It is often said that the best test of both the professional and the home cook is a roasted chicken, that, if nothing else, a good cook should always be able to serve up a beautiful bird—crispy, appetizingly fragrant, the skin deeply golden, with meat so moist that you’re tempted to tear it off the bone with your fingers. Roasted chicken is a Sunday lunch you can count on; or a bistro dinner, with hot fries and mayonnaise; or a don’t-think-twice homey meal, with potatoes and gravy, for friends who just showed up in town and want to come over this evening.
In fact, it is almost impossible to get consistently right. The difficulty, of course, is that the chicken, like many birds, consists not of one type of meat but of two—one white, the other dark. White meat (the breast) likes to cook quickly; dark meat (the legs) needs long and slow. The former tastes of nothing if cooked too long; the latter is impossible to chew if cooked too fast. The simplest fix is to respect the science of the fowl’s anatomy—remove the breasts, snap off the thighs, and cook them separately. This approach is a no-brainer with other birds, especially duck, whose breast is exquisite when rare and whose legs are scrumptious beyond belief when simmered for several hours in barely bubbling fat, for duck confit (from the French verb confire, meaning to conserve: traditionally, the legs are stored in the fat they’re cooked in). But the whole, intact chicken, especially when roasted, has properties that you don’t want to lose by breaking it into bits: for instance, the three surprisingly satisfying segments of the wing, which you can eat with your fingers (you’d never bother with, say, the delicate little flappers of a tiny quail), or the wedge of yumminess surrounding the wishbone, or, possibly best of all, the “oyster,” that teaspoon of tender meat residing near each thigh. In French, it’s called “un sot-l’y-laisse”—i.e., only an idiot leaves it behind.
For me, the best roasted bird is scarcely roasted at all. It is poached until it is almost cooked through, and finished, as fleetingly as possible, in a hot oven or on a rotisserie, if you’re lucky enough to have one. The method—you could call it poach-and-roast—was traditionally used in French preparations of larger fowl, like geese and turkeys, to shorten the time they spent in the oven and thus to protect the breasts from drying out. In recent years, it has become popular for cooking just about all birds and, at least in France, is regarded as the best way to insure a moist and not-ruined chicken. (This is the method preferred by the Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann, the proprietor of Le Coq Rico, who is widely regarded as the authority on poultry cooking.) In Lyon, a city renowned for its bird preparations—especially the poulet de Bresse, a local celebrity breed—poaching was the method favored by les mères, the famously accomplished, no-nonsense women chefs of the nineteenth century. The cooking of one of the most famous, la Mère Fillioux (1865–1925), is memorialized in two grainy black-and-white photographs: in one, she stands proudly in front of a veritable bounty of birds, about to be readied for poaching; in the other, she is tableside, carving up a chicken with what appears to be a butter knife—such is the moist tenderness of her preparation.
Of the many strategies devised to surmount the challenges of whole-roasting a chicken, some now seem like fads. The practice of bringing (soaking the bird overnight in a salty liquid before cooking) is based on an assumption that a wet bloated breast won’t dry out, and it usually doesn’t—but, being wet and bloated, it isn’t exactly a flavour bomb. Dry brining—a curiously contradictory concept, made popular by the late Judy Rodgers, of San Francisco’s Zuni Café—involves salting the chicken first, then drying it out (a hairdryer is a perfectly acceptable kitchen tool), so that when it goes into the oven (a very hot one), its fat renders immediately. The result is often delicious, but the timing is tricky; unless you get it exactly right, the legs will be perfect but the breast, once again, will suffer. Some of the most effective techniques take place on the grill, like the one said to originate in Louisiana, my birthplace, involving a beer can: the can—I empty mine first; hardcore aficionados leave most of the brew inside—goes up the bum of the bird, which is cooked, in effect, on its haunches, with the thighs getting the most intense heat. Another is spatchcocking, a term originating in eighteenth-century Ireland and said to be an abbreviation of “dispatch the cock.” In its original sense, it described cleaving the bird in half to make it easier to grill. Its modern meaning is captured by the French phrase en crapaudine, which means in the style of a toad, because a spatchcocked bird now means a flattened bird—the wings and legs splayed—which, viewed from above, looks remarkably like your common amphibious croaker. With all respect to chicken à la toad, which is a preparation of ancient provenance, a charcoal-blackened two-dimensional frog-like creature seems to me limited in its aesthetic appeal (it calls to mind unlucky amphibians crushed on hot summer asphalt) as well as in the range of its flavours, which lack the subtle surprises that one gets from a whole bird.
How long have people been poaching their chickens? Not as long as they have been spatchcocking, a method that must date to the discovery of fire. But it’s still an ancient preparation, probably as old as the invention of the pot. To my mind, both methods produce a fine dinner, but if you’re lucky enough to score a good chicken—maybe not an actual chicken from the famous poultry town of Bresse (which is pretty hard to come by in the United States) but a healthy, outdoor-living, insect-eating, half-wild bird with good color and flavor—then the gentleness of poaching produces the better result. And, if you’re committed to the grill, go ahead, place your bird over a bed of hot coals, but do so with extreme care and not for long: the chicken is already cooked, beautifully; you’re really just browning the skin.
