Turning Chicken

So what sorts of dishes might we consider to be fundamental in a cook’s repertoire? I don’t think it is unfair to say that roast chicken should be one of them. Chicken is delicious, versatile, tastes good cold and pleases a large number of guests (more than, say, pork would). Chicken should become a fundamental part of anyone’s skill set.

Interestingly, chicken is something that often scares 20-somethings in the kitchen. While I am sympathetic to people who are alarmed about touching meat, I do want to point out that there is a real problem when one is afraid to touch a particular food, and yet one is unafraid to eat that food. Susan, my wife, is a vegetarian and would not touch chicken because dead animals horrify her. I do understand that fear, and I admire the internal logical consistency of her world. I think it is only fair that I, as a meat eater, be prepared to really engage with my food and deal with all aspects of the food before I eat it. Besides, I worked for years in professional kitchens, and I assure you that you would really rather handle the food yourself rather than trusting it to a stranger.

Roast Chicken with Asparagus

Dinner Overview: Today we are going to dry-brine a chicken, and, 24-hours later, we are going to roast it. We will serve that chicken with grilled asparagus. Classically, one would serve this with a mashed potato, but I also know that my audience is (reasonably) somewhat suspicious of carbohydrates. I’ll feature mashed potatoes in a later article.

Choosing a Chicken: The first thing we need to do is to talk about by a chicken. I happen to be a very big fan of buying pasture-raised and pasture-finished animals. One of the things that every carnivore should do is take the time to familiarize themselves with industrial agriculture (sometimes called “factory farming”). While it is beyond the scope of this blog to go into industrial agriculture, Compassion in World Farming has a good deal of information about it, and Michael Pollan has published a raft of excellent texts about the origins of our food.

So why do I want my chicken to be pastured? Well, in point of fact, I would ideally like my chicken to have three major traits:

First, I would like my chicken to be from a healthy (genetically diverse) stock. Chickens have been so genetically inbred by industrial agriculture (seeking fast maturity, large breasts, etc.) that they have begun to display horrible taste traits, including something called “Woody Bbreast.” Chicken breeds that have been less manipulated are known as sometimes called “heirloom” breeds; if I can get one, I do.

Secondly, I would like my chicken to have the ability to access, and forage from, the great outdoors. In other words, in an ideal world I want my chicken to be raised on a multi-livestock farm, and be given access to the pastures in which other animals (often cows) have been grazing. In these pastures, chickens are able to scratch for grubs, and other insect life (which keeps down fly larvae that hatch in manure).

Thirdly, I would really like my chickens to be treated to a low antibiotic regime. Keep in mind, I am not opposed to antibiotics per se; I hate the idea of a sick chicken dying from a lack of antibiotics. That being said, many, many poultry operations routinely administer antibiotics to their entire flocks preventatively. This is necessary due to poor living conditions (the birds are packed in on top of each other, spur deep in their waste, and allowed to peck at eat other). Chickens who overnight in spacious pens (reducing aggressive pecking), who are allowed to forage outside, and who are kept clean, do not need routine antibiotics. This choice, then, is less about whether antibiotics are actually bad for you, and more about whether it incentivizes farmers to raise chickens differently.

If you take the time to taste chicken, or the eggs that come from pastured chickens, you will notice that it actually has a taste. The texture is better. The color is different. Pastured chicken is a revelation, and I hope you will consider purchasing pastured chickens.

That being said, you will pay for what you purchase. A commercial Tyson roasting chicken can cost as little as $6.00–possibly far less if you know what you are doing. The pastured chicken I purchased from Whole Foods (3.4 lbs), sold by Crystal Lake Farms, by way of contrast, set me back $15.29. The key is to avoid paying too much for what you are purchasing; Williams-Sonoma wants to charge $120.00 for two chickens–a price that leaves my head swimming. If you are more attentive than I, you might be able to do much better by working with local farms. Rock Ridge Farms, I believe, sells pastured chicken in New Jersey; doubtless, there are farms near you.

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So now you have a chicken. Its dead. It is sitting on your counter. What the heck do you do with it?

My answer is that we are going to set this chicken up for cooking in two ways. First, we are going to make a dry brine (a salty spice rub). Secondly, we are going to spatchcock the chicken (which is easier than it sounds).

Let us put our chicken in the refrigerator, and get to work making the spice rub.

Making a Dry Brine

Dry brines typically consist of salt and a few herbs put together. Now, you always will have the option of following my flavor combinations, but I do need to do a shout-out to two very cool individuals, who changed my cooking life: Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, who really changed the world, first with their book, Culinary Artistry (1996), and later with their book, The Flavor Bible (2008). With careful usage, you can look up “chicken” and see that classically garlic, lemon, rosemary, and thyme, go together.

In the best of all worlds, you will grow your own herbs in your garden. I live in a pretty urban place, so I grow everything in pots. If you cannot grow your own in pots, look for herbs that are bright, smell intensely, and are firm (not wilted) leaves.

