By Joanna Pruess
Originally Posted On May 25, 2013
When it comes to chicken dinners, there are two schools of thought. Some people, feeling no need to improve on “perfection,” are more than happy to eat crunchy Southern fried chicken or a juicy roasted chicken week in, week out. The other group, who’ve been making the same old recipes for more years than they care to admit, have hit what I call “chicken burnout.”
Whether you’re content with the status quo, would like to learn to make a better roasted chicken, or just want an injection of recipe inspiration — here's help in the form of a little chicken education and a few terrific original recipes.
Heritage, Organic, Free-Range Chickens
It doesn't matter if you’re preparing fried chicken or coq au vin, the single most important factor is working with the most flavorful and healthiest bird available. “Modern chickens have been bred for confinement to convert grain feed into fat as efficiently as possible,” explains Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill at Stone Farm restaurant and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm, in New York state. “Unfortunately, that equation leaves little room for flavor, which is why it always helps to buy a heritage breed.”
Because these birds are raised in healthy living conditions and given natural feed and fresh water and allowed to mature, they have firmer flesh and taste better. Breeds like the barred Plymouth Rock — the original chicken produced in the United States in the mid-19th century — and the dark Cornish are the gold standard, but they often cost three times as much as a commercially raised bird.
But if you can’t find, or afford, heritage breeds, organic free-range chickens are the next-best thing, says Ariane Daguin, founder and chief executive of D’Artagnan, the New Jersey–based game and poultry purveyors. “They’re less expensive than heritage breeds, yet better nourished and far tastier than mass-produced birds — and only modestly more expensive.”
To be labeled organic, a chicken must eat 100-percent-certified-organic feed (i.e., food grown in fields where no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or genetically modified organisms have been used for minimally three years), and it must be free-range, meaning allowed to roam outside the coop for part of each day. (The USDA doesn’t mandate for how long or in how large a space.) This is important, because exercise and scratching for food outdoors builds muscle, which is what creates the taste and juicy texture of these birds.
Another benefit of organic over conventionally raised chickens is that organic birds aren’t given prophylactic antibiotics to prevent the kinds of diseases frequently contracted by chickens living in crowded conditions. Research suggests that eating animals treated with “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics plays a role in human antibiotic resistance, a serious personal and public health threat.
Young chickens (often three pounds or less) that have been fattened with growth hormones or genetically modified feed may appear large enough to be brought to market, but they won’t have much taste or texture because they haven’t had the time to develop any muscle. Some mass-produced chickens are shipped in less than 40 days, but organic and heritage breeds are given 60 days or more to mature.
How to Shop for Chicken
Avoid the rock-solid chilled birds you find in supermarket display cases. While the USDA allows any raw poultry product that’s never been stored below 26º F to be sold as “fresh,” when you buy a bird with ice crystals, they melt and that liquid leaches into the plastic wrapper — this represents a loss of flavor. Ask the people behind the counter whether the chickens have ever been stored below 32º F (a bad thing) and look for “less than 2 percent water weight” on the package label.
A good alternative is getting your chicken from a reliable local farmer, cooperative or artisanal butcher and asking questions about where and how it was raised. If they can’t tell you where the chicken came from, what kind of feed it had or how long it has been in the store, try another farmer/butcher.
Once home, store the wrapped chicken in the refrigerator and use within two days. Dan Barber says, “There’s no need to rinse it — it’s only more likely to contaminate your kitchen; just pat it dry with paper towels. When you’re finished, always wash your hands with soap.” Ditto for all knives and cutting surfaces. (The United States Department of Agriculture advises against rinsing poultry before cooking it. When you rinse raw chicken you're allowing the bacteria that is present on the surface of the poultry to spread to everything else that's nearby. Any bacteria present on the chicken's surface will be destroyed if you cook the poultry properly and thoroughly.)
How to Roast a Chicken to Perfection
Barber offers two options for roasting: “Either cook it at really high heat in the oven — about 500º F to 550º F for a really short time — until the bird is really crisp and golden brown, then cover it with a little aluminum foil and keep it in a closed oven until it is done; or cook it slowly at 260º F until done.” The meat is done when the juices run clear and when the meat is pricked deep in the thigh and the joint moves easily in the socket. At the end you can turn up the heat to crisp the skin a bit.
My personal system for testing doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer that gives a fast and accurate reading. As a rule of thumb, you want the temperature of the deep-thigh meat to read 165º F.
The (not-so) secret to a tasty, perfect roast chicken with crispy skin is to spatchcock the bird — remove the backbone and breastbone — then brown it skin side down for a few minutes in a hot cast-iron skillet, turn and cook it in a hot oven until done, about 50 minutes. Both the breast and legs get done at the same time and, by flattening the bird, you cut time off the cooking. Once you master this simple technique, you may never do it any other way again.
Once the chicken is out of the oven, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit down, and let both of you take a breather. It, like you, needs to rest. If you carve a bird right away, the juices will flow out and the meat will be dry. A whole bird can sit for 30 to 45 minutes; a spatchcocked chicken, 20 to 30.
Try a Thigh Instead of a Breast
No matter how you dress up a boneless, skinless chicken breast, it’s always a little boring — or at least dry. White meat develops very little intramuscular fat, and without the fat, there’s nothing to carry flavor. Like the best beef stews, lesser cuts of chicken are tastier and more succulent. That’s why they are appearing on many more menus.
Chefs and home cooks are finding thighs reasonably priced, and, for my money, they’re far more versatile. Cook them with the skin on (you can discard the skin later, if desired) to keep them even juicier.
I wouldn’t mind a chicken in every pot — as long as it's juicy, tasty and healthy.
Southwestern Chicken Sliders with Mango-Avocado Salsa
Succulent pulled chicken tossed with chile mayo and set off with colorful mango-salsa, lettuce and tomato makes tempting sandwiches for any time of the day. Half the fun is eating them. (Be sure to serve with napkins.)
Makes 6 small sliders
1 3/4 pounds chicken thighs with skin and bones
1 large clove garlic, minced
3 to 4 tablespoons Frank’s or other hot pepper sauce, divided
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 medium firm-ripe avocado
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ripe medium mango, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
6 whole wheat slider buns
6 small romaine lettuce leaves
6 thin slices tomato