All roast chickens are not created equal. There is “great chicken” and then there are the rest. Great chicken follows two indispensable—and interlocked—Rules of the Roost.
1. Please Don’t Freeze
Freezing a chicken changes the texture of the meat. Put simply, the moisture in the cell plasma of the meat expands into ice crystals of greater mass. The crystals break through the cell walls and all the natural moisture in the chicken bleeds out. When you defrost an iced bird, that frozen, pinkish water you see in the bag is the ousted moisture. No method of stewing, no amount of aromatic liquid or rich sauce will restore that chicken to its original glory. The integrity of that chicken has been compromised.
Which brings me to this:
2. Always brine your bird.
Brining a chicken takes advantage of that intact cell plasma. And as you know, a previously frozen bird lacks those intact cells. Over the day or two that the bird sits immersed in a savory bath of salt, herbs, aromatics, citrus, and spices, the poultry’s cells not only draw in the flavorful solution, they expand to hold even more moisture. The cell’s semipermeable membrane pulls the solution in, while blocking protein molecules from getting out. The result: bigger cells loaded with moisture and flavor.
Yes, even kosher chickens can be brined. Brining kosher poultry simply means adding only a nominal amount of salt to kick off and perpetuate the movement of the solution to the cells.
My brine is actually quite variable. Sometimes I add more garlic and more rosemary, others, more thyme, or more lemon. Generally, keep the parsley in, the bay leaves too. You might want to omit the clove for a different effect. Sage can be a lovely addition, especially with lemon and garlic. I’ve even added half an orange to make the citrus flavor pop. The season of copious fresh herbs is upon us! Create your own favorite combination. If you’d like a Southwestern kick, use limes, cilantro, parsley, and oregano (perhaps a bit of rosemary), and a teaspoon of excellent chili powder. Toss in a dried chili or a couple of slices of fresh jalapeno. Always use large amounts of the herbs. You are brining, not seasoning a chicken.
What you need:
One whole fresh chicken
One stockpot large enough to hold a chicken submerged in a gallon of water plus aromatics.
1 gallon of water (more if needed)
ice cubes or crushed ice
2 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. sugar
large bunch of thyme and/or
large bunch of rosemary and/or
large bunch of oregano
bunch of parsley (stems are great for this use)
1 shallot, cut in half and/or 1 medium onion, halved
2 lemons cut in half
1 large head garlic, cut in half to expose the middle of every clove. Use 2 if you like!
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. black or mixed peppercorns, crushed in a mortar. Otherwise, generous amounts of freshly ground pepper
1 roasting pan
foil for tenting
What to do:
Add half the water to the large pot and heat until just about boiling. Add the salt and sugar and stir until they dissolve. Lower the heat. Add all the other ingredients except the chicken and the lemons. Cook for ten minutes. Remove from heat. Add the lemons, squeezing the contents into the pot and tossing in the rinds. You can let this mixture sit and meld flavors for another half hour.
Add ice cubes to the pot to speed cooling. Test water temperature and pot bottom to make sure the pot is not too hot to put into the fridge. Refrigerate until the liquid is cool, at least below 42 degrees. I find that crushed ice chills the liquid down so quickly, I can skip this refrigeration step.
Immerse the chicken, making sure that the brine gets into the cavity. Push half a head of garlic and a lemon half into the cavity, along with any herbs that will fit but do not pack tightly.
Add some remaining water until the chicken is immersed. Move the chicken around to distribute the flavors into the just-added water. Cover and place in the fridge for two days.
When ready to roast, preheat oven to 450° and prepare a roasting pan. Take the chicken out of the brine and place onto several thick layers of paper towels. Using more paper towels, pat the chicken dry, including inside the cavity. Do not dispose of the brine just yet. Pat dry a bunch of garlic (the halves might have fallen apart into cloves). Pat dry a lemon half. Put these into the cavity of the chicken. At this point, I like to tie the leg back so that the thighs are against the breast meat. I highly recommend this. Dispose of the brine. Never use it twice, and do not use any of the elements in another dish.
Cover the chicken with a thin layer of oil, and lightly season some dried herbs of your preference. Place the bird breast down on the roasting pan and place in oven. After about 15 to 20 minutes, when you can see that the skin has started to pinch and the oil sizzles, reduce the heat to 350. Continue roasting until a poultry thermometer reads the chicken as done. I check the chicken every so often. A certain aroma tells me it’s done. I also wriggle the legs. If they are not mobile in the thigh socket, the chicken is not done.
Allow the chicken to rest for 5-10 minutes, covered lightly with foil.