Chicken legs include the drumstick and thigh. When the two chicken pieces are left together, they're often called a leg quarter and sometimes a hindquarter, though some people use leg when referring to the drumstick alone. Chicken legs are dark meat and a versatile cut that absorbs marinade nicely and stays deliciously juicy when roasted, braised, or barbecued. Easy to cook and filled with flavor, chicken legs are a budget-friendly way to serve chicken any night of the week.
What Are Chicken Legs?
A chicken leg extends from the claw to what would be the animal's hip. When carving a chicken, it is cut into two leg quarters and two breast quarters. Each leg quarter, or simply the leg, includes two parts: the drumstick and the thigh. The two pieces may remain attached or sold as separate cuts. The thighs are sold either bone-in or boneless, while drumsticks and whole legs are most often sold with the bone. All of these cuts are affordable, but whole chicken legs tend to be the least expensive option.
Chickens use their legs constantly. All of that exercise develops red muscle fibers that cause chicken legs to have darker meat than breasts and wings. Dark meat contains a bit more fat, which adds to the leg's flavor and juiciness.
How To Cook
Chicken legs are the juiciest part of the bird and hard to overcook. They're perfect for any application, from smoking and barbecuing to braising, roasting, and slicing up for stir-fries.
You will need a very sharp knife to cut the leg off a whole chicken. Slice the blade between the body and thigh, popping the hip bone out. You can cook it as a leg quarter or separate the drumstick from the thigh by cutting through the joint connecting the two pieces. Remove the skin if you like, or keep it intact for a crispiness that complements the tender meat.
Searing the skin keeps chicken thighs and drumsticks juicy because it locks to lock in the moisture while the meat cooks. This is best done on the grill or in a hot pan on the stove, though you can bake or roast chicken legs in an oven. Dredging, breading, or battering and frying drumsticks is also a popular preparation, and using a marinade or dry rub adds flavor to the meat.
Poultry has the potential to carry salmonella. To ensure it's safe to eat, all chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F (read on an instant-read thermometer). However, dark meat tastes better between 175 F and 180 F because it breaks down the collagen. Cooking times are different for each cut: whole legs take longer than thighs, drumsticks cook the fastest, and boneless chicken cooks more quickly than bone-in cuts. If you're substituting different chicken pieces than a recipe calls for, you'll need to adjust the time and use a thermometer. Quite often, it's best to let the chicken rest for a few minutes after removing it from the heat.
What Does It Taste Like?
Most people know the phrase, "tastes like chicken," and that's exactly what chicken legs taste like. Thanks to the dark, fatty meat, they tend to have a more unctuous texture and mouthfeel. You'll also find the flavor a little stronger than chicken breast.
Spruce up your next chicken dinner with new techniques and spices and discover the full range of this versatile cut. Plan to serve one whole chicken leg, two thighs, or three to four drumsticks per person.
- Garlic Roasted Chicken Leg Quarters
- Crispy Fried Chicken Drumsticks
- Baked Buffalo-Style Chicken Drumsticks
Where to Buy
Available directly from the meat counter or prepackaged alongside other refrigerated meats, fresh chicken legs are easy to find at supermarkets and grocery stores. The separate thighs and drumsticks are sold more often, but whole leg quarters are also fairly common. Chicken is available in small and family-sized packages and sold by the pound. You can also find frozen chicken legs.
Look for fresh chicken legs with meat that are plump and pink. Check the date on the packaging, and avoid chicken that looks slimy or grey or has an off-smell. Bone-in, skin-on chicken is cheaper than boneless chicken because it requires less processing. While more expensive, organic and pasture-raised chicken from small-scale farms tends to be more flavorful.
Unless they're vacuum-sealed, remove chicken legs from supermarket packaging and place them in an airtight container. Depending on the use-by date, chicken can be refrigerated for up to three days. You can freeze chicken for up to six months; wrap the pieces individually in plastic wrap or foil, and place them in a freezer bag or vacuum seal. Defrost frozen chicken overnight in the refrigerator, placing it in a bowl or on a plate to catch any moisture that might leak out.