THE WASHINGTON POST – The word “choking” doesn’t always have the best connotation. (See: relationships or stopping someone from breathing). But when it comes to cooking, it’s something I crave when I need comfort.
Basically a stovetop braise, smothering is a technique most commonly associated with chicken – but can be used with other types of animal protein as well as vegetables – where the braising liquid is thickened to form a succulent sauce . And this sauce is the real star of the dish.
“The sauce could be a meal on its own if you do it right,” says chef and cookbook author Adrienne Cheatham.
The exact origins of the choking are unknown. The first reference I found in print is a recipe for smothering baby chickens in Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewifeoriginally published in 1839.
Some attribute it to the Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana, where suffocated translates to “smothered.” In the South Carolina Lowcountry, “chicken stew” is almost identical to what others call “chicken stew.”
I consider it a quintessential soul food dish and a staple of southern cuisine in general, and no matter what you call it or where it comes from, it’s for sure: the dish is full of comfort. .
I tend to think of the dish more as a technique than an exact recipe, as each individual has their own preferences as to what cut of chicken to use, whether floured before browning, what vegetables to include, etc.
Follow my recipe below for what I consider a classic version of the dish, or use the steps that follow as a starting point for creating your own chicken stew.
Step 1: Season and brown the chicken. Growing up, I remember my mother frequently buying packages of whole cut-up chickens to cook with, but I would caution against that today.
While technically speaking you can use any cut of chicken you have on hand, “you really want to use bone-in dark meat, preferably thighs or thigh and thigh quarters,” a said Cheatham. With chicken breasts – “Blasphemy! Cheatham exclaimed – you’ll have to reduce the cooking time compared to dark meat and as a result you won’t get the same depth of flavor.
To season the chicken, I opt for garlic powder and smoked paprika (in addition to salt and pepper) in the recipe below. Cheatham is a fan of celery seed powder. You can use your favorite store-bought spice blend or create your own.
Another point of contention is whether to dredge the chicken pieces in flour before searing them.
The smothered chicken I remember eating in my youth was basically fried chicken with gravy.
While the flour coating gives the sauce something to cling to, I wanted to limit the amount of oil that would otherwise be needed. Eliminating this step streamlines the recipe without changing the result too much. Not dredging also means you can melt the fat from the chicken as it browns, further reducing the need for additional oil.
2nd step: Sauté the vegetables. Once the chicken is browned and set aside, the vegetables are added to the pan to form the base of the sauce. I love the simplicity of onion and garlic.
Both sides of the Cheatham family used either the “trinity” (onions, celery and green pepper) or onions, celery and mushrooms. She prefers trinity, but is not beholden to it, and will use various vegetables she has on hand.
Step 3: Build a roux. Once the vegetables are cooked, dust them with flour before adding liquid to form the sauce. I like my sauce full bodied, so I call for more flour than some recipes, but you can reduce it if you prefer a thinner consistency. And while all-purpose flour certainly gets the job done, Cheatham recommends Wondra, a type of instant flour that dissolves easily, eliminating any worries of lumps.
Step 4: Add the liquid and braise the chicken. You can use chicken broth and a little vinegar as a braising liquid. For a creamier sauce, add some form of dairy product or stir in a can of cream of mushroom soup or chicken soup. A few sprigs of thyme help flavor the braising liquid in the recipe below. Sage and bay leaves are also common, but soy sauce, Dijon mustard or Worcestershire sauce can add extra spice. Finally, simmer on the stovetop until the chicken is tender and the sauce is full of flavor. (Although you can also braise it in the oven, if you like.)
There are as many iterations of smothered chicken as there are cooks, and you can’t go wrong once you master the basic steps and fundamentals. However, one thing almost everyone will agree on is that it’s always a good idea to serve it with rice to mop up the sauce.
Active time: 45 minutes | Total duration: 1h15
Four to six servings
Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to three days.
– Two tablespoons of vegetable oil
– One and a quarter teaspoons of fine salt, divided, and more to taste
– A teaspoon of ground black pepper, plus more to taste
– Half a teaspoon of garlic powder
– Half a teaspoon of smoked paprika
– Three pounds of chicken thighs, patted dry (can substitute thighs and/or drumsticks) (see NOTES)
– Two medium yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
– Three to four cloves of garlic, minced or finely grated
– Three tablespoons of all-purpose flour
– A cup of unsalted or low-sodium chicken broth
– Two to three sprigs of fresh thyme
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until simmering. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together a teaspoon of salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika until well blended. Sprinkle seasoning mixture all over the chicken.
Working in batches, if necessary, so as not to overcrowd the pan, place the chicken in the pan, skin side down, and sear until nicely browned, four to eight minutes . Flip the chicken and cook the other side until browned, about five minutes. Transfer the chicken to a dish or rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining chicken, if necessary.
Add the onions and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about eight minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring regularly, until fragrant, about one minute. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and cook, stirring regularly, until lightly browned, about two minutes.
Add the braising liquid (chicken broth and a little vinegar), scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add additional broth and thyme, stir to combine and bring to a boil. Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan, partially cover, and cook, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer, until the chicken is cooked through (an instant-read thermometer should register at least 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the chicken without touching the bone) and tender, about 30 minutes. Taste and season with salt and/or pepper, to taste. Discard the sprigs of thyme and serve.
REMARKS: If using thigh quarters, you can cut each quarter into thighs and drumsticks for more portions.