Number 1 “Roasting Those Birds” December 26th, 2001
So, there was this chicken see…
Did you ever wonder if all chicken tastes the same? I used to hear people talk about free range birds and kosher birds, but I always figured a chicken's just a chicken -- any difference in taste is determined by what happens in the kitchen. How much better can one be over the other anyway? Well, I happened to be in Trader Joe's a few weeks ago and they had Empire Kosher chickens in stock. These were 3½ to 4 pound birds cut into eight pieces. At over $2 per pound, they were certainly more than I was used to paying for supermarket birds and a bit more than the name brand birds like Purdue or Tyson, but I decided to give them a try.
I knew from experience that brining (a topic for another newsletter) can transform poultry and pork into juicy, flavorful delights, and a kosher bird is one that is pre-brined. By that I mean that the birds are packed in salt for a few hours after being killed and dressed in order to draw some of the blood out of the bird. This process yields a result similar to brining. Beyond the brining, the birds are free range and are fed only the finest grains.
The weather was still warm enough for grilling, so I marinated the chicken in my special marinade and mopping sauce, grilled them and served them straight up without any finishing sauce to get in the way of the bird's own flavor. Let me tell you, it was like I had never eaten chicken before, honestly! And it wasn't just me! Family and guests alike all agreed it was really something. To top it all off, a recent edition of Cook's Illustrated just completed a survey of American poultry and came to the exact same conclusion! So, I can't recommend strongly enough that you give these a try. If you don't have a Trader Joe's in your area, and your market doesn't carry them, talk to the manager in the meat department and suggest they start stocking Empire Kosher Chickens.
I know I should have published this information before the holidays rather than after, but it was pretty hectic around the homestead. Anyway better late than never – I hope this helps the next time your dinner goes a-fowl. J
Poultry doneness can be a confusing topic because there are so many opinions as to "when the bird is done." Sources can range from Grandma ("When the leg moves and the juices run clear"), to antique cookbooks which generally advise cooking all poultry and pork until it resembles shoe leather, to modern cooking sources where the recommended temperature can swing up to 15 degrees depending on which one you reference. Even reputable cooking magazines can offer up poultry recipes that seem to contradict each other.
The difference between the recommended temperatures in some recipes is likely due to the method of roasting. If the bird is roasted at a low temperature (200-250 degrees), the dark meat can reach 175 to 180 degrees and not be overdone, as the meat is evenly and slowly cooked. This is an ideal way to ensure tender, juicy meat and a uniformity of doneness. In fact this is one of the primary secrets of barbecue –- cooking low and slow, as they say, can turn the toughest cuts into tender ones. So why not cook the bird this way? Because most people like dark crispy skin on their birds and you won’t get it in a 250 degree oven.
Conversely, if the bird is roasted at very high temperatures, the outer portion of the breast will be overdone and dry while the dark meat temperature is a mere 160 degrees. The bottom line is that you have to have enough heat to kill the baddies (which tend to die at around 140 degrees or so) and crisp the skin, but not so much that the meat dries out. This is compounded by the fact that white meat dries out faster than the fattier dark meats so that even on the same bird the doneness criteria are not the same.
Is the bird done yet?
The ranges given below should ensure that you get tender, moist meat that is free of any harmful bacteria. Within these ranges it becomes a matter of your personal preference -- a little experience will guide you to the perfect doneness criteria for you.
When using a thermometer to judge poultry doneness, it is important to insert the thermometer in the proper place in the bird. There are two options for placement:
For smaller birds and pieces, a sharp, thin paring knife is
one of the best tools for testing doneness. For grilled quail, chicken thighs,
drumsticks, roasting chickens and duck legs insert the knife into the meat at
the thickest part. When the knife slides through like a cooked potato, without
effort or resistance, the meat is done. If there is any springiness or rubbery
texture it is undercooked.
For breast meat, before the knife test, use the flat of the fingertip to test. When the meat is firm it is cooked. Duck cooks much more quickly than chicken or turkey and is preferred rare like a meat. Once the breast is cooked, it should rest before slicing or serving to relax and set the juices.
