The Food Lab: How to Roast Spatchcock Chicken (Butterflied Chicken)

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Video: Serious Eats Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Making a simple but perfect roast chicken is a technique that should be in every home cook's arsenal. But the reality is that perfection is difficult to achieve, especially if you're trying to roast that chicken whole. The problem is that chicken breasts dry out if cooked beyond 150°F (66°C) or so, but legs need to come up to 175°F (80°C). Spatchcocking, or butterflying, is the solution: By flattening out the chicken, you expose its legs to higher heat, helping them cook a little faster than the breasts—which is exactly what you want for juicy meat. It also yields crisper skin and a much faster cooking time than traditional roasting. In and out of the oven in 45 minutes or less!

If you want to read up more on the science of spatchcocking, check out this article. If you want to jump straight into the kitchen, just follow the video above or the steps below.

By the way, forget about expensive roasting pans. Not only are a wire rack and rimmed baking sheet cheaper and more versatile, they actually produce superior results by encouraging better air flow over and around the chicken as it roasts.

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Step 1: Cut Out the Backbone

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Cut out the backbone of the chicken by cutting along both sides of the spine using a pair of sturdy poultry shears.

Step 2: Spread 'Em!

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Set the backbone aside for now, then spread the chicken's legs apart and flip it over so it's skin side up.

Step 3: Press and Crack

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Press down firmly on the chicken's breastbone until you hear a crack—that's the wishbone breaking—and the chicken lies quite flat. If you'd like, you can also remove the wishbone by cutting it out with a paring knife.

Step 4: Tuck the Wings

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The chicken's wings are thin and can burn easily if left exposed. The easiest way to deal with this is to tuck them back behind the breasts. Transfer the chicken to a wire rack set in a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet.

Step 5: Drizzle With Oil

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Drizzle the chicken with a tablespoon of oil. This will help it brown more evenly.

Step 6: Season Well

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Season generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Step 7: Add Herbs, if You Like

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If you want, you can also add a handful of finely minced fresh herbs. For chicken, think "Scarborough Fair": Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, or a mix of them, all work well. Rub the oil, salt, pepper, and herbs evenly over all surfaces of the breast. Make sure to save the herb stems; you'll use them to add flavor to the sauce.

Step 8: Roast It!

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Place the chicken in an oven preheated to 500°F (260°C), and roast it until the coolest part of the breast registers 150°F (66°C) on an instant-read thermometer and the legs are at least 175°F (80°C). This will take around 40 minutes, but check after 20 to make sure the chicken isn't over-browning or singeing in spots. If it is, reduce the heat by 50°F, and, if necessary, use pieces of foil to shield any bits that may be getting too dark.

Step 9: Cut the Back

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While the chicken roasts, make a simple jus to go with it. Start by cutting up the chicken back into one-inch pieces, using those shears or a sharp, heavy knife.

Step 10: Brown the Back

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Heat another tablespoon of neutral oil (like canola or vegetable) in a medium saucepan until shimmering, then add the back and cook, stirring every so often, until it's nicely browned.

Step 11: Brown Aromatics

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Add a chopped onion, carrot, and celery rib to the pot, and cook them until they're lightly browned.

Step 12: Deglaze

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Add a cup of vermouth or dry sherry to the pan, along with a cup of water, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom. For better flavor, add a couple bay leaves and the stems from any herbs you used for the chicken.

Step 13: Simmer and Strain

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Let the sauce simmer for about 20 minutes, then strain it into a fresh pot, discarding the solids. Place the sauce back on the stovetop and let it simmer until it's reduced to about a third of a cup. It should have a really intense flavor by this point!

Step 14: Season and Mount the Sauce

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Finish the sauce by stirring in a small splash of soy sauce and lemon juice, along with a couple tablespoons of butter. Soy sauce will add some umami backbone to the sauce, while lemