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Baked chicken thighs with butter and onions are an ode to a childhood spent cooking with Mom

(Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Though it might sound cliche, I grew up in the kitchen. Part of it was an interest in food and cooking, but looking back, at least initially, a large part of it was just to be with my mom. Though some might cast shame at the title, I was very much a mama’s boy. I even picked up the childhood nickname “Glue,” as I was always at her side. And as she was the primary cook in our home, I could usually be found in the kitchen right along with her while she prepared meal after meal for our family of four.

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A creature of habit, my mom tended to stick to the limited set of dishes, seasonings and even oven temperatures she was comfortable with. When something went into the oven, it was almost always at 350 degrees. Her staple seasonings were seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, garlic salt and a sprinkle of paprika (mostly for color). Our dinners featured a steady rotation of comfort and soul food dishes, including spaghetti, pot roast, meatloaf and baked and fried chicken and pork chops. This formed the foundation of my life as a cook, which led to the comforting, soulful thread you can often find woven through many of my recipes to this day.

As a certified mama’s boy and after much observing, I wanted to help with the never-ending duty of putting food on the table. It might have started with peeling potatoes or chopping onions, tasks of little consequence, but I soon wanted to do more. Eventually, I graduated to more substantial duties, like seasoning and cooking meat.

Meat was often the star of the dinner plate back in those days. My family was the type that regularly clipped coupons, which meant meat wasn’t something that we could afford to mess up, so being involved in getting it to the table was a task I did not take lightly. At first, I simply mimicked what I saw my mother do time after time: a sprinkle and a shake of the same tried-and-true seasonings she always used until it looked just right. But soon I took note of the spice jars that sat untouched, the unfamiliar ingredients from one of those gift sets she probably took home because it was on sale. Like a forbidden flame, they drew me in.

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I started reaching for the mystery ingredients, opening the tops and taking a whiff to try to get a sense of their flavor. Then, gradually I began adding them into the lineup as I grew with confidence in the kitchen. “Don’t mess up my meat!” my mother would exclaim, half jokingly. And miraculously, I don’t think I ever did. I relished the times at the table when she’d ask, “What did you put in this?” with a playful grin as she went for another bite, an acknowledgment of my seasoning experiment success.

So for this Mother’s Day, I’m sharing a baked chicken recipe with butter and onions as an homage to my mom. While I love her tried-and-true recipes, I’ve also learned to embrace my zeal for creativity and experimentation in the kitchen — even if it was sometimes met by my mother’s skeptical eye.

Mom’s version featured chicken parts placed in a baking dish, sprinkled with her go-to spices, topped with pats of butter (or more likely margarine back in the day) and baked in a moderately hot oven, with chopped onions scattered across the top toward the end of its cooking time. I remember it cooking for far longer than I would ever recommend today, and we’d add water to the pan thinking it would help prevent the chicken from drying out (it doesn’t). It was tasty, but my biggest criticism was that the chicken always remained rather pale because it was cooked at only 325 or 350 degrees.

This recipe is my riff on mom’s. To start, I switched up the seasonings for a familiar but more interesting flavor profile. Gone are the premixed seasoning blends, which certainly have their merits, and in their place is my own mix of salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme, cumin and paprika. I cranked up the heat so the chicken can take on some color, and went one step further by putting it under the broiler for a couple of minutes for even more browning. The higher temperature speeds up the cook time while still yielding perfectly moist chicken thighs.

Thighs are my preferred cut, but legs or wings can work, too. (Breasts aren’t my favorite because they can dry out so easily, but they can probably be used in this recipe if you really want to, as long as you adjust the cooking time accordingly.) Lastly, the butter and onions get to stay because … butter and onions. (Though either could be left out if needed for dietary reasons.)

The result is, like the original, a super simple, hands-off recipe that is perfect for busy families. It’s great served with rice to sop up the delightful mix of butter, onions and chicken drippings created in the roasting pan.

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Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Make Ahead: The chicken can be seasoned and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance.

Get the recipe: Baked Chicken Thighs With Butter and Onions