Chicken Skin

Crispy chicken skin.Really you shouldn’t end up with an excess of chicken skin very often.  The skin is a delicious and coveted part of fried chicken and roast chicken, and if it’s well-rendered it can also go into some cold, day-after preparations like chicken salad sandwiches.

But if you are shredding leftover chicken to make chicken noodle soup or chicken stew, you may want to set the skin aside for another application.

Here’s how to turn cold, flabby, leftover chicken skin into golden brown, crispy pieces of crackling. Line a sheet tray with parchment and lay out the pieces of chicken skin so they are flat.  Place another sheet of parchment on top, and then another sheet tray on top of that, so that you have sandwiched the skin between the trays.  This is just to keep the skin from curling up.  It may also help them cook evenly, now that I think of it.

Bake in a 350°F oven until crisp and deep golden brown with an amber hue.

You now have what are essentially chicken skin crackers.  You may be wondering what you should do with them.  Here are some ideas.  Crumble them onto soups, and into salads.  Use them as a base for an hors d’oeuvre, or as a crispy garnish for any number of dishes.  Mac and cheese comes to mind.  In my opinion the supreme usage for crispy chicken crackling is to layer it generously onto a tomato sandwich.  Spicy chili mayo, pickled red onions, and rocket can play welcome supporting roles in this venture.

A sandwich made with tomato, chili mayo, pickled onion, and crispy chicken skin.

Chicken Stew

chickent_stewUnlike beef stew, which I make from fresh cuts of beef, chicken stew is foremost a way of reclaiming and elevating leftover roast chicken.

There’s not much point in stewing chickens these days.  Old recipes like coq au vin are from a time when we actually let some of our birds grow old enough to be tough and require stewing to tenderize.  Basically all of the chickens that we eat now are less than two months old, so their meat is extremely tender.  Stewing these birds only dries them out.

However, if you happen to have leftover roast chicken, shredding the meat and coating it in the sauce of a stew returns some moisture and savour to the meat.

In other words I consider this a great secondary preparation.  Roast a chicken for Sunday dinner, make stock from its bones on Monday, have chicken salad sandwiches on Tuesday, and chicken stew on Wednesday.

Obviously the exact vegetables should change with the seasons.  Below is an example of a late summer version using corn, bell peppers, zucchini, and potato.

 

Chicken Stew

Ingredients

  • 75 g unsalted butter
  • 200 g onion, 3/4″ chunks
  • 20 g garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 175 g carrot, 3/4″ chunks
  • 100 g celery, 3/4″ chunks
  • 60 mL dry cider or white wine
  • 150 g red bell pepper, 3/4″ chunks
  • 500 g Yukon gold potato, 3/4″ chunks
  • 90 g corn kernels
  • 1 L good chicken stock (approximately)
  • 250 g zucchini, 3/4″ chunks
  • 400 g chicken, shredded or cut into 3/4″ chunks
  • 120 mL chopped herbs, ideally a mixture of parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • kosher salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Sweat the onion, garlic, paprika, and oregano in the butter until the onions are starting to turn translucent.
  2. Add the cider or white wine and reduce by 2/3.
  3. Add the carrot, celery, bell pepper, potato, and corn.  Add chicken stock until the vegetables are just, just covered.
  4. Simmer very gently until the vegetables are tender.  The potatoes will take the longest.  Add the zucchini for the last 10 minutes.
  5. Remove 500 mL of the stew and blitz into a smooth purée in a blender.  Add the purée back into the the sew.
  6. Add the chicken, fresh herbs, and vinegar.  Taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired.

Yield: about 2 L of chicken stew

Chicken Wings

Chicken wings straight out the fryer.Buying whole animals forces you to eat their various components in rigid proportion.

For instance, if you go out on a Wednesday and eat two dozen chicken wings, you have eaten the upper appendages of six chickens.  If you had to purchase those chickens as whole birds, you would then be stuck with a dozen breasts and a dozen legs that you would need to consume before you ever ate wings again.

