burned. Then, as I’m cutting it apart, I treat myself to the crispy skin. Yum!!

  15. …yet people everywhere eat bacon with their eggs for breakfast…This is basically chicken bacon, and I approve.

  16. Definitely eat the chicken skin! Listen, if I roast one chicken a week, and eat one or maximum two pieces of said chicken and the wonderful skin on it, it ain’t gonna kill me, right?

  17. You forget the self-deniers usual love of frugality – this should appeal to the waste not-want not ideal. Thereby justifying the indulgence and making it a good deed. great post as usual

  18. When i lived in Japan, a friend and I were picking up late night snacks at a conbini and she bought what she thought was labelled chicken skewers, when we got home we learned a new kanji for SKIN! It was bundled up, and lightly grilled chicken skin on a stick! Still a little flabby. Tick.. Crispy is the way to go.

  19. PHWOAR! They look tasty.

    I’m not sure if it makes it more appetising but perhaps ‘chicken scratchings’? there’s a ramen place in London that calls it ‘cock scratchings’ (snigger).

  20. This is an interesting idea–sounds icky at first but I bet they taste quite good, probably like bacon. I can see chopping them up and throwing them in a salad like bacon bits or to top off a soup.

  21. Chicken skin is delicious, but throwing it out is sin not because of this, but rather because it’s wasteful. There are other cultures who’d be horrified by the wastefulness of our throwing out the skin — and I’m with them!

  22. crisp chicken skins = streetfood snack here in Manila. I make these at home though and they’re pretty awesome dipped in spicy, garlicky vinegar. or chimichurri (to cut the richness). cheers!

  23. Gluttony is inordinate attention to any carnal appetite. Eating fatty foods with friends is therefore not gluttony–that is due attention to one notable good of food.

  24. DUDE…I just had this same idea this past weekend. I only had two chicken legs so I didn’t have a lot of skin but fried in the skillet it was a-MAY-zing…to the point where my sister came in (she who eats very little of what I cook) and said, “What is that?” I called around and it turns out I might be able to buy chicken skin from a local butcher. Forget chicharrones (pork skins)…I’m about to become a chicken skin gourmand and I refuse to feel guilty about it!

  25. There was a little chicken restaurant where I lived in Japan, where you could order a whole plate of fried chicken skin. I miss it so much!

  26. My husband has rececently added this deep-fried chicken skin onto our family’s home cooking menu, we all loved it. I totally agreed with you, don’t be afraid to try any type of food, you will never know if you don’t try.

  27. Great post, this is also delicious roasted, and a bit less fatty! Just put the chicken skin on a baking tray and place another baking tray on top (make sure the bottom of the second tray is clean!)

    They keep their shape and shrink less and after 15-20 minutes at 160c they’re ready to sit on some kitchen towel with a bit of salt. Looks nice and chef-y as a shard sticking out on top of a meal!

  28. I just ate a whole plate…by my self. It was luscious. I enjoyed every crunchy bite…

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