Monday, April 26, 2010

Crisp Roast Chicken

I think it's fair to say that Cook's Illustrated is obsessed with finding the perfect roasting methodology to produce a chicken with the crispest skin and the moistest meat. Now, as far as obsessions go, perfecting the roast chicken is pretty tame and certainly worthwhile... however, being that it seems we've got the essentials of chicken roasting mastered at this point... brine or salt your bird to keep the meat moist, and then roast in a high temperature oven (450+) to crisp the skin, while using a temperature probe to ensure you don't overcook it... it's fair to wonder whether all the different variations on this theme (e.g. butterflying the chicken, air drying the skin for crispness, or roasting it breast side down for part of the time) are making a contribution that's discernible above variations due to cook's skill and random uncontrollable factors. I mean, simply making sure you don't overcook the breast meat is going to produce a damn tasty chicken... and indeed, I found Barbara Kafka's "simple" methodology, which involves no salting or brining, to produce a great end product, with very little prep work and a short cooking time. So is there really a glaring need for more tricks and wrinkles to be added in the pursuit of perfection?

Enter covering your chicken in baking powder (original Cook's Illustrated recipe from 2008 here, but subscription required). Yes, that's right, baking powder... and after 24 hours air drying in the fridge, it gives an odd look to the bird:

Well, it's novel, you gotta give them that. In addition, the other somewhat unusual step Cook's takes is to cut some slits in the chicken's back, and poke some holes in the fat deposits on the breast and thighs, to give the fat an easy path to drain out so it doesn't get trapped and make the skin all flabby. Otherwise, the recipe calls for standard things like: salting the chicken overnight (along with the baking powder and some pepper) and starting the bird breast side down on a V-rack before at a lower temperature (450) before flipping it over and bringing the oven up to 500.

Does it work?

In a word: yes. The baking powder trick does indeed help suck significant moisture out of the skin... more, I'm pretty sure, than air drying alone. I detected no off flavors from the powder, and it was the crispest skin I've yet made. However... and there are a couple of "howevers"... in simple act of carving up the chicken, juices are likely to get on that perfectly crisped skin and make it not so crisp. In addition, even with the foil they suggest, all the rendered fat from those holes got burned onto my roasting pan... and I'm still scrubbing it off. A much more effective choice, in my probably naive opinion, would have been to put some root vegetables down there to soak it all up. Maybe not a great choice for a dieter, but at least you're not wasting the glorious chicken fat, and I suspect you'd have an easier cleanup... especially if you kept the foil (with no holes) between the root veggies and the pan.

So, with a couple of caveats, I found it quite successful. I'm not entirely sure how effective poking holes in the chicken was at rendering additional fat... but it's not like it's much additional work if you're already salting and baking powdering the chicken over night. Whether it's worthwhile is up to you, but unlike many Cook's recipes, the added steps didn't seem too onerous... at least for someone, like me, who thinks brining or salting is vital step to chicken roasting. The major limitation would be that you can't get this on the table in one night, unlike many brine based recipes... however, I am starting to think salting is significantly superior to brining, so it's almost moot at this point. I'm tempted to try my favorite high roast chicken, but with a salting and baking powder step instead of brining.

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