All this to say I don’t prepare chicken wings at home very much.  But I love them, and sometimes I’ll squirrel away the wings from my chickens, accumulating them over several months, until I have enough to justify preparing them bar-style.

Anatomy of a Chicken Wing.  If you were confused by the statement above that each bird yields four wings, this is because we divide each of the bird’s wings in two: the first segment, closest to the breast of the chicken, is the drumette; the second, farther from the body, is the wingette.  These are the two types of meat that you get when you order wings at a bar.  The drumette looks like a little drumstick.  It has one bone through the centre, and the meat is on the pale, lean side.  The wingette has two slender bones arching within, and the meat is a bit darker, and for my money, juicier.

There is actually a third section of the chicken wing, the wing tip.  This is always removed in western restaurants, but is usually left attached to the wingette in Korean and Japanese restaurants.  If you think that the best part of the chicken wing is the crispy, tacky, saucy crust, you should consider finding wings with the wingtip still attached, as you’ll increase your crust-to-meat ratio.

Cooking Method.  Bar wings are made just like fried chicken: the meat is marinated, then dredged with flour and deep fried in oil.

Sauces.  Most chicken wings are then coated with sauce while they are fresh out of the fryer.

“What about salt and pepper wings?  They don’t have sauce on them.”

I’m going to pretend you didn’t just bring up salt and pepper wings.

Un-sauced wings are fine.  I like plain fried chicken as much as the next guy, but sauce is what makes chicken wings.  At the bar you can smell when the group three tables over gets their platter of wings because the air is redolent of the chili and vinegar in the sauce.  That’s what I like about wings.

My two favourite sauce flavours are “hot” and honey garlic.  You can make a fantastic honey garlic drizzle at home.  Just heat honey in a small pot, then add garlic grated fine with a microplane, some dried herbs like thyme and savoury, and a splash of cider vinegar.

Dipping Sauce.  Wings are often served with a ranch-type dipping sauce.  You take your saucy wing and dip it in yet another sauce.  It doesn’t make sense.  It shouldn’t be good, but it is.  A simple dipping sauce can be made at home by combining mayonnaise and sour cream, then flavouring with garlic and herbs.

The perfunctory celery and carrots seem like a clumsy way to add some vegetables to the meal, but they, too, are perfect.  A cool crunch between firey heat.

A plate of chicken wings, honey garlic and hot

Towards a Theory of Fried Chicken

Fried chicken cooling an a rack.Usually I don’t post about something til I’m confident I have a best practice down pat.  I have to say that there’s one important point in my fried chicken technique that I am waffling on: I’m torn between the winning flavour of buttermilk-brined chicken, and the superior texture of dry-rubbed chicken.

The Chicken.  Frying chicken is a bit of a balancing act: you want the crust to develop the perfect, deep golden brown at the very instant the meat reaches the proper temperature.  If you were to take an entire leg from a large chicken and deep fry it, the exterior would get much too dark by the time the meat cooked through.[1]

For this reason I like using smaller birds, somewhere around four pounds, and I cut them in the classic 8-cut style.

Brining vs. Dry-Rubbing.  Once the bird has been cut there are two mains methods for marinating it.  The first way that I learned is to submerge the chicken in buttermilk overnight.  If given sufficient time, the tangy flavour of the buttermilk penetrates the flesh.  It also supposedly tenderizes the meat, I think because of its acidity.  The next day the chicken is dredged in flour and fried.

Many chefs expound the dry-rubbing method, in which the chicken is set out on a wire rack, sprinkled with salt and spices, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight.  The salt works its way into the meat, and exposure to the dry, circulating air of the fridge supposedly makes for better skin.  The next day the chicken is dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour before frying.

This past weekend I tried these two methods side by side.

Dredging.  I dredge in flour spiked with a bit of paprika and dried herb.  I add only a tiny bit of salt to the flour because the brining and seasoning methods above have already made the chicken plenty salty.

Dredging should be done moments before dropping the chicken in the oil.  Shake excess flour from the surface.

Frying.  As always I will emphasize that you don’t need a deep-fryer to deep fry at home.  Any straight-sided, heavy-bottomed pot or pan will do.

Fried chicken is cooked at a relatively low temperature.  I heat the oil to 320°F.  The cold chicken actually drops the oil temperature to 275°F or lower, and it will take several minutes to recover.  Higher temperatures will darken the exterior before the meat cooks.

Even if the chicken is entirely covered in oil I flip all the pieces half way through as the downward-facing sides tend to brown faster.

Cooking takes roughly 15 minutes, depending of course on the size of your chicken bits.  I use a temperature probe and pull all the breast meat at 70°C and all the leg meat at 80°C.

The Results: Buttermilk Brine v. Spice Rub

Some succinct tasting notes.

Buttermilk-brined chicken.  Dark amber colour, actually a bit too dark.  Crust not perfectly cohesive? Tangy, well-seasoned throughout.

Spice-rubbed chicken.  Beautiful golden brown.  Well-seasoned but perhaps not as thoroughly penetrated with salt?  To me no detectable buttermilk tang, even with the dip before dredging.

No discernible difference in moisture content between the two styles.

They were both delicious, and I would be happy to serve and eat either.  The visual difference was striking.  Temperature was carefully controlled, so I figure that the extra milk sugars present in the buttermilk-brined chicken burnt.  Also I think that the extra moisture on the brined chicken caused some of the dredging to slide off during frying.

More work is required obviously.  Below is my dinner plate.  The drumstick in the background is the spice-rubbed chicken.  The thigh in the foreground the buttermilk version.  Accompanied by garlic mash potatoes and green salad.

A plate of fried chicken, buttermilk mash potatoes, and green salad

 

1. If you do find a piece of chicken getting too dark well before the meat is properly cooked, you can take the chicken out of the oil and put it on a wire rack on a sheet pan and hold it in a 250°F oven.  The meat will continue to cook and the browning reaction at the surface will slow considerably.

 

How to Truss a Chicken

Truthfully I never truss poultry.

The theory behind trussing is that birds, in their natural, irregular shape, do not cook evenly: the slender, exposed limbs, the wings and the legs, cook faster than the breasts.  This is true, no doubt, but the legs, made of dark meat, need to reach a higher temperature than the breasts to be cooked through.  By leaving the legs un-trussed and exposed, they reach their higher finishing temperature at pretty much the same time as the breasts.  For this reason the only thing I do to prepare a bird for roasting is bend the wingtips and tuck them behind the bird’s back.

At any rate, Thomas Keller holds trussing as a fundamental skill, so I thought I’d show you how to truss a chicken for the sake of completeness.  It’s very simple.

Position the bird breasts up, with the tail away from you.  Bend the wing tips against their will and tuck them underneath the bird, as shown below.

A chicken, on its back

Tucking the wings under the chicken

A chicken with its wings tucked in

Cut off a piece of twine roughly three times the length of the bird.  Put the centre of the twine underneath the tail of the bird. Draw the two ends towards you and cross them so that they pull the ends of the drumsticks together, like so:

Looping twine around the chicken's tail and legs

Tuck the twine back under the ends of the drumsticks and pull it tight around the sides of the bird.

Pulling the twine tight when trussing a chicken

Tie the twine together under the stub of the neck.

A trussed chicken

That’s it.  You now have a nice, compact, uniform bird.

Roast Chicken

Roast chicken drumstickCrisp, delicate, golden skin.  Moist, tender, well-seasoned flesh.  A whole bird, brought to the table and broken into pieces, distributed amongst the diners according to their personal preferences.  This is the beauty and simplicity of the ideal roast chicken dinner.

You can go to ridiculous lengths to roast the perfect chicken – (see the In Search of Perfection episode on roast chicken, which involves brining, soaking in water, scalding three times, cooking in the oven for five hours, then searing on the stove top…) – but with a fraction of the effort you can have mostly the same results as the most complicated procedures.

The following process results in by far the highest ratio of eating quality to effort.  All it takes is some planning.

Truly crisp skin is something of a rarity in chicken; the meat cooks so quickly that the skin usually doesn’t get exposure to enough intense heat.  To crisp properly, the skin has to be absolutely dry before the bird goes in the oven.  To achieve this, thoroughly pat the bird with paper towels, then leave it on a wire rack in the fridge, uncovered, for 24 to 48 hours.  This is the part that requires planning ahead, but it makes a huge difference.

This day-or-two drying also gives us the opportunity to season the meat, as well as increase its tenderness and moisture-holding capacity.  Season the bird judiciously with salt before putting it in the fridge to dry.  Get salt in every cavity and crevice.  The salt will penetrate the meat, almost as if the chicken were in a brine.

Usually at this point a chef would truss the chicken, tie it with twine to keep the legs and wings close to the body so that the bird cooks evenly.  While I do tuck the wings underneath the body of the chicken, I leave the legs in their vulnerable, splayed position.  The reason is this: The light meat of the chicken breast is best cooked to 155°F, while the dark meat of the legs is done at 165°F.  Trussing ensures that the breast meat will overcook before the legs are done.  Again, you can go through all kinds of trouble to try and correct this (applying ice packs to the raw breasts so they start at a lower temperature than the legs, cutting up the bird before roasting so that the breasts and legs can be removed at different times, and so on…) but leaving the legs to fall away from the body exposes them to more heat, so they reach their finishing temperature at more or less the same time as the breasts.

Since chickens are so small and cook so quickly, the oven has to be blisteringly hot for the skin is crisp before the meat is overcooked.  After lightly oiling the bird, I roast at 450°F.  Even at this temperature it takes maybe 30-45 minutes for the meat to cook through.

So simple.  So good.

By the way I stole most of this info from On Food and Cooking and The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

The table, set for a roast chicken dinner

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

It’s amazing how a dish that is considered boring, almost proverbially boring, can be so good when it’s made properly.

Yes, chicken salad is boring when you buy it in a tub.  But when you have the cold leftovers of a properly roasted bird, and thick, homemade mayonnaise, nothing beats the clean flavours of a chicken salad sandwich.

Sure, the chicken skin is no longer crisp, but it’s still tender and salty. Besides, the crispiness comes from the celery.

And the round creaminess of the mayo is spiked with raw onion, and black pepper, and vinegar, and herbs.

It’s good when the leftovers are as coveted as the original dish.

Leftover chicken

Making the chicken salad

The finished chicken salad on toast, with tomatoes and lettuce

Chicken Ballotine

This week I cut up a chicken from Greens, Eggs, and Ham. The bird was massive. Happily I was able to try a few different preparations.  First was a ballotine, which is a portion of boned meat made into a single, flat sheet of flesh, which is then rolled around a stuffing, cooked, and served hot or cold.  “Boning” by the way is the removal of bones from meat. The modern English speaker has extreme difficulty with this word, and so “de-boning” is becoming the more common verb.

Here is the leg and thigh:


To bone the meat, make a cut to expose the length of the leg bone, which should then separate fairly easily from the flesh.


Repeat the process for the thigh bone. The thigh bone doesn’t release as easily as the leg bone, so you’ll have to cut it out of the flesh. Also, there are several tendons where the leg bone used to be that should be removed. They look like shiny, white bands.

Save the bones and trim.


I made a simple stuffing of onions and celery sautéed in butter, with fresh bread crumbs and wild rice.


Traditionally, ballotines are tied with cheesecloth and twine. If your ballotines fit tightly enough in your baking vessel, they will hold their shape without string.


As a final flourish, I wrapped my ballotines in caul. Caul is a thin membrane with fatty veins, surrounding the abdominal organs of animals.  Wrapping meat or charcuterie in caul helps the food keep its shape, and bastes the meat as it melts during cooking.  (Update September 2012Sangudo Meats sells pig caul, though I imagine you’ll have to order it in advance.)


Cook until chicken reaches temperature and the skin is thoroughly browned.