- 1 large chicken, about 4 lbs.
- 2 whole garlic heads
- 1 bunch rosemary
- 1 bunch thyme
- 3 qts. chicken stock
- Sea salt and coarsely ground pepper
- 4 oz. butter, melted
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 Tbsp. white-wine vinegar
- A medium-sized pot, higher than it is wide—it should be big enough to submerge the bird but not so big that you need vast quantities of liquid to cover it
- A large, slotted spoon or kitchen spider (not tongs—you don’t want to tear the skin when removing the bird)
- String, for trussing (optional)
- An instant-read thermometer
- A basting brush
- A roasting tray
1. Remove the chicken’s wishbone. This is an essential first step in all bird preparations, including Thanksgiving turkeys; it makes it easier to keep the breast intact when carving. To find the bone, pull back the skin around the front of the bird and look for the inverted “V” above the neck. Slide your knife down one stem of the “V” and then turn it sharply inward. The stem should snap free. Repeat on the other side. Work the top of the “V” loose with your fingers or (very carefully) with a knife. Save the bone for a wish tug-of-war after dinner.
2. If you intend to save the stock afterwards, blanch the bird first to render the blood. (Otherwise, it will coagulate and muddy the stock.) Put the chicken in the pot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, remove bird instantly, and then ice it to stop the cooking. Discard blanching liquid.
3. Cut garlic bulbs in half, crosswise, and stuff them into the bird’s cavity along with rosemary and thyme.
4. Truss the bird. Trussing is optional, but I, irrationally, recommend it. Why? Because in a poach-and-roast preparation, trussing—closing up the bird’s cavity and binding its extremities against the body, with string—serves no practical purpose. (A bird roasted in a high, dry heat is different; there, both stuffing the bird and trussing it serve to slow the cooking—unfilled and untrussed, the cavity behaves like a second oven, heats up the breastbone, and dries out the meat even faster than normal.) I truss because of the aesthetically unpleasing transformation that occurs once the poaching commences: namely, that the extremities of the untrussed bird go perpendicular as if the creature were suddenly in flight, and there is nothing you can do to make them flap back down again. The bird served thus is not the iconic dish; I truss because I’m a sap for the icon.
5. Add bird to the pot and fill with chicken stock, reserving 1 Tbsp for basting. If there is not enough stock to cover, add water. Place pot over an initial high heat. Never allow the liquid to boil. As its temperature increases, gradually reduce the heat until it approaches 154 degrees Fahrenheit (68 degrees Celsius), at which point your burner should be at its lowest setting. For poaching, a temperature between 154 and 162 degrees Fahrenheit—68 and 71 degrees Celsius—is acceptable. (I mention the centigrade temperatures to illustrate, like a mathematical graph, the modest heat of your cooking liquid. In centigrade, zero is freezing; a hundred is boiling. Our target temperature is only around two-thirds of the way toward boiling.) Your cooking liquid is not even simmering. There are no bubbles. There is a wisp of a vapor moving almost imperceptibly across the surface of the stock. The temperature will fluctuate slightly at first. (You are not using a chemistry-lab water bath—this is country cooking, not sous-vide.) Until it stabilizes, monitor the pot. It helps to have ice cubes at the ready.
6. Poach for 35 minutes, then begin checking the bird’s temperature—both the legs, by inserting a thermometer inside the inner thigh, and the breast, by poking into the meaty front. Once the bird reaches the same temperature as the cooking liquid, continue cooking for another 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken and allowing for possible fluctuations in the temperature. (The F.D.A., I should note, recommends cooking chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which will dry out the breast. Slow-poaching is safe at lower temperatures.) Remove chicken from poaching liquid. If serving later, chill and refrigerate. If serving right away, allow bird to rest and cool for at least 20 minutes.
7. Place a roasting tray in the oven and heat it to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
8. Prepare the basting liquid: in a small saucepan, melt butter, then add sugar, vinegar, and a tablespoon of chicken stock. Baste the bird with some of the liquid and sprinkle the skin with sea salt.
9. Place the bird on the roasting tray in the preheated oven. After 5 minutes, baste. After another 5 minutes, baste again, and reduce the oven temperature to 350. Cook for another 15 to 25 minutes, basting every 5 minutes. When the skin turns golden brown, remove it from the oven. (The objective is to brown the skin and reheat the chicken without cooking it.) Remove the bird but do not turn off the oven.
10. Put a tray in the hot oven. Let the bird rest for 10 minutes, then carve. It is not unusual for the meat nearest the breastbone or thigh to be a little pink. This is fixable. (What is not fixable is overcooking.) Splash olive oil on the tray in the oven and place the undercooked piece of meat on it, pink side down. Check after 2 to 3 minutes.
I like to serve my roasted chicken alongside a rice pilaf made with the poaching liquid. A recipe will be in my next column.