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Ingredients Needed:

  • A handful of salt (perhaps 2-3 tbsp). I prefer to use gray sea salt from France, but any coarse sea salt will do.
  • Garlic (3-4 cloves; more if you are adventurous).
  • Thyme (1 branch)
  • Rosemary (2-3 spears)

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Begin by trimming and peeling the garlic cloves. I will mince the cloves, and add the minced cloves to the salt pile.

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To this, strip the rosemary and thyme leaves from their stalks and add to the herb pile.

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Using your chef’s knife, chop the herbs into the salt. As the chop on the salt pile becomes more and more fine, use a Microplane grater, (another thing to add to the “must have list”) or another grater, to zest the outer layer of skin from two or three lemons.

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Add the zest to the salt pile, and chop to integrate.

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At this point you have essentially completed your dry brine. You will ultimately have a choice here. You can either directly rub this mixture onto the chicken, or you can add olive oil, and rub the olive-oil-salt mixture on the bird. I have elected to do the latter.

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At this point we are ready to begin dealing with the bird itself. We do need to say a few things about kitchen sanitation before we proceed, however.

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Food safety is really quite important. I have taken a moment to show you that I have bothered to set up my work surface (my sink) before I introduce a bird into it. I simply grabbed my soft-scrub with bleach, and I have scrubbed the sink out. This is really important. Sinks–and especially pipes–have lush bacterial cultures alive in them. Even if you do not intend to set your bird down directly in your sink, water–and the bacteria living in the sink–can splash up and contaminate your bird. Take a moment, clean your darn sink, and protect yourself and your guests.

A second word needs to be said about poultry and cross-contamination. Even if you happen to have a bird, raised by hippies, on a farm that resembles heaven, there is a decent risk that your bird may be contaminated by some bad things. I won’t wade into the details, but you should assume that your bird needs to be handled with great respect. One of the reasons that the salt brine is so nice is that the high levels of salt and garlic actually act to beat down the bacterial populations that may live on your bird. Let’s hear it for salt and garlic!

But, one of the things you need to remember is that if your hands have touched the bird, anything that your hands touch from there on out will be potentially contaminated. Your apron is contaminated probably contaminated. So is the towel you absent-mindedly wiped your hands on. Did you touch the handle of your garbage can? If so, it’s contaminated. In short, keep your hands to yourself until after you have washed them.

None of this is bad if you take reasonable precautions to control for, or remediate, the cross-contamination. But there are some practices that are just silly: don’t drink wine while working with raw poultry. Don’t scratch your nose. Don’t forget to bleach your work surfaces after using them. Don’t touch other food while working with poultry.

So there.

At this point, we are going to spatchcock the bird in anticipation of cooking it tomorrow. Spatchcocking is a shorthand way of saying that we are going to remove the spine to allow us to flatten the bird. Alton Brown has a fabulous defense of spatchcocking the bird; I will let it speak for itself. The main thing is that you need a set of poultry shears (one more thing for the “must have list”). We will cut up along the spine, and remove the spine as a strip of tissue. If you are keen, you can use this to make an amazing butter-sauce. I am not doing that this time, but feel free to explore the Food Lab for more details!

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In general, I do not like it when my chicken touches the sink. I prefer to work in a colander (another thing to add to the “must have” list) and to rinse the chicken there. When you open your package, your chicken should not have an especially strong smell. It will smell, but it should be relatively mild. This is hard to describe here, but if you think something is wrong, ask an experienced cook. Obviously, your plastic package (if you have one) should have no air inside of it.

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Chicken–even chicken that has been plastic wrapped and sealed, should be given a complete rinse under the tap. The rinse should be both inside and out of the chicken body.

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Once the chicken has been rinsed, you will need to use paper towels to pat the body down. Do remember to also towel down the inside of the chicken as well as the outside.

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At this point you can transfer your chicken onto your cutting board or another work surface.

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You will be using your poultry shears to snip up along the chicken’s spinal column. Although this sounds horrifying, the chicken actually has fairly soft ribs, so it is relatively easy to do this snipping. That being said, you really need poultry shears for this operation. This is very hard to do well with a knife (there are several layers of tissue here, and the slide against each other) and it is relatively easy to harm yourself if you do this with a chef’s knife. The end result is that you are cutting a strip out of the back of the chicken, and removing it.

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When you are done cutting this strip out, you can either reserve the strip to make an amazing butter sauce (see link above) or you can discard it, which is what I did. At this point, I would flip the chicken so it is breast-side up, and I would use the palm of your hand to flatten it (breaking the breast bone) so that the chicken can lie flat. This is really useful because this chicken will grill or roast far more effectively than an intact chicken. The chicken is now ready for storage overnight.

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At this point you will need a container in which to store your chicken. My experience is that it is much easier to store chickens inside ziplock gallon bags than in any other vessel. The advantage of the ziplock bag is that one can remove most of the air from the container, which helps the marinade (the brine) better adhere to the chicken. I simply pour the brine in the bag, and use my hand to cover all the chicken’s surfaces with the salt.

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You will need to pop this bag into the refrigerator overnight. Voila! You are almost ready to cook and amazing chicken!

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