Whole roasted chicken ranks as one of my favorite meals. And given the response YOU Magazine readers had to my recipe a few years ago, it seems like many of you feel the same way. So for this issue of 360 Degrees, we're revisiting the secrets behind this wonderful dinner treat.
The Issues with Chicken
There are two keys when it comes to roasting chicken. For starters, all of the meat must be cooked to the optimal temperature. Breast meat must remain moist and juicy, with no hint of being mealy or stringy, and the darker meat from the legs and thighs needs to be cooked through and almost falling off the bone. The second key is the skin. It has to be really crispy, all the way around the bird.
So, what's the issue? Achieving the aforementioned qualities on the same bird. Most cooks either wind up with crispy skin and overcooked meat, or perfectly cooked meat and rubbery skin. If that's not frustrating enough, there is also the issue of the white meat and dark meat cooking at different rates. To solve these issues we need to even the playing field a bit.
The first thing you must understand is that the bird's shape poses a huge problem when it comes to roasting. A whole chicken is round with a big hole running directly through the center. The roundness creates a situation where only a small portion of the surface space is directly exposed to the heat circulated via your oven's natural convection.
The big hole, also known as the cavity of the chicken, wreaks further havoc on the cooking process due to its ability to trap moisture and create steam. Sure, the steam is great for keeping the meat moist. But the problem is that the majority of the moisture pools to the bottom of the cavity, resulting in soggy skin on the bottom half of the bird.
Some cooking methods call for periodically rotating the bird during cooking. I, however, am not a fan of this process, as I find rotating a hot bird to be a giant pain. In addition, every time you open your oven door you let out heat, which hinders the crisping of the skin.
Addressing the Issues
How would you feel if I told you there was a very simple solution to the issues at hand? Before you answer, let me throw in the fact that the method I am about to propose is going to save you on cooking time and clean up time. Are you starting to see why I feel that roasted chicken is an awesome meal? It's delicious, elegant, and now with my help, quick and easy.
The first thing we need to do is to change the shape of the bird. Instead of round we're looking for flat, and the best way to make the bird flat is to butterfly it. While I urge you to watch the accompanying video for a great visual demonstration, the following are steps for properly butterflying a chicken:
- Locate the backbone of the chicken. Using a sharp pair of kitchen shears, cut from front to back along one side of the backbone.
- Rotate the chicken 180 degrees. Cut along the other side of the backbone from front to back.
- The backbone is now removed and can be frozen and saved for stock making, or thrown away.
- Using your hands, open the bird up and spread it flat, cavity side facing up.
- Towards the neck end of the chicken you will notice the breastbone attached to a piece of angular cartilage. This is known as the keel bone and it needs to be removed.
- Using a large chef's knife, place the portion of the blade closest to the handle onto the center of the dark breastbone. Crack the bone by pressing down, being careful not to cut all the way through the chicken.
- Using a sharp paring knife, make clean cuts in between the clear cartilage of the keel bone and the breast meat.
- Grab on to the cartilage portion of the keel bone and wiggle it around. The whole keel bone should pop right out.
- Turn the bird over, so that the skin side is facing up. In order to speed up the cooking of the dark meat, we will split the skin that surrounds the joint between the leg and the thigh.
- Grab on to one of the legs and flex the joint so that the skin around it is pulled taught. Use the tip of your index finger to locate the center indentation of the joint. With a sharp paring knife, carefully split the skin so that the joint is exposed. Repeat this process with the other leg.
Congratulations! You have successfully butterflied a chicken. Before we go any further, I'd like you to know that you've just learned a technique that will change the way you cook a whole chicken. Aside from roasting it in the oven, a butterflied bird also does really well on the grill! Let's do some cooking.
Perfectly Roasted Chicken (serves 4)
- 3-3.5 lb. chicken, butterflied, rinsed and patted dry, and brought to room temperature
- 3 celery stalks, cut in half crosswise
- 2 carrots
- 1 onion, quartered
- 4 whole garlic cloves
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1-1.5 C water
Preheat oven to 500 to 525 degrees.
Use the vegetables as a roasting rack by arranging them on the bottom of a large, heavy duty, roasting pan. Pour water into the roasting pan so that the entire surface area of the pan is covered in about 1/4 inch of water.
Liberally season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Lay the chicken (skin side up) on top of the vegetables in the roasting pan. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reaches 180 degrees and the juices run clear.
Remove the chicken to a plate and loosely tent with foil. Allow the chicken to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into it.
A Little Jus?
Before you start cleaning that roasting pan, you may want to consider making gravy. Better yet, how about making a little jus, which for our purposes will be a thin sauce consisting of the juices from the chicken, along with a little red wine?
Chicken Jus (makes about 1.25 cups)
Start by removing all of the vegetables from the roasting pan and discard.
Lay the pan with the remaining drippings on top of two stovetop burners. Turn on both burners and set to a medium flame.
Add 3/4 cup dry red wine and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Using the back of a wooden spoon scrape up any bits that are stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.
Allow the mixture to simmer for 5 minutes, or until the juices have slightly thickened. Strain the mixture into a gravy separator and then transfer into a gravy boat or small serving dish. Serve alongside the roasted chicken.
A Few Last Words...
Before we conclude our lesson on perfectly roasted chicken, I'd like to say a few more words about why this meal is so awesome. Not only is this dish simple, elegant and hearty all at the same time, it's also versatile and adaptable.
To begin with, roasted chicken can be served alongside almost anything. Any type of potato or rice dish would work great as the starch component to this meal. Heck, you could even take an easier route and grill up a few slices of crusty French bread.
In terms of vegetables, the sky is the limit. Roasted, steamed or grilled, anything you serve is going to work great. And let's not forget salad. Sometimes, I'll roast a chicken and serve it alongside nothing but cold salads. A little green salad, a scoop of potato salad, you get the drift.
Most of all, I think what I like most about roasting chicken are the infinite possibilities for leftovers. What I usually do with leftover chicken is to start by taking any of the remaining meat off the bones and reserving it in a sealable plastic container in the fridge. With the leftover bones, I wrap them in plastic and freeze them, or I immediately make a stock out of them, along with the backbone that was removed earlier.
As far as the meat is concerned, I'll make Chinese chicken salad, chicken salad sandwiches, enchiladas, tacos, fried rice, chicken soup, or whatever comes to mind. The point is that leftover shredded chicken meat is invaluable to a home cook. And in this day and age, who couldn't use a little more value?
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. Sign up for Kirk's free newsletter and cooking blog at www.NoTimeToCook.com.