As for judging by looking at the juices (Grandma’s method), the COLOR of juices is not an indicator but CLARITY of juice will help determine if the bird is done. Raw meat yields cloudy juice and when cooked turns clear. Since free-range birds or young birds often have pink tinted juices, they will never become clear during cooking, only change from cloudy to pink-clear. Meat near the bone often looks bloody with fresh or young chickens; the hemoglobin seeps out of the tender bones. It is perfectly safe to eat.
Whatever you do, don't overcook -- always anticipate internal temperature gains of 5 – 10 degrees after cooking.
Okay. So if different parts of the bird cook at different rates, how do we ensure even doneness while getting that nice crispy skin? Basically, as Mom used to say, there are more ways than you can shake a stick at, but I’m going to pass along two that have worked very well for me.
Roasting at 375 degrees will give you nice crispy skin, so will 400 degrees but you’ll need to adjust the times below accordingly. For a regular 3½ pound chicken you’ll want to roast the bird first on its side (wing up) for about 20 minutes – using a V-rack makes this much easier. Then flip it over and roast with the other wing up for 20 minutes. Lastly, turn it so the breast is up and roast an additional 10 – 20 minutes, or until the temperature range in the chart above has been reached. Needless to say, a larger bird (like a Purdue oven stuffer for example) will take a little longer on each side and you’ll need to adjust the time for the amount of crispiness you want in the skin.
For a turkey, say 13-14 pounds, you’ll need to adjust things a bit to accommodate the longer cooking times. Start the bird out breast side down and cook about 45 minutes. Then do each wing up for about 15 minutes each, and lastly, breast side up for about another 30 – 45 minutes. Again, test with an instant read thermometer as instructed above.
In the last stage for both the chicken and the turkey you may want to baste the breast to aid in the browning and crisping. You could baste with butter or a combination of broth and soy sauce. Both will add nice color to the bird.
Butterflying the bird allows you to expose the legs, wings and breast equally during the cooking process. It involves removing the backbone and splaying the bird flat. Once the bird goes into the oven, you can mingle until it’s done without worrying about flipping it every few minutes.
Place the bird on
cutting board breast side down with legs pointing towards you.
Using kitchen shears, make a cut in the bird about 1-2 inches from the center of
the backbone. Continue cutting all the way up the backbone until it is
completely severed. Now repeat on the other side of the backbone.
When finished with both cuts the backbone will lift out and may be discarded or
used for stock.
Turn the bird over
onto it's back with legs pointing away from you. With the palm of
your hand placed firmly on the chicken's breast push down.
The bird will "butterfly" as the legs open out to either side.
The whole outside of the chicken should now be facing up - breast in the middle
with the legs splayed out to each side. Place
on flat rack in roasting pan and proceed as normal.
At 375 degrees, a
3–4 pound chicken will take about 45 minutes or so. Once again, basting towards the end will help the browning
process. Roasting this way, the
legs and the breast should be the proper temperature at the same time.
There are other approaches as well. You can buy roasting racks that allow the bird to stand on end thus exposing it equally to the heat without butterflying, and there are rotisseries that rotate the bird on a spit. The thing to remember is that poultry, chickens and turkeys in particular, will not cook evenly without using a little creativity – play around with methods, temperatures and basting sauces, and before you know it you’ll hit on the perfect technique for you.
That’s it for now. I hope this first edition of my newsletter is useful, but if not, what the heck, it’s free. J If you have any questions or comments or suggestions for future topics please drop me a line at BigDaddy@BigDaddysKitchen.com -- and don’t forget to drop by the kitchen to see what’s new.
In closing let me say that when compiling this information I relied on many sources: trusted cookbooks, my good friends on internet cooking forums and of course the terrific cooks in my family; but, as with the recipes on my web site, everything here is tried and true. If I suggest a method or pass on a piece of information, you can be sure that I’ve tried it personally and it works as claimed.