Perfect your slow-cooker wings, drumsticks, breasts and thighs

Story highlights

  • It can be difficult to keep chicken moist in a slow cooker
  • Different parts of the chicken require different cooking times
  • Some pieces benefit from keeping the skin on, others don't
  • Ground chicken should be microwaved before slow-cooking

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(CNN)It's hard enough to cook chicken properly on the stovetop or in the oven, where you have complete control of the temperature, but in a slow cooker (see which models we recommend in our equipment testing) it's even trickier to ensure moist, flavorful chicken at the end of a long cooking time.

We've seen soups and stews full of dry shredded chicken and braised breasts and thighs that were bland and unappealing. Here is what we've learned about getting juicy, flavorful chicken from a slow cooker.
    Cooking Times for Chicken
    We found that the only way to cook chicken in a slow cooker is on the low setting, which takes longer to get to the maximum heat level and allows the chicken time to gradually cook through without overcooking. Different cuts also require different cooking times to keep from overcooking.
    Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts: 2 to 3 hours on Low
    Bone-in Chicken Breasts: 3 to 4 hours on Low
    Chicken Thighs: 4 to 5 hours on Low
    Drumsticks and Wings: 3 to 4 hours on Low
    Ground Chicken: 2 to 3 hours on Low
    Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
    Convenient and easy to prep, this lean cut is great for quick weeknight meals, but it's also the most likely to overcook and turn dry. To keep our breasts juicy and tender, we found that keeping the heat level low and minding our time range were essential. We also cook them in a flavorful liquid to keep the heat gentle and even and to infuse the meat with flavor.
    Bone-In Chicken Breasts
    Bone-in breasts work well in the slow cooker because the bone helps to insulate the lean meat, preventing it from drying out during the longer cooking time. We cook the breasts with the skin on so that its fat can help keep the meat juicy and infuse it with flavor, but the moist environment of the slow cooker leaves it flabby and pale, so we remove it before serving. A paper towel is useful to help grip the skin more easily.
    Chicken Thighs
    Chicken thighs work well in the slow cooker; even after hours of simmering, they stay tender thanks to their fat and connective tissue. For stews and curries, we like boneless thighs; once cooked, they can easily be shredded into bite-size pieces. For hearty dishes where we want whole pieces of chicken, we like bone-in thighs. To keep the fatty skin from making the dish too greasy, we remove it before cooking, using a paper towel to provide extra grip.
    Drumsticks and Wings
    We found that the low, steady heat of the slow cooker is ideal for breaking down collagen for exceptionally tender drumsticks and wings. For crisp, browned skin, we simply pass them under the broiler for a few minutes, basting them with a thick, flavorful glaze partway through.
    Ground Chicken
    We found that ground chicken turns grainy in the slow cooker. To solve this problem, we microwave it for a few minutes, until it is just firm enough to break into coarse crumbles. It was also important to use ground chicken, not ground chicken breast, which was too lean and consistently overcooked.
    Slow-Cooker Asian Glazed Wings
    Serves 4 to 6
    Cooking Time: 3 to 4 hours on Low
    Equipment: 5 1/2 to 7-quart slow cooker
    Why This Recipe Works: We love making wings in the slow cooker where the low, slow heat renders their fat and leaves them meltingly tender. First we built flavor with a dry rub of brown sugar and ground ginger, then we cooked the wings in the slow cooker until tender. Finally we broiled the wings, glazing them partway through, until browned and caramelized. For a tasty Asian‐inspired glaze, we used thick, sweet hoisin sauce, balancing its sweetness with some rice vinegar and a tablespoon of spicy Sriracha.
    1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
    1 tablespoon ground ginger
    1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic
    Salt and pepper
    4 pounds split chicken wings*
    1 cup hoisin sauce
    3 tablespoons rice vinegar
    1 tablespoon Sriracha (or other hot) sauce
    *We prefer to buy split chicken wings, but you can purchase 4 1/4 pounds of whole wings and split them yourself.
    1. Mix sugar, ginger, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper together in bowl, then rub mixture evenly over chicken; transfer to slow cooker. Cover and cook until chicken is tender, 3 to 4 hours on low.
    2. Adjust oven rack 10 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Place wire rack inside aluminum foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Transfer chicken to prepared sheet; discard cooking liquid. Broil until lightly charred and crisp, about 10 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking.
    3. Meanwhile, combine hoisin, vinegar, and Sriracha in bowl. Brush wings with one‐third of sauce and continue to broil until wings are browned and sticky, about 10 minutes, flipping and brushing wings with one‐third more sauce halfway through cooking. Brush wings with remaining sauce and serve.