Having roasted or barbeque chicken in the fridge and ready to use for everything from paninis to pasta dishes to a quick quesadilla is a brilliant idea. It’s tasty, healthy, neutral enough that you can go in almost any direction, and versatile enough that you can come up with a whack of different fast and easy ways to eat it and never really get bored. Unfortunately, cooking the actual bird is intimidating for a lot of people – to the point where I have seen suggestions in everything from bad supermarket-checkout magazines (you know the kind, glossy women’s lifestyle mags with a “food” section aimed at idiots like this) to chef-hosted cooking shows that say you should forget about roasting your own chicken and just buy a pre-cooked bird at the deli or take-out section of the supermarket.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Buying and cooking your own bird is always going to be a superior choice. There is no need to be hesitant. Roasted or barbeque chicken – especially if you just want to put the meat away for future use and don’t care about niceties like stuffing or carving presentation – is actually close to foolproof. All you need to do is remember five simple steps:
Wait a minute. Um … spatchcock? What the hell is that?
That, my friend, is a time-honoured and (sadly) little-used way to cook a bird quickly and with almost any kind of heat source. And quickly is key – the faster you can cook a chicken, the moister and more flavourful the meat will be. Spatchcocking a bird is akin to butterflying, but instead of taking out both the spine and the sternum you just remove the spine. The sternum helps to protect the breast meat from drying out, giving you all sorts of options for the actual cook. No matter what kind of grill/oven/smoker/roaster you are packing, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a way to make this work.
Ready? Get yourself a really nice bird – forget the supermarket, get a fresh free-range hen from your farmer’s market – and let’s dig in.
Cutting out the spine of the bird is easy if you have the right tools. A good chef’s knife will work, but the job will be simpler and cleaner with a good pair of poultry shears. If you don’t have a set, now is the time to buy some. Get a good pair and you will have them forever.
I start at the neck of the bird. Cut from the neck to the tail along the right side of the spine. It’s easy to get the right cutting line because the sides of the vertebrae will naturally guide the shears to just the right spot where the ribs start to narrow. Your blade should settle right into this hollow and take you straight back to the rear.
When you get to the tail turn the bird around so the butt is towards you and cut back up the other side of the spine. Again, let the curve of the ribs and the edge of the backbone guide your shears or knife.
When you are done you will have a handful of backbone and a bird that is ready to open up. Do not throw the spine away. Put it in a freezer bag and save it for making stock. Waste not want not!
Now just spread the chicken open and gently press down until you feel the sternum crack. And whaddya know, you’ve spatchcocked a bird!
At this point your can remove any obvious pockets of fat from the exposed inside of the bird if you are going to cook over direct heat. Now get a big pot or leakproof bag and put the chicken in your brine. You can get full details on brining here, but for every whole chicken you need:
2 litres of boiling water
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of kosher salt
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the boiling water, chill the brine (very important), and then immerse your bird into the cold brine for one hour. If you are using a pot, put something heavy on top of the bird to keep it submerged.
The rest is tie-your-shoes simple. After one hour remove the bird from the brine, discard the brine (I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but better safe than sorry), and thoroughly dry the chicken on both sides with paper towels. The drier you can get the bird, the better. Now give the “inside” of the chicken a healthy coating of your favourite chicken rub (for obvious reasons, I recommend this one) and rub it into the exposed flesh with your fingers. Turn the bird over and give the skin side another application of the rub. Be sure to work it into all of the nooks and crannies under the wings and along the legs and thighs. Now go start your fire – you are ready to cook.
The general rule of thumb here is to cook the bird skin side up at 210 degrees C (that’s 410 degrees F for you folks south of the border) for 45 minutes. Some of the ways that you can do this are:
Charcoal grill, direct heat. Really – you don’t have to turn the bird or anything, as long as (a) you get the rack as high as possible, and (b) your grill has a lid and you keep it closed to stop flareups and keep the heat in. Do not open the lid, do not touch or flip or rotate the bird. Just leave it alone. This method gives you an awesome fusion of roasted and grilled flavours. I use the Big Green Egg and Wicked Good Charcoal if I do it this way.
Charcoal grill, indirect heat. Anything from a Big Green Egg with the platesetter in to a Weber kettle and the indirect method is great for this. Again, use a good neutral charcoal like Wicked Good or Basque’s Sugar Maple. Rotate the chicken 180 degrees (keep the skin side up, you spin the chicken, don’t flip it) halfway through the cooking time. In my opinion, this is the single best way to cook a spatchcocked bird.
A wood-fired smoker. As we did with the “Flashing Chicken“, build your fire up to the 210C/410F range and actually roast the bird in the smoker. Once again, spin the bird 180 degrees halfway through. This chicken has a flavour more suited to combination items like sandwiches or burritos and quesadillas.
A roasting pan in the oven. Yep – if you have no other way to do this or there is a hurricane going on or something, you can still do a bird like this indoors and the results will still be great. Use a shallow roasting pan with a rack, cook uncovered, and turn the whole pan 180 degrees halfway through. Added bonus here – you get some seriously good drippings to make some seriously good gravy or sauce.
Regardless of the method you choose, remember the basics: 210C/410F, skin side up, 45 minutes, rotate halfway through unless you are doing it over direct heat. After 45 minutes check your internal temperature and if it looks good you can take the bird out of the cooker and let it rest. Yes, you are allowed to munch on some of the skin at this point. After 10 minutes rest you can cut it up and eat right away, or you can let it rest for a half hour and then pull the whole thing apart and put the meat into the fridge for use over the next few days. Roasted in the over the meat will keep well for about five days, and if you cooked with charcoal or in the smoker it will keep for up to eight.
Don’t be surprised if you end up doing this at least once a week. It’s easy, fun, you get to cut something up, and your day-to-day meals will be easier and better for it. Enjoy.
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