A Chicken in Every Pot

A roasted whole chicken is a busy cook’s best most delicious friend.  I say that not because it’s super fast or extremely easy (it is neither), but because if  you cook it on Sunday, you can nibble on it the rest of the week, or with a little more effort, make a variety of meals from it for the rest of the week.  Stay tuned for posts giving suggestions for meals making use of the roast chicken.

A roast chicken is also the ultimate test of a cook’s skill. Making a simple, but kick-ass juicy roast chicken is a real challenge.  To me it is all about what happens before it hits the oven.  By that, I mean brining – wet or dry.

The term brining refers to the process of soaking meat (typically poultry or pork) in a salt solution for a few hours or days.  The way that it works is that the salt tenderizes the meat by breaking down the structure of the muscle of the meat resulting in the meat absorbing water from the brine thereby preventing the bird from drying out in the oven.  If additional spices have been added to the brine, the meat will also be infused with the flavor of the spices.  The term dry brining refers to the process of covering the meat with a dry salt rub.  The way that it works is that the salt draws a little moisture from the bird while simultaneously opening the bird’s pores.  The moisture and the salt mix and work their way back into the bird’s muscles thereby seasoning the bird throughout through osmosis over the course of a few hours or days.  If spices are added to the salt, the spices will also infuse the meat with the flavor of the spices.  The term “dry brining” is somewhat of a misnomer since by definition a “brine” is a liquid salt solution.  As such, dry brining is not really brining at all – it is curing.

Over the years, I have made a lot of chickens and you can get really elaborate with how you prepare  your brines.  For example, you can get creative with spices or even sub in cider or buttermilk to replace the water.  I used to be a devoted experimental briner, but within the last year, I’ve become a pretty big fan of dry brining since the process is far less cumbersome.  I’m still experimenting with dry rub recipes so I’ll post more on that in the future.

For now, here are examples of recipes for both wet and dry brined chickens.  Total time from start to finish might seem a little long, but most of it is passive time when you can get on with the rest of your life.  That’s particularly true if you go the dry brined route.  Either way, these recipes favor Sunday cooking with week-night eating.

For the Brine:

The brine proportions are for 1 pound of chicken.  Multiply the quantities per pound of chicken (e.g., if you have a 3 pound chicken, multiply brine ingredients by 3)

Qty Item
4 cups Warm water
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/8 cup Sugar
4 Peppercorns
2 sprigs each of Thyme, Rosemary and Oregano
1 clove Garlic, slightly crushed

For the Chicken:

Qty Item
1 Chicken
1 sprig Fresh Rosemary
2 sprigs Fresh Thyme
1 sprig Fresh Oregano
1-2 Fresh Sage leaves
1-2 cloves Garlic, slightly crushed
1 Lemon
1-2 tblspn Butter, softened to room temp

Instructions: 

  1. In a container large enough to hold the brine and the chicken, mix the water, salt and sugar together until all the sugar and salt is dissolved.  Drop in the peppercorns and herbs. Let the brine cool.
  2. Remove the package of innards from the cavity of the chicken, and rinse the chicken in cold water.  Immerse the chicken in the cooled brine and cover with foil/plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours per pound of chicken.  Remove the chicken, rinse it with cold water then pat it dry with paper towels. Then let the chicken sit for 20 mins or so to give it a chance to warm up to room temperature a bit.  Discard the brine mixture.
  3. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees.
  4. Quarter the lemon and shove 2 of the lemon quarters, the cloves of garlic and the herbs into the cavity.  Truss (tie-up) the chicken, if you are so inclined, but it’s not critical. Then rub the entire outside of the chicken with the softened butter  (optional: push some of the butter under the skin covering the breast).
  5. Place the chicken breast side up and uncovered on a roasting rack in a roasting pan (or large skillet).  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.  Sprinkle with lemon juice squeezed from one of the remaining lemon quarters and place it in the oven.
  6. Roast at 425 degrees for the first 20 mins, then 375 degrees until the internal temperature of the chicken is approximately 165 degrees or the chicken juices run clear when the chicken is pierced.  The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the chicken.  Remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.

An Easier and More Space Sensitive Dry Brine Variation

Finding the space in a small apartment fridge for brining a whole bird in several liters of water can be a messy challenge. Dry brining does away with that. Substitute the brine mixture in the recipe above for a ready-made dry brine such as William Sonoma’s Dry Brine.  Rub 1-2 tablespoons of the dry brine per pound on the chicken, place the chicken in a bowl or on a plate and cover it with foil.  Refrigerate the chicken overnight (anywhere from 8-24 hours). Rinse the rub off, dry the chicken and proceed as with the rest of the recipe.

Stay tuned for a post on a more elaborate and decadent roast chicken recipe that will totally turn you off of those bland rotisserie chickens in the prepared food section of your local grocery store.

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  1. #1 by Arielle on January 3, 2012 - 4:44 PM

    Great blog. I especially like the level of detail you use. Instead of just saying, ‘brine the chicken”, you explain how to do it. Thanks!

  2. #2 by Alexis on November 16, 2011 - 1:31 PM

    Thanks Michelle! You raise 2 excellent points – one I debated with myself about mentioning and one I neglected to mention. On crispy skin – if I have the time, I let the chicken sit uncovered in the fridge for a few hours (up to overnight) after I have removed it from the brine / removed the dry rub because, as you mention, that drying process results in super crispy skin. If time is at a premium, then paper towel drying and rubbing a little butter on the skin, will result in nicely crisped skin as well. I neglected to mention warming the chicken to room temp in the post so I will amend that. Thanks!

  3. #3 by michelle on November 16, 2011 - 1:07 PM

    Great post!

    My favorite variation on the roast chicken is to separate the breast meat and skin by wiggling my hand into that space. I rub a dry rub — whatever combination of spices I’m in the mood for, but it can include cumin, cayenne, ras-al-hanout, onion powder (don’t knock it :), etc… + salt — some minced garlic, a few sprigs of rosemary, thyme, tarragon, sage or whatever I have on hand that needs cutting. The cavity gets the same treatment. Put this in the fridge overnight or up to 24 hours, uncovered. (Leaving it uncovered makes for a wonderful, crispy skin, rendered of fat.) Before roasting, I allow the chicken to warm to room temp and then into a 400F oven it goes, to be left and forgotten for 30 minutes before I start checking on the internal temp. Easy peasy.

    My favorite part is actually the rich stock you get from the carcass. If you leave the herbs, garlic and spices from the cavity in the bird, the stock isn’t very attractive, but it tastes wonderful. 🙂

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