Life has been, in a word, unsteady. There have been some changes, some hard discussions, some letting go. And when I start to feel that it’s all a bit too much, I turn to familiar things to eat. I’ve been making a lot of quesadillas and guacamole, smoked sausage and gouda on crackers, soft tacos. It’s one less thing I have to put thought into when I’ve already put too much thought into everything else. But, I’m starting to come out of that and I’m adjusting and I’ve wanted to cook again.
Last weekend I had a craving for chicken and potatoes. Most likely this was because I had gotten into the habit of assuaging my feelings with fried chicken and mashed potatoes from Popeye’s, a habit that, despite the fact that I have to walk one mile each way to get it, needs to be put to rest. Roasted chicken accompanied by roasted potatoes and onions seemed like it would do the trick.
This brings us to concept #11: Brining Maximizes Juiciness in Lean Meats. I’ve been brining my Thanksgiving turkey breast for the past 5+ years, so I’m familiar with what brining brings to the table. The scientific reason for why brining makes for juicier meats is osmosis. The salts, sugars, amino acids, and proteins inside muscle cells are more concentrated than that of the brine, thus water travels from the brine into the meat to create equilibrium. We use a salty brine, as opposed to pure water, because it rearranges the protein molecules in the meat and allows it to hold onto more water and, as an additional bonus, breaks down the some of the proteins, resulting in a more tender meat.
The brine I use for turkey involves water and apple juice, so I wasn’t too surprised to see sugar called for in the brine here. The recipe calls for a 3-pound chicken, but 4½ pounds was the smallest that I could find, so I used that instead. Regardless, take your smallish natural chicken (not treated with salt or chemicals) and remove the neck and giblets. Dissolve ½ cup salt and ½ cup sugar in 2 quarts cold water in a large container, add the chicken, cover, and let soak in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Take out 2 tablespoons unsalted butter to soften and preheat the oven to 400°.
After the hour has passed, pat the chicken dry. Now, you can use the butter plain, but I decided to amp up the flavor a little and added the zest of 1 lemon and the leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Add the flavor accompaniments of your choice to the butter (garlic would be good, as would chives, sage, rosemary, lavender, or marjoram) and mix it together. Separate the skin from the breast and put large dabs of butter underneath. Press down on the skin from above to help spread the butter out over the meat. I did this a little with the thighs as well. Rub the exterior of the chicken with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.
The recipe calls for you to use a V-rack to support the chicken, because we’re going to cook it on each side before laying it down, but I don’t have one of those. I had the brilliant notion to use small potatoes and onions to hold the bird, with the idea that I’d end up with buttery, chickeny roasted vegetables at the same time. Brilliant in theory, but not so much in execution.
The potatoes held up the chicken wonderfully – you’ll set the chicken on one side, wing up, and roast it for 15 minutes, then, using a couple handfuls of paper towels, flip the chicken over onto the other side for another 15 minutes, then flip it breast up for 20-25 minutes more. (A fully cooked chicken should register 165° and the juices should run clear.) The problem, as I discovered, is that potatoes are dense. While the breast was cooking just fine, far less heat was making it through to the legs and underside. I rightly feared that the breast was getting overcooked, so I carved that off when it was done, then transferred the dissected chicken and the accompanying veggies to a wire rack set over a sheet pan to finish cooking. Not my finest cooking moment, but thankfully this dinner was just for me. (Photos taken before dissection occurred.)
This recipe works out decently enough, but I would make some additional modifications when I try it again. For one, even with the brine I still thought the meat needed salt (though, perhaps this is because I used a larger chicken than called for). Second, I really love the taste the apple juice imparts on my turkey, so I would substitute that for half of the water in the brine. Third, I know that some are firmly in the anti-baste camp, but my mother bastes her roast chicken all the time and it always comes out great. When the skin didn’t look like it was browning up enough, even just one basting added a significant amount of glow and crispness.
I think roast chicken is one of those dishes that has an infinite number of ways of doing “right.” Everyone settles on the one that was passed down to them or the one that’s discovered through years of trial and error. I’m still searching for mine, but this has given me some great ideas to work with.