There is something magnificent about a roast chicken just pulled from the oven in all its golden glory. No matter how many other high-pressured jobs you may be juggling, it makes you feel strangely competent and proud knowing you’ve brined, trussed, seasoned and roasted that bird yourself. To test the true mettle of a chef, they say, ask him to make you a French omelette, or a roast chicken. In both, there is no hiding behind exotic ingredients or complicated sauces. There is just the egg and the chicken, showing off the most important thing – technique.
Growing up in India, there were two main representatives of American cuisine: burgers and roast chicken. The burgers got a vociferous vote of approval garnering an immediate fan following, as only the greasiest of junk food can do. (The queue at the very first McDonalds to open in India stretched around the block.) The roast, on the other hand, got a bad rep right from the start. It was nothing like the beautiful bird that Julia Child trussed and roasted on television. It was dry, bland and for people having grown up with chicken that is marinated in yogurt, bathed with a host of spices and cooked to moist perfection, it was boring. Needless to say, it never caught on. Even after traveling abroad and eating at some of the best restaurants, I found that the dish was more likely to disappoint than please, and after a while, I stopped ordering it.
While cooking at home, I experiment with a lot of cuisines and a plethora of meats that are difficult to find back in India. (Beef and pork are taboo, religiously speaking. My cousin teases me about how I might get disowned from grandma’s will, but when faced with a plate of the most perfectly prepared beef bourguignon, I think I’ll take my chances.) But maybe subconsciously discouraged by all the sub-par chickens I’d eaten and given that I cook for one, I never considered attempting the roast at home. Two things happened recently to change that: first, the lesson for my eighth Culinary Arts class at George Brown was roast chicken; second, one of the Apprentice challenges in Charcutepalooza this month was brined and roasted chicken.
If you are not yet familiar with the delightfully named Charcutepalooza (try saying it very quickly 10 times), it is a charcuterie extravaganza started by Kim Foster (The Yummy Mummy) and Cathy Barrow (Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen) featuring a charcuterie challenge each month using Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing as a guide. I join around 200 other bloggers (albeit a little late, having missed February’s challenge) as we learn how to prepare, store and above all, respect the meat we eat. This month’s challenge is brining – a process of soaking meat in a brine before cooking.
The main challenge is to make your own corned beef, but a late start and a busy day resulted in me ending up at the butcher’s when they were all out. Not willing to compromise on the quality of the meat, and because brining brisket is a 5-day process, I’ll be able to share my experience with you only next week. In the meantime, there were the apprentice challenges: roast chicken and pork chops. While I was instantly attracted to the chops, I decided to do something I wouldn’t otherwise, considering this is the spirit of the challenges. I went one step further and decided to compare the un-brined chicken I made in culinary class to the brined specimen I would roast at home. Because there are countless roast chicken recipes on the web, I decided to share here instead the tips and techniques I learnt to make a really handsome and moist roast chicken.
Start with the best bird you can find: This is common sense – if you start with an inferior bird, you are going to get an inferior roast. I don’t mean to sound elitist but try to buy a certified organic bird; the difference will be apparent even before you’ve had a single bite. It can get expensive, so I spend more dollars but buy less frequently. At the very least, try and buy naturally raised chicken. (Ironically, one of my most traumatic experiences as a kid was at a chicken shop in India, where I saw a chicken beheaded – my mom knew her chickens were fresh, but it turned me into a vegetarian for 7 years.) Use a smaller bird, usually between 3-4 pounds. Pull out the innards from the cavity and trim any excess fat or skin near the tail end.
Brine: The most common complaint with roast chicken is dry meat. Brine, in its simplest form, is a mixture of salt and water. The purpose of brining is to make the meat moister when it cooks. Since I marinate chicken in yogurt and spices for most of my Indian recipes, I can relate to this. What is different is the high amount of salt. Salt, as I know, draws out moisture, so it seems contradictory. Reading up on it brings back to memory an old science lesson: osmosis. I don’t want to start a science chapter, but to make a long story short, the saline solution causes water to flow into the tissue cells hydrating the meat. The salt causes the proteins to unravel or denature. These then interact with each other to form a matrix that traps water and holds it while cooking. Result: moist meat.
