Dietsch here, guest-posting for Jen while she cooks up some stocks and beans.
One of my favorite things to eat, ever, has always been roasted chicken. Crispy skin, moist dark meat, gnawed bones, crunchy wings–I love it all. I’ve even said that if I could be assured someone would prep it correctly, and source a good bird, I’d want a roasted chicken as my Death Row meal.
But roasting a chicken correctly takes a few tricks, and not everyone agrees on the best method. I, in fact, stopped roasting them at home for years, because supermarket birds always dried out in the oven, no matter what I did, and the results were just heartbreaking.
When Jen and I started hanging out together, she shared one of her techniques–thinly slice a lemon and slide the slices under the skin of the breasts and thighs, with herbs, to baste the meat while it cooks. The rind breaks down enough during the roasting that you can bite through it and get a rich, lemony burst of flavor mingled with the chicken taste.
When I started grilling for us, I adapted that technique for grilled chicken. But my first attempts didn’t work out so well. I grilled the birds whole, which took way too long. One night, we were forced to eat at 10pm, after I finished the bird in the dark, and another night, we gave up and brought the chicken inside to finish in a hot oven.
Around this time, I found the first of the chicken methods I want to review today–spatchcocking. I saw this on an episode of Good Eats. You remove the backbone and then open the chicken like a book. (I drop the backbone into a stock bag in the freezer, and I usually trim off some of the excess skin and place that in a schmaltz bag for later rendering.)
Aside from that, I prepped the bird the way Jen taught me–lemon and herb under the skin, olive oil brushed on the surface, and salt and pepper liberally sprinkled, front and back.
This method is perfect for grilling. It takes much less time than grilling a whole bird, and you can flip it skin-side down, midway through cooking, to crisp the skin further. Plus, the grill marks are more even on the surface of the bird. I’ve done it this way many times–some with barbecue preparations and some with the simple prep of lemon and herb.
I love this method for roasting, too, for many of the same reasons–it takes less time and the skin browns evenly all over. It takes about 30-45 minutes on 450ºF. However, it has some disadvantages for roasting. You lose the tasty chicken butt, so crispy and unctuous; and the process of spatchcocking is a bit of a hassle.
Y’know What? Chicken Butt!
Some time ago, I saw a link to Thomas Keller’s Favorite Roast Chicken. He leaves the bird whole, rinses it, and pats it very dry. He then likes to “rain the salt down” over the bird to coat evenly. The salt helps the skin to dry out in the oven so that it gets really crispy. He uses no oils or juices on the chicken because they’ll steam in the oven and soften the skin. This method takes about 50-60 minutes on 450ºF.
This method is brilliant. It doesn’t take dramatically longer in the oven than the spatchcock method does, and if you count the time you spend removing the backbone, it’s really about even. However, you get the yummy chicken butt with this method. Keller even rhapsodizes about that nugget of joy, while reminiscing about his childhood in the process. (The recipe’s a charming piece of food writing and worth a read if you’ve never seen it.)
Disadvantages? I don’t think there are any disadvantages to this method. It’s my new favorite chicken prep.
I know, however, that another method has its fervent partisans, and that’s the Zuni Cafe method developed by Chef Judy Rodgers. This one takes some time. You have to start getting your chicken ready a few days before you plan to serve it. You season the chicken with a generous amount of salt, all over the bird, and put it in the fridge for 1 – 3 days. Not only will this dry the skin out and enhance the crisping process, but Rodgers also says it develops the flavor of the bird and locks moisture in the flesh, where it belongs.
She suggests that a larger bird needs more seasoning time, and since ours was just over 3-1/2 pounds, I seasoned ours for the full three days. Now, I have some experience with this idea, so I get what she’s going for. I often take steaks from the freezer a couple of days before I’m planning to cook them, thaw them, salt them generously, and set them in the fridge to “dry-age” so the surface sears crisply. (I stole this method from Marlow and Daughters butcher Tom Mylan.)
About an hour before cooking, I removed the bird from the fridge so it could reach room temp and finished prepping Rodgers’s bread salad recipe. I cooked the bird at varying temps, starting at 450ºF, cranking up to 475º, and then backing it down to 425º. The bird cooked just under an hour. Notice something here. In all three methods, I roasted the chickens at around 450ºF. This will be important in a minute.
The results of this method were delicious. The chicken was perfectly crisp and yet succulent and moist inside. The bread salad was a revelation, and probably our favorite thing about this meal.
The disadvantage? The entire house filled with smoke. The cats had tears streaming down their faces and we had to crack open a window in the kitchen and open one upstairs so that we could all breathe. On a 15º day, we had to open the windows. Luckily, we had already removed the smoke detectors, so we didn’t have to worry about continually setting them off.
The chicken is the same stuff from the same purveyor we’ve used for nearly a year now–Pat’s Pastured Poultry at the farmer’s market. The oven temperature is the same–450º. The only variable is the fridge aging, and it turned disatrous. In skimming the comments on Deb’s post at Smitten Kitchen, I can see that we were not alone in having this problem.
And, ultimately, neither of us thought the flavor surpassed that of the Keller method. I noticed some subtle differences in flavor; it was perhaps a bit richer to my palate, but Jen didn’t really notice much.
Although the chicken didn’t work out that well, the bread salad was fantastic. Some pieces were tender, others crunchy, but all were intensely flavorful and rich. We used half a durum loaf from Seven Stars and for the leafy component, a winter mesclun from Simmons Farm. We originally had planned to serve sauteed kale, too, but the salad mix was such a strong component of the bread salad that we decided against it.
Verdict: Disappointed with the Zuni chicken, not the flavor, but the method. Totally delighted with the bread salad. I might make the Zuni chicken again, but it simply will have to wait for a day when we can open the door and all the windows to let the air circulate.
Until then, I think the Keller chicken and the Rodgers bread salad is the combo for us.