Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The Chook Challenge
Are you afraid to roast?
Being a cook, I am always surprised when people tell me they are scared of roasting a chicken. To me, a gorgeous plump bird (free range, please) is one of the easiest roasting cuts to master, and almost looks after itself in the oven. Plus, while you can do a lot of different things with red meat and pork roasts, I find that a chicken will lend itself to the greatest number of cuisine types with generosity and happiness.
That said, though, I have eaten enough badly cooked chickens in my life to know that there are a few simple rules which people often neglect to follow, and which will ensure that your meat is cooked through without being dry, and that the skin of your bird goes a beautiful burnished brown in the process.
So here are my tried and true methods, with a few variations and comments about the way I like to do things.
Buy a happy chicken and give it some love. By this I mean spend the extra money to get a free range bird (or even organic if you're feeling really flush). Generally speaking, a free range chicken will be cheaper, or at least comparable, in price to a beef, lamb or pork roast, and buying well means you've won half the battle already. The love refers to how you deal with your bird after you bring it home, which we'll go into detail about below, but essentially means that if you pay just a little attention to your seasoning and preparation you will reap the rewards in eating it later.
Prepare your bird and your kitchen. Turn the oven on to 180C and let it come up to temperature before you put anything into it. Pat the inside cavity and all over the outside skin of your chicken with a paper towel to ensure it's clean and dry. Get a roasting tray and either set a roasting rack in the tray to put your chicken onto, or roughly cut up a couple of onions and carrots into large pieces, strew them in the bottom of the tin and sit the chicken on top of these. The rack and the vegies serve the same purpose, which is to lift the chicken off the bottom of the tray and let the heat circulate all around it.
Season your bird well. If you're in a rush, feeling uninspired or just want a bit of plain unadulterated chicken, this means sprinkling generous amounts of salt and pepper all over the bird (and the inside cavity), throwing a couple of bits of lemon into the cavity, and rubbing the lot with olive oil. That's fine, and will give you a perfectly delicious roast chicken. If, though, you are prepared to take things just a bit further, why not pop a few extra flavouring bits under the skin? Choices are endless, but I will often put a few nice pieces of unsalted butter in between the breast meat and the skin (cut the butter into 'sticks' and insert it when it's cold - it will look funny with the big chunks under the skin but is much easier than when the butter's soft and still cooks beautifully), which both flavours and keeps the breast meat wonderfully tender. Or you could slice a cacciatore or chorizo sausage; mush up fresh pork sausage (take it out of the skins); use halved dried apricots; or just get a big handful of mixed herbs. To insert any or all of these things under the skin of your chicken, gently poke your finger around between the skin and the breast meat on top of the cavity, which will loosen it and give you a little pocket. You want to get your finger as far under the skin as possible, but without tearing it. Then just carefully put your chosen flavourings into the pocket and using your hands on top of the skin now, work them down and around over the breast meat as far as you can.
At this point, you need to know the total weight of your chicken so you can work out how long to cook it (times are below). If you've minimally seasoned the bird you won't need to add any weight allowance for your seasonings, but if, for instance, you've put a lot of sausagemeat or something else dense under the skin, or lemons in the cavity, you should add the weight of this to the weight of your chicken to get a total.
Time to get things cooking. If you've put seasonings under the skin, leave the chicken sitting upright (breast facing upwards). If, however, you don't have anything under the skin, you can start your roast off with the bird turned upside down, which will help the juices stay in the breast meat and prevent it drying out too much. With the upside-down method, you'll need to remove the chicken from the oven about 30-40 minutes before it's done, and carefully turn it over, trying not to tear the skin. It's not glamorous, but I have been known to perform this task wearing a big, thick pair of rubber gloves - it gives you a manouverability which tongs will never achieve, and you still need to be quick to avoid burning yourself but it's certainly better than trying to turn the bird with bare hands!
Put your well-loved bird into the preheated oven. Somewhere in the middle of the oven is best, this stops things getting over-browned on either the top or bottom of the roast.
Now, if you want to roast a lot of chickens in future, here's what you need to learn and remember about timing, provided that your 180C oven is actually running at the correct temperature: 20 minutes for every half-kilo, PLUS another 20 minutes in total. That's it, and has never failed for me yet. My only exception is if I were roasting a very small chicken (under 1.2kg), I'd give it the 20 minutes per half-kilo and only another 10 minutes in total. And remember the weight discussion from point 3? That goes for stuffing too (which is a whole other post to be dealt with separately) - if you've stuck a great big handful of goodness inside your bird it needs to be calculated as part of the cooking weight! No food poisoning here, people.
Have a glass of wine (or three), and enjoy the 'proper kitchen' smells coming out of your oven.
You could roast some vegies with your chicken if you like (again, something for another post), or just pop a green salad and a loaf of good ciabatta bread on the table in readiness.
When things are done, or you think they should be, take the roast out of the oven and put a skewer into the meat between the breast and thigh meat. Pull it out, and if the juices that run out are clear, you're done. If they're pinky-coloured, put your roast back into the oven for another 10 minutes and check it again.
And, I know you've been doing this for the past hour or two, but here it is again: wait. Ideally, you want to give the chicken about 15 minutes sitting in a warm place (on top of the still-hot oven is good), covered in foil, before you start carving it. This allows all the fibres of the meat to relax a bit and will give you much more tender chicken.
Serve your bird.
If you want nice, thin slices of white meat you can carefully carve them off each breast with a very sharp knife. I tend to be a bit less elegant, though, and cut down either side of the breastbone and along the ribs to remove each breast entirely before cutting it into chunky slices. Then pull each drumstick and thigh away from the carcass and separate them if you wish. Remove the wings and then pull the remaining meat from the carcass (for us this is usually what we do after dinner when the chicken has cooled, and these little bits of meat are eaten in sandwiches later).
And you're done! All I can say to finish things up is that it might take a couple of goes to feel comfortable with adapting your roast to try different seasonings, but once you've nailed the basic method you can do almost anything flavouring-wise.
The challenge is on...let me know your favourite things to flavour a roast chicken with.