Sugar acts as a counter-balance for the salt and in case of roasting, helps develop that deep, golden color. It also follows that the same solution acts as a great carrier for flavor, so brining with herbs and spices results in meat that is flavorful to the very core. If you’re following a recipe, use complimentary flavors in your brine: onions, lemons, herbs like parsley, rosemary, thyme, tarragon and spices like pepper, mustard, and coriander seeds are all great additions. You can learn more about brining and get the exact recipe (which we can’t share) from Charcuterie. If you don’t have access to the book, Cook’s Illustrated has a good online how-to on the topic.
In my little kitchen experiment, the brined chicken cooked to a much deeper hue than the un-brined bird and the meat in the interior was much more flavorful. The process itself is truly uncomplicated, the only disadvantage being that you will need to plan ahead.
Truss: Trussing a bird makes for an extremely neat and pretty presentation. With regards to cooking, there are two schools of thought: the first is that it facilitates even cooking. The second is that because the breast cooks faster than the thigh. if you don’t truss the bird, the thighs get more room and cook faster. My personal preference is to truss; otherwise, the bird just looks comical and ready to break into a chicken dance.
Trussing is much less complicated than it looks (no big needles involved). The common method I saw illustrated in most images leaves a wedged line across the beautiful thigh meat. I discovered the other method by reverse-engineering my butcher’s handiwork. You will find the step-by-step pictures at the end of this post.
Season: If you have brined your bird before-hand, you don’t need to worry too much about seasoning. I did sneak in a few garlic cloves, thyme sprigs and a small lemon into the chicken cavity even after brining. I then proceeded to give it a loving massage with half a stick of unsalted butter. If you have not brined the chicken, you need to season it very well with salt and pepper. You can add garlic, herbs and a lemon to the cavity but don’t over-stuff it. You can make a compound butter by mixing together softened butter and chopped herbs, finely minced garlic, shallots or even mushrooms and rub it generously between the meat and the skin. Another little trick I’m hoping to try soon is to slip slices of prosciutto or bacon under the breast skin, keeping it moist and adding to the flavor.
Roast: There may be as many suggested roasting methods and temperatures as there are people roasting meat. Many suggest searing the meat on all sides in a hot pan before sliding it in the oven. While this may give a nice color to the meat, contrary to popular belief, it does not seal in the juices. Some advocate extremely high temperatures, while some others recommend a mixture of high and low heat. Roasting the meat on a bed of root vegetables is a common method, but some say that the moisture from the vegetables inhibits the roasting process.
This is what worked best for me: After brining, trussing and seasoning the chicken as described above, I rested it on a rack over a pan of root vegetables, which I tossed in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. This adds those wonderful dripping juices from the chicken to the vegetables, but it is not resting directly on them. Make sure that the pan is big enough to hold the vegetables in a single layer; else, the vegetable will just steam instead of roasting. I roast on high heat (475°F) for 20 minutes and then lower the heat to 375°F until the chicken is done done to avoid shrinkage. I also baste it twice or thrice during the cooking process. When basting with pan juices, make sure what you’re picking up is actually fat and not water from the chicken/vegetables. If you’re not sure, just use more butter. (If you’ve brined the chicken, the skin might start to blister quickly; if this happens, cover the chicken loosely with aluminium foil.)
The time for the chicken to be done will vary depending on the size and temperature. To check for doneness, pierce a knife where the breast meets the thigh; the juices should run clear. Or insert a meat thermometer into the meatiest portion of the thigh being careful not to hit bone; the temperature should read 165°F. (The internal temperature will continue to rise after you take the chicken out of the oven. Make sure your thermometer is accurately calibrated.)
Serve: The main thing is to allow the chicken to rest for at least 20 minutes before serving in order to allow the juices to settle. Resting the chicken on its breast allows the juices to flow down making it moister. Carve the chicken and serve it with a sauce made from the pan drippings. I simply put the pan with about 3-4 tablespoons of the liquid on high heat and pan-fry the vegetables until they are glazed with the natural juices and have caramelized slightly. I then deglaze the pan (dissolving the caramelized bits) with white wine and add some more thyme. The last step is to reduce the alcohol and check for seasoning, and dinner is served.
Roast Chicken with Glazed Root Vegetables
(Method is described above)
1 3-4 pound chicken, innards removed
(Brining: please refer Charcuterie or Cook’s Illustrated)
3 sprigs thyme
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small lemon, quartered
6 tablespoons butter, softened
Root vegetables, peeled and chopped into equal-sized chunks:
4 medium carrots
4 celery stalks
3 small turnips
1 medium onion
6 small red-skinned potatoes, halved
1 yellow pepper (technically not a root vegetable, but I like to add it)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
4 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup white wine