Sunday, November 23, 2008

On roasting a chook

There is a sort of Italian way to roast chickens (chooks).  At least I think it Italian because I see it in lots of Italian books and in Jamie Oliver who is essentially an Italian cook.

The way you do it is to roast the chook sitting in about half a cup of chicken stock.  The problem of course is that this makes the oven very wet – and nothing roasts very well.  The chicken will not brown.

So to fix this you chop herbs finely and mix with butter (or duck fat), lift the skin of the chicken – and (delicately) poke the fat between the skin and the flesh.  It should brown nicely then.

A very wet oven has an advantage – it is temperature buffered – and that means you can be a little imprecise when cook the bird.  It is probably OK plus or minus 10-15 minutes in the oven.
That makes it good for restaurants – whose customer ordering times are imprecise – or for home cooks distracted by work, children and all the other things that make you imprecise with an oven.  Indeed it seems that if there is an imprecise way of doing something that works well the Italians have perfected it.

Then there is an extreme French way of roasting a bird.  The best variant I know on the recipe is in the French Laundry cookbook – but I have seen variants on it in lots of French books.  The method is to brine the bird.

Let me explain.  Take a gallon of water (sorry to be non-metric – but enough water to cover the birds), a cup of salt, a cup of sugar, a lemon, half a hand of garlic very crushed and every odd herb in your fridge.  Boil it all up.  (I like adding star anise – a spice I over-use badly).  Let the water go stone cold.

Take the bird(s) and soak in the brine for eight hours (Thomas Keller says never to go too long – but I have no problem with up to 15 hours provided you wash the birds thoroughly after – but then Thomas Keller knows far more than me).  

The brine sucks out the water from the bird.  You need the salt and sugar concentration in the brine to be higher than in the bird otherwise you will get the osmotic process working the wrong way.  But you are left with a VERY dry bird.

Wash it thoroughly, and dry it.  Truss it (learn to do this or some pretentious French cook will throw a knife at you).
Let it dry a little further in the fridge.  

You want it to be DRY.  Got that.

Then put it in an oven with nothing else in it (so you release no moisture). 

As it is bone dry the skin will – if you are not careful – burn to a cinder.

So place some foil over the bird.  DO NOT SEAL IT.  Just place the foil over the top loosely – a sort of heat reflector.

This will produce a bird that is wonderfully moist.  The “moist” flavour of a chicken comes from fat, not water – and sucking all the water out with osmotic pressure leaves a bird where the fat has nothing much to dilute it.  Great moist flavour.

But there is a problem here.  No moisture means no temperature buffering.  No temperature buffering means that the cooking time has to be really precise – plus or minus say three minutes.  This is NOT for the sloppy cook.  It is darn difficult to do in a restaurant setting either which is – I guess why it is Thomas Keller and not Jamie Oliver.

And I got another problem – which is that I want to get the bird out of the oven based on the internal temperature (150F – sorry – no metric but my digital read meat thermometer is imperial).  But when I stick my meat thermometer in I puncture the skin and out flows those lovely juices I am trying to maximize – so I got to work some other way out.  (Help anyone).  

Now the French method of doing the chook is wonderful – by far the better bird – but it is not for the sloppy or faint-hearted.  Try it.

And if you have a solution for getting the measurement right without puncturing the skin let me know.

John Hempton

1 comment:

John said...

Barbeques Galore (and others) have a 'remote' digital thermometer where there is a metal squewer sensor to push into the meat, a long braided cord leading to a remote guage (or a transmitter so you can walk around with the guage on your belt)

Insert the sensor from the inside of the carcass outwards into the breast.