It is 9 o’clock Tuesday morning and I am about to open a beer. Not be cause I want to, but because I have to. I really do not care that much for alcohol, but I do care about roast chicken. That is the truth.
Over the past two weeks, I have managed to overcome my anxiety and started working my way into the intimidating book that is Modernist Cuisine. As I mentioned before, this is a cookbook like no other. Flipping through the pages of the various volumes, I realized there is just so much I still need to learn – about ingredients, techniques, equipment and just about everything else to do with food and cooking – that I headed straight for a state of confused deadlock. I had to come up with a strategy, one that would allow me to engage selectively for only short periods of time with this tomb of knowledge. Thus, here is what I decided. First, identify a problem. Second, find an answer. Third, implement the recommended solution. Lastly, taste, evaluate and share.
Like so many other Namibians, I enjoy chicken. Roasted, deep-fried, in soup, stews, and curries – you name it. There is always a special little space for chicken at my dinner table.
Growing up, roast chicken was popular for Sunday lunch in our house. Mom would start early, before church, by seasoning the chicken. Then she’d put them on an oven bag, and roast them slowly in a low oven whilst the pastor did his level best to save our valued souls. Back home, she’d prepare the side dishes; finish off the chicken and at exactly 13h00 we’d say grace and tuck in. My silent prays for crispy skin went unnoticed and unanswered.
Since then I have cooked and eaten a lot of roasted chicken, and I said a great many prayers for crispy skin. When I got that, I realized I should have asked for juicy meat instead.
Here in lies the cook’s ultimate roast chicken dilemma: crispy skin with dry meat, or soft skin with juicy meat? I have tried my best and followed many recipes from cooks far more reputable than me. No consistent success, so for a while, I resorted to stews and stir-fries for my chicken fix.
You can only image how excited I was when the folks at Modernist Cuisine offered a solution to my problem. I just had to try it.
The underlying problem to crispy skin and moist meat is that the skin requires a much higher temperature to dry out and brown (crisp up) than what the meat requires cooking and staying moist. Thus, the skin and meat requires different temperatures for the perfect outcome. Other than removing the skin from the flesh and cooking the two separately, is there any other way?
Modernist Cuisine suggests there is, and here is how.
To season the chicken, and to keep it moist, they inject brine into the flesh of the chicken and let it hang for 48 hours in the refrigerator. This allows the brine to diffuse and skin to dry out. Rubbing the skin with seasoning, means effectively that only the skin will be seasoned, not the meat. Rubbing seasoning under the skin and directly onto the flesh, will dry out the meat over 48 hours, especially if salt is included in the rub. Thus, injecting the seasoning into the flesh solves both these problems. They cook their chicken in a combi oven, which allows for humidity to be introduced and regulated during the cooking process. However, unless you are Nathan Myhrvold himself, chances are you will not have a combi oven in your home kitchen. So what is the home cook to do?
Here is what they suggest. Make sure your chicken’s skin is dry. Then use your fingers to loosen the skin from the flesh, but please take care not to tear the skin or poke holes in it. (Note to self: next time you buy a whole chicken, make sure the skin is intact. Mine came with a nice tear courtesy of Nam Chicken but I had no time to change it. Bummer.). Starting from the neck or cavity and get your fingers underneath the skin. Make sure the entire skin is loose and hanging from the tips of the wings and the bottom ends of the drumsticks. It might sound odd to you, but I have seen Hong Kong chefs loosen duck skins by means of a small compressor in preparation of Peking Duck, a dish that is all about crispy skin. This allows the skin to dry out before the meat over-cooks. Take your time, but do it properly.
Secondly, cook the bird upright, not lying down. For if lying down, the bird will stew in its own juices and the skin will never dry out. Which brings us to the real reason why I opened a large can of Namibia’s most famous beverage at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. The chicken needs some upright, phallic structure if it is to roast perfectly. A beer can is perfect; and since I have received a special mold designed to cook “beer chicken” many birthdays ago, I considered myself especially lucky (find this mold hidden in a back cupboard was hard work though, since until today, I have never used it). You do not need the mold, only the can (and no, you do not need the beer either, so in theory you can use any clean empty can).
At this point, given that I have successfully loosed the skin and located a near forgotten object, I feel a little toast is in order. Cheers!
I did season my chicken by rubbing salt and pepper under the skin and inside the cavity, because I was not doing the 48-hours-brining option.
To make the bird stand upright, park it’s cavity onto the empty beer can and heat your oven to its lowest setting (mine is 60°C). This will allow the bird to cook slowly whilst the fat drains away allowing the skin to dry out and crisp up.
The solution to the crispy skin with moist meat dilemma is to cook the bird in two stages. First, long and slow (about 4 hours at the lowest setting), and second, high and fast (at the highest setting), to brown the skin. Whilst the first stage ensures the meat is not over-cooked; the second is all about the skin.
Although the cooking time is long, this bird does not demand much attention until the very last stage.