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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finding the best method of roasting a whole chicken... Take 1!

Roasted chicken is usually a task that most amateur cooks fear.  The fact that once it's in the oven, it's basically out of their control what happens.  Set the temperature too high, the chicken will burn.  Too low, it'll dry out before the innermost area cooks.  And then there's the flavor.  How do we get the insides to be as flavorful as the outside?  How do we make sure the breast and thighs cook evenly?  There are a lot of issues that come with it.  It's much easier to just take a breast and pan sear it on the stove.  Like yourself, and everyone else for that matter, at one point I was mystified by art of roasting a chicken.  In fact, my birds will come out of the oven juicy, but I've yet to find the best way for a home cook to roast a chicken.  So join me, while we learn how to perfect the home roast chicken.

So here are a few things that I know works best (for general, home audiences):
-The smaller the bird, the shorter the cooking time.  The shorter the cooking time, the juicier the insides.
-Brining keeps the chicken juicy and flavors the meat inside -- not just the skin.
-Crispy skin is awesome.  If you don't eat chicken skin... maybe you should skip this post!
-Dark meat is always better than white meat :)

Okay, sorry I had to end the debate.  Dark meat is juicier and more flavorful.  Yes, it has more fat, but that's why it tastes better.  Only in America is the breast meat more expensive and considered the highlight of a chicken.

Anyway, let's examine the other facts I mentioned.  In this experiment, I used a small bird.  3.5 lbs.  Most birds you'll find at your supermarket chain will weigh about 5 lbs.  So find a small bird.  Using a small bird allows you to use higher temperatures to reduce the cooking time.  (It also promotes crispy skin.)  Brining, basically using osmosis to get some flavor into the meat as well as some other sciency stuff to keep your bird moist, helps out a lot.  Thomas Keller, probably America's best chef, does not brine his chicken.  He likes to keep things simple.  So it's not totally necessary I guess.  Most chefs do some sort of brining when it comes to their roasted chicken though.  So I will do the same.

For this experiment, I used a dry brining method that consisted of s&p'ing the chicken without water.  It's easier for the home cook.  I also am adverse to submerging my bird into water so I can still get crispy skin.  I also wanted to eat this with some roasted veggies as well as some potatoes.

So, here's what I used to roast my bird:
-3.5 lb chicken
-Fresh herbs
-Olive oil
-Veggies to roast

Rinse the bird and pat dry with paper towels.  Salt and pepper the bird all over generously.  The thicker the meat, the more salt you'll want to apply to that area.  Stick your finger under the skin of the chicken between the skin and the meat.  Wiggle your fingers around to make room to stick some herbs in there.  I apologize for the horrible unfocused camera.  But one of my hands were busy holding up the chicken skin, so I only had one hand to take the picture.  But anyway, stick some herbs over the breast as well as over each leg.  I used rosemary and thyme but it's optional what herbs you want to use.

To make sure my chicken skin stays totally dry, I used something to elevate the bird.  I placed a smaller bowl inside the larger bowl to elevate the bird.  That way any juices that come out from the brine will not keep the skin moistened.

One change I would like to make with this would be to leave the breast side down.  That way the juices will leak into the breast meat, further tenderizing it.  Stick the chicken in the fridge for at least a day.  I would have liked to wait two days for my 3.5 lb chicken.  I did not cover it.  Gasp and scream all you want, but I wanted the dry air of the fridge to further dry out my chicken skin.  I've done this before and I've yet to contract salmonella so I will continue to do so.

When you're ready to roast the chicken, make sure you take your bird out ahead of time to allow it to reach room temperature.  It was around 65F on the day I roasted this chicken and I took it out 45 minutes ahead of time. No, your bird will not be tainted and you will not die from leaving raw chicken out for 45 minutes.  Again, this is for a 3.5lb bird, larger birds will need more time to reach room temperature.

While your chicken is out, preheat your oven to 500F and prepare your roasted veggies.  I made sure my roasting pan/rack were in the oven heating up too, that way my chicken won't stick to the rack.  Once preheated, I used the classics of onions, carrots and celery for the veggies.  I wanted to try something new with my potatoes so they were not included in this.  I sprayed some olive oil over the veggies and dropped in some thyme sprigs.

I sprayed the rack with more olive oil to ensure that the chicken doesn't stick.  I also drizzled on some extra virgin olive oil over the chicken to assist in the browning.  I don't think this step was totally necessary now that everything's all said and done.

I started the chicken breast side down.  Cooked it for 25 minutes and flipped it over for another 25 minutes.  Now, here's where I found a few issues.  First of all, the veggies steamed in the oven.  The steam went up and destroyed that crispy skin I had worked so hard for.  So next time I will be roasting veggies separately.  Also, next time I will start my chicken breast side up, then flip it over after some time, then flip it back breast side up to finish.  That way I will almost guarantee that the breast side skin is crispy.  Lastly, for the 3.5 lb chicken, 45 minutes was too long.  When I measured the temperature, the leg meat registered 188F.  That is too high.  175F is ideal (5F higher from carryover heat when resting the chicken.)

Look how crispy the skin... was...

So after the chicken roasted for that long, I took it out and let it rest for about 20 minutes.  I carved it up and even though it was pretty overcooked, it was still ridiculously tender and juicy.  And the meat?  Crazy flavorful.  I served it with some "crash potatoes" and with the roasted veggies.

So just to sum up what went right and wrong...

-Dry brining helped with the flavor of the chicken meat and kept the meat juicy.
-High temperature = lower cooking time = juicier meat
-Using a small bird

-I will not roast veggies anymore.  The veggies basically steamed my chicken skin as it cooked, negating all my work for the crispy chicken skin.
-Though my breast was still tender and juicy, I have to make sure I brine my chicken breast side down to help flavor the breast even more.
-Reduce cooking time.  I overcooked the chicken by almost 10F.  I will probably cook the chickens a whole ten minutes less.  Or maybe just cook it with the thermometer inserted into the chicken the whole time.

All in all, I was VERY happy with this chicken.  It was flavorful and juicy, even though I slightly overcooked it.  And you know what, my guest was happy too!  The next plate that came out was a hot mess.  And it was probably better that way.   Roasted chicken is a homestyle meal.  No need for any fancy plating.  Just throw the food onto a plate, as long as it tastes good, it'll be enjoyed!