Sunday, April 6, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Roasting Chicken

I'm fairly certain that roast chicken is the food I've had the most kitchen meltdowns over. It's so simple, so basic, and so beautiful to have that whole, browned and glistening bird on the table--and yet, I can never seem to get one to the table without shedding tears of frustration and throwing a spatula across the kitchen. I always wind up with a combination of raw and over-cooked parts, usually long past dinner time. The skin will look perfect when the bird is hardly done, or the whole thing will seem perfectly cooked (even using the thermometer!) until I carve it and rivulets of chicken blood go coursing across the board.

I've known for years that the way to avoid that problem is to cut up the damn bird, but I couldn't help striving for the iconic whole roast bird. In the end, though, if I wanted some roast chicken without turning into a mental patient, I had to give up and find a new way. Here's the approach I arrived at, which turns out amazing chicken every time. It takes a little planning ahead, but the results are worth it.

First, get a cut-up chicken (or cut it up yourself). I like to get big valu packs and make planned-overs. I save the wings for making chicken soup, since they're not really worth roasting.

Next, you're going to brine the chicken for 2-3 hours. Place the chicken in a large tupperware. Add seasonings of your choice, but here's a nice combo that I use:
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. cracked black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp. cracked allspice berries
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme (or ideally sprigs of fresh)
  • 2-3 smashed garlic cloves
To make your 2 quarts of brine, boil 2 cups of water and dissolve in it:
  • 1/2 c. salt
  • 3 heaping Tbsp. brown sugar
Add 6 cups cold water to make 2 quarts. Pour this over the chicken, seal the container, and place it in the fridge. Shake the container around every once in a while and brine for no more than 4-5 hrs (2-3 should suffice). I think you could do this overnight if you reduce the salt.

Preheat your oven to 425. If you have a pan that can be heated up (I use an enameled, cast iron pan), place that in the oven, lightly greased. This is ideal, because when you put the chicken in the pan it will sear immediately.

Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the brine and rinse it once (I do this by filling the same container with fresh water and swishing the chicken around). Next, pat the chicken as dry as possible--this will take lots of paper towels.

Once your fowl is dry, sprinkle the pieces with salt and ground pepper, and coat them with some vegetable oil.

Place the pieces skin-down in your roasting pan, trying not to overcrowd them. If you pre-heated the pan they should sizzle nicely. Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. Then turn the pieces over and return them to the oven. If they're browning nicely, turn the heat down to 375, or keep it at 425 if they're still pale. Bake for 25 more minutes (or so).

Use your judgment here--I overcrowded my pieces, so I had to bake it longer and mess around with the broiler. Using a convection oven would reduce the cooking time nicely, too.

The chicken was so yummy, I forgot to take a picture of it when it was still sizzling in the pan, so hopefully this close-up of the stragglers gives an idea. The skin should be crispy and carmelized golden brown, the meat incredibly tender and flavorful. Brining works wonders and seems to make it impossible to overcook.

I served the chicken with Alex's ultra-simple garlicky lentil + rice soup and a green salad. The salad was romaine, pickled beets, and carrot smithereens with a dressing of cider vinegar, olive oil, whole-grain prepared mustard, honey, S & P. Zingy!

So, I know that brining seems like a hassle, but you've gotta do it! You definitely won't be disappointed.

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