Brotherly Love: “Flat” Roast Chicken with Lemon, Thyme, and Garlic

Tony writes: When I started Cook Angel, I hoped to offer the kind of pared-down cooking advice your mom might give you over the phone: real-world troubleshooting, hyper-focused on what you’re trying to do and what you have. There might be no question more mom-worthy – more “what would mom do here?” – than how to roast a chicken. It’s a preparation every home cook should know: dead-easy, but also capable of impressing at most any occasion.

So when my younger brother phoned me last week about a roast chicken he was hoping to make for friends, I felt an electric surge to throw on the Cook Angel cape and go to work. And  when a wave of food magazines arrived at the doorstep with beautiful, trussed birds on the cover, my passion for one aspect of this all-important technique kind of boiled over (or started burning up, as it were).

Let’s be clear: I’m completely mad about roast chicken. Not only do I have this really beautiful vision that one day every man, woman, and child will know how to roast chicken (provided they like and eat chicken – this whole thing would be very voluntary, of course), but they’ll also learn how to butterfly the bird (so that the chicken roasts flat) so it cooks to a moist, juicy doneness every time.

Yes, butterflying or “spatch-cocking” a chicken does make it less beautiful than the trussed coverbirds. But it produces a better roast chicken in every other way. 1) Start with moistness and juiciness. The technique solves chicken’s greatest problem: its penchant for cooking unevenly (which can cause you to under- or, more likely, overcook it), a result of the great differences between the breasts and thighs. The lean breast meat is thicker but becomes dry if cooked past 165F. The fatty legs are thinner, but need to be cooked past 170F or else they’ll have an unpleasant rubbery texture. And because these two cuts are on different sides of the bird, flipping, or better, rotating, are necessary to even out the cooking (hence, why a rotisserie can do wonders for a chicken). Because neither you nor I have a rotisserie at home, spatch-cocking is the next best solution: the butterflied chicken roasts flat and cooks quickly and evenly with no need to flip. 2. Spatch-cocking also produces a more flavorful chicken. There’s a lot of good meat in the cavity which never sees the light of day when trussed. Butterflying exposes the cavity so it can be properly seasoned, roasted and then carved. 3. Butterflying a chicken also makes it easier to roast with vegetables. You can set the bird over a bed of vegetables or aromatics or both, so the bird’s drippings infuse the roasting vegetables and vice versa. But enough of the sell job; here’s how to do it:

My method

1.Buy a 4-lb bird: This size (listed as either a “broiler” or “fryer”) is just right by my count: large enough to feed a family, small enough to have a tender texture (the larger “roasters” – up to 7 lb. – can be tougher). Go local or all-natural if you can. Trust me, there’s a difference in flavor. And it doesn’t have to cost. Over the last week or so, Wholefoods has been running a special for $0.99/lb whole Bell & Evans birds.

2. Spatch-cock (butterfly) the chicken. The primary task here is to remove the bird’s backbone, which is pretty simple. You want to cut around both sides of the backbone and remove this 1-inch strip (save it for making a chicken broth along with any carrots, onions, celery, or herb stems you’ve got kicking around). To do this, use a pair of kitchen shears and, starting on one side of the tail bone, cut all the way up to the neck. Do the same on the other side of the tail bone and remove the backbone. Flip over the bird so it’s skin side up and press the breasts so they flatten. You’ll hear a little crunch which is just the rib cage cracking.

3. Rinse: There has been a heartening push in the US over the last couple of years by processors like Bell and Evans to produce air-chilled chicken. No need to understand the nitty gritty of it, just that air-chilling is a cleaner process. But no matter whether you’re using a supermarket cryovacked chicken or an “air-chilled” bird, it’s a good idea to rinse it of any funk from packaging. Just as important, make sure to pat the bird completely dry with a wad of paper towel. Any moisture left on the chicken will inhibit browning and the crisp, crackly skin you’re looking to achieve.

4. Salt (and season): Though all cooks agree that it’s important to salt a chicken before roasting, when and how folks think the salt should be added can be divided into 2 camps. There are those who like to salt the bird really aggressively both to cleanse and season it (almost like koshering a chicken): this camp coats the raw chicken with a good layer of salt, lets it sit for 20 minutes or so, then rinses with cold water, pats dry, and continues on with the roasting. The second camp (of which I’m a proud member) doesn’t go quite as crazy with the sprinkling of salt, but also doesn’t rinse this salt off. To follow my method, sprinkle the butterflied chicken with 2 tsp. kosher salt and any fresh herbs you have (I used 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves). Continue on to the roasting step or season the chicken up to 24 hours ahead and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator so the salt flavors the bird (like a dry brine) and the skin dries out a bit (which also helps out with the crackly skin).

5. Roast and roll: Heat the oven to 450F. Remove the butterflied chicken from the refrigerator (if you salted it ahead). Thinly slice 1 1/2 lemons (save the other half for squeezing after roasting) and spread on the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet or a roasting pan along with a handful of garlic cloves (still in their skin) and any sprigs from the thyme (see step 4). Lay the chicken on top of the lemon and garlic. Brush with some melted butter or olive oil if you want to help the skin brown (not necessary). Set the chicken on the middle shelf of the oven and roast, rotating after 15 minutes front to back, until it browns all over and registers 165F in the breast and 170F in the thighs when temped with an instant-read thermometer, about 30 minutes total. Remove the chicken from the oven, let rest for 5 minutes, then cut into pieces and serve with a squirt of lemon juice, a salad and a baguette or some grains.


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