By David Sherman
My mother’s idea of roasting chicken was to leave it in the oven until the bird opened the oven door and screamed, “Help!”
Chickens give a lot and can take a lot – they’re far from chicken hearted – but even they have a limit.
I’ll skip the part here about chicken torture in chicken factories. You’d lose your appetite. But, remember chickens cross the road to become dinner. It’s a dog-eat-dog and man-eat-chicken world.
The point of this is don’t cook the poor bird like my sainted mother did. Or like chain restaurants do. Or the way supermarkets and chain stores blaspheme their discount birds with excess salt and MSG and then cook and cook and cook the headless creatures until they are neither animal, vegetable or mineral, but some sort of poultry-shaped inert, solid gas, a flagrant lack of empathy for a critter that’s already been subjected to sufficient indignities.
Chicken can be a beautiful experience, unless you’re the chicken. Happy chickens give you fat eggs with fluorescent orange yolks and flavour reminiscent of childhood and great meat.
They also sacrifice themselves, without say in the matter, to provide us quite a remarkable juicy, endearing, affordable protein – if you don’t cook the shit out of it like Mama did. Or the thousands of chicken restaurants that follow her recipe and add flavour enhancers to make up for their callousness and enhance profit margins. Any kid in a kitchen can overcook chicken. It takes a caring soul to do it right.
Be kind to your chicken. Be respectful. Be appreciative. And avoid the cheap birds often on sale for two for $12, an insult to chicken hood. These are for soup or dog food. Even chicken salad is beyond them. You can spice it and rub it and pray, but all a cheap bird can do, despite you valiant efforts, is give you a crispy, tasty skin that hides meat resembling paste you might’ve concocted in grade school – flour and water.
Instead, opt for grain-fed, farm-raised, air-cooled; anything other than the poor assembly line hen that had no life and exacts revenge by ruining your dinner.
You don’t need to pay more than $12-$14 for a tasty hen. This might surprise you, but some supermarkets will rip you off by charging $17-$22 for a bird but a good poultry palace will give you more bird for less cash. A farmer will sell you a plump bird for $25 but it will memorably serve four to six with leftovers and is well worth it.
Respect the chicken that has made the final sacrifice, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, and it will give you juicy, tender white and dark meat, under a delicate, crispy skin that needs only salt, pepper, paprika, hints of citrus, garlic, oil or herbs to make you believe in heaven.
A bird should be treated like a fine piece of meat. For maximum taste, there isn’t a whole lot of latitude in roasting or grilling times. A minute or two either way will upset the cosmos and make the difference between mediocrity and dryness – hence the ubiquitous, ersatz salt and corn starch gravy ladled out at all chicken restaurants – and succulent perfection.
A meat thermometer can be your best friend since there are no magic formulas for chicken. Recipes can say 40 minutes per pound or whatever, but variables include the temperature of the bird when slid into the oven or on the grill, the temperature of the oven or the barbecue and your patience.
Birds, like meat and cheese, need to be brought to room temperature for even cooking, about an hour.
There are all kinds of chicken-cooking science to be found on the web, having to do with joint temperature, breast temperature and resting times and dreaded salmonella. Knowledge is power and reading a bit about proper bird prep and cooking times can turn you into your friends’ and family’s chicken king. A proud epitaph.
Like meat, after its exhausting, final journey into the oven or on the grill, it needs to rest. It will keep cooking as it rests. Some counsel tenting, which doesn’t mean a trip to Mountain Co-op but lightly covering the chicken with foil.
If you cover it tightly it will steam. Do not steam the chicken. It is criminal. That ruins the crispy skin. Chinese cuisine contains wonderful recipes for steamed chicken but this isn’t one of them. Steamed chicken has remarkable flavour but limp skin. Save steaming in a bain-marie to reheat leftovers without drying them out.
Of late, I’ve grown fond of spatchcocked chicken, which requires the poor bird to be sliced through the breast and split open like a fat butterfly. I cover with salt and spices and herbs and lemon or lime juice and let it recover for couple of hours in the fridge and, after letting it chambré, grill under the broiler for about 30 minutes.
You can grill on gas or, if you’re braver than I, on charcoal, which gives unparalleled taste as both you and the bird get smoked but does require constant firefighting skills as fats drip on the coals and ignite. Chefs say fire is your friend. That may be true for them but flames and I have never really got along.
Spatchcocking under the broiler at about 425C is fast, juicy and crispy, everything the chicken would prefer not to be but carnivores are heartless. It’s ready to eat in 30 minutes, give or take.
Spatchcocking recipes abound on the web.
“A chicken in every pot,” as Henry IV and many others after him had promised or wished for, might be too much but a properly prepared bird in every stove once a week or so is a worthy ambition.
You can toss it in the oven and forget about or you can give it some thought and impress whomever you share it with. Remember ,the poor bird has but one life to give so let it be memorable. At least for you.