The Whole Bird
I cooked a chicken and you can too, probably
by Aidan Morgan
We like to define ourselves by our accomplishments. But I think the inverse is just as true: so often, we define ourselves by what we haven't done. Sometimes these are things that we'll never do (smoke opium, go into space, smoke opium in space). Sometimes the items on the list are aspirational, ending up on an atrociously named "bucket list" (write a novel, visit gorillas, write a novel for gorillas).
But sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of something we never anticipated - tasks that seem perfectly ordinary but just outside our experience. Playing racquetball for the first time. Joining that Streetheart tribute band. Roasting a chicken. We ease into that Streetheart-free identity.
But then the Hutterites show up at the office with a truckload of frozen poultry. That's when we take the leap to redefine ourselves.
In my case, I was going to become The Person Who Can Roast A Chicken. Who doesn't want to be that person? "What are you doing tonight, Aidan?" "Oh, nothing special. Reading Herodotus, roasting a chicken to perfection, that kind of thing." "Wow, I wish I was a literary and culinary polymath like you." "Yes you do."
I was so convinced of my ability to become That Person that I bought not one but four frozen chickens. One of the birds I immediately gave away (thus becoming That Generous Person Who Can Roast A Chicken), which left me with three chickens on which to experiment.
When I came home, though, I discovered that I had no chicken infrastructure. No cooking thermometer, no metal picks, no trussing string. It turned out that I didn't even have a roasting pan. That flummoxed me. Weren't roasting pans automatically handed out to citizens on reaching adulthood? Aren't they included with your first apartment? Maybe another one at your wedding, just in case?
So I visited The Bay in the Cornwall Centre and discovered that roasting pans are ridiculously expensive at The Bay. I went elsewhere and found a nice pan with a rack for $40.
Then there was the matter of finding good advice on roasting a chicken. The Internet told me that I needed to truss the chicken's legs together. The Internet told me never to truss the chicken's legs together. The Internet told me that the Pentagon was staffed by lizards from another dimension.
In desperation I turned to Harold McGee's Keys to Good Cooking, which warns readers from the outset: "The whole bird is a challenge to roast." Basically, your average chicken is a labyrinth, and the minotaur of abject failure lurks around every turn. Cook the thighs to perfection and you risk an overcooked breast. Concentrate on the breast at the expense of the thigh. And so on.
McGee also litters the poultry section with repeated warnings about salmonella contamination and the horrors of eating undercooked chicken. At best, he implies, you will end up with a mildly satisfactory bird that may or may not kill you. And never, never truss the legs together.
Here's how I did it. Spoiler alert: I trussed the legs together.
If you plan ahead, you should have some kind of rub prepared. I used a miso butter rub (see sidebar for recipe), but you want something that imparts flavour and moisture while tenderizing the muscles. Okay, go and prepare your crazy rub.
First, wash the chicken thoroughly and pat dry. Don't make it dance or otherwise be your Sledgehammer. Make sure there's nothing in the large cavity. If there's anything there, remove it. Beware of any sharp little bones, because you don't want an open cut when you're dealing with raw chicken.
Then it's time to remove the neck. The neck is gross to look at, gross to touch, but you need to deal with the neck if it's still attached. Pull as much skin away from the base of the neck as you can in order to expose the area where the neck is attached to the rest of the animal. You will know this area when you see it because the gross-looking neck suddenly becomes gross-looking chicken. Take a large, sharp knife and make three cuts along the base of the neck, separating the neck from the connecting tissue. Then pick up the chicken by the neck and give it a spin. If you're a good cutter or vigorous spinner, the neck should come right off. Beware of falling chicken.
Now comes the part that can get you arrested in the southern U.S. You need to separate the muscle from the skin, and the only way to do this is to get your hands involved. Starting from the large cavity, run your hands between the muscle and skin. Go carefully so as not to tear the skin. Eventually you'll be able to access the breast, thighs and drumsticks. Once the skin is loosened, take your rub of choice and spread it around in there as evenly as possible. If you've done it right, you should feel ashamed.
Put a cup of water in the bottom of the pan. Place the bird on the rack, tent loosely with foil and roast for 30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Baste with melted unsalted butter. Continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Use your new digital thermometer to take the bird's temperature. Confusingly, the chicken is already at 170 degrees, which seems too soon. Baste with butter and roast for another 15 minutes. Try your thermometer again. Now it says 150. What the hell?
Call your mother. She doesn't know how to cook a chicken either, but she's good at providing wise advice in times of trouble. Wait while she finds several cookbooks, each of which provide contradictory information on checking doneness in a chicken. Hyperventilate a bit. You are a failure as an adult because you can't cook a chicken. She says to just go for another 30 minutes, then cut into the breast and look.
Take your mother's advice. The chicken looks done? Maybe? Pull gently on one of the drumsticks - apparently a loose leg means that the bird is cooked. The leg bone just slides out of the chicken. Screw it, this thing's done.
And that's how to cook a chicken. Save the bones for stock.