Monday, June 11, 2012

What's the matter, Colonel Sanders... chicken??

Why is it that I find myself eating more meat these days? Is it because I am no longer dating a vegetarian? Is it because my carnivorous friends are coming out of hibernation? Is it because I manage a grassfed meat CSA? Probably all of these.

I'll tell you, though I believe in -- and practice -- a mostly plant-based diet, I do love a good piece of meat. Take the chicken I roasted for a dinner party last night. Man, oh, man was it delicious. The trick, besides the pastured life the bird had lived in Berryville, VA, was the brine. Yep, salt water. Well, it's a bit more complicated than that, but not much.

What's that? You've never brined a chicken? Well, foodie though I may be, this was only the second time I'd prepared poultry in a brine myself. A solution of salt, brown sugar, water, and herbs pulled out excess moisture and sealed in the deliciousness during later roasting. Even in my markedly sub-par oven, it was... spectacular. The first time, I used lots of black peppercorns, a couple of cut up lemons, allspice berries, and a few cinnamon sticks. This time, I went a little more seasonal and local, replacing the citrus and dry spices with some extra garlic scapes and some fennel fronds I had lying around. Want to try it yourself? Check out these basic instructions, adapted from (and, fine, somewhat heavily editorialized):


Brining a chicken

  • Container large enough to hold chicken and several quarts of liquid
  • 2-cup measuring cup
  • Kosher salt (I used sea salt)
  • Sugar (I used brown sugar)
  • Black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 whole chicken (plucked, with giblets, feet, and neck removed)
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • Whole spices (coriander, dill seed, juniper berries, allspice, or caraway all work well)
  • Fresh herbs (a small bunch of thyme, tarragon, rosemary, fennel)
  • Peeled cloves of garlic and/or garlic scapes
Determine how much water you'll need. The rule of thumb is 4 cups of water for each pound of chicken. Add an extra cup or pint for any overage. (It's a good idea to test your container to make sure it will hold both your chicken and the right amount of water before you get underway.)

Measure out 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of sugar for each pound of chicken. (I know it seems like a lot. I was shaking my head the whole time I was measuring these out.)

Measure out 1/2 tsp. peppercorns per pound. If you are going to add one of the optional whole spices, use the same amount of spice as peppercorns. If you are using garlic cloves, peel them.

Pour the appropriate quantity of water into your brining container. (I had a ginormous stockpot on loan from my friend Jessica.)

Dip out approximately 2 cups of water with the measuring up and heat this amount of water in a medium-sized pot on the stove until it simmers. It doesn't need to boil.

Stir the kosher salt and sugar into the hot water until they dissolve. Add the peppercorns and any whole spices you are using. Then empty the cup back into the brining container and stir together. If you are using garlic, lemon, and/or fresh herbs, add them now.

Test the liquid with your finger. It should be cool to the touch. If it is still slightly warm, let it cool for 10 or 15 minutes, or put it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

Take the chicken out of its packaging (and remove the giblets, if present). Then rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry.

Ease the chicken into the brining liquid. Ideally, it should be submerged. If a small portion is not covered with brine, plan to turn it at regular intervals.

Cover the container and place it in the refrigerator. Allow to sit for at least one hour per pound, but for no more than 12 hours.
Be careful not to leave the chicken in the brine for longer than this; it may get too salty or become soft and mushy. Once this happens, there is no way to fix it!

Remove the chicken (and toss out the brine).

If you are cooking it right away, put the chicken on a roasting pan and pat it dry. If you aren't ready to cook the chicken just yet, let it air dry, uncovered, in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours or overnight. This will produce a crispier skin. 

Roasting a Chicken 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the chicken on a roasting pan in the oven.

Check the progress after about 1/2 an hour. If some parts are starting to get dark faster than others, cover them with foil and rotate the chicken in the oven for even roasting. At 45 minutes, start checking for doneness. An instant read thermometer is very useful here; cook the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees in the thickest part of the meat. (My 5.5-lb bird took about an hour and a half.)

When done, remove the chicken from the oven and let rest for about 10 minutes before cutting to allow the juices to settle. Like a steak, if you cut it too soon, the juices will all run out. Be patient, grasshopper.

Meanwhile, consider making a gravy with the drippings, or, as I did, toss some fresh asparagus in the roasting pan's drippings and put it back in the oven for 10 minutes or so. DELICIOUS. A bit luxurious, true, and not something to do every night, but darn tasty, especially alongside some cheesy grits. Ah, but I'll get to the surprisingly scrumptious parmesan rice grits in a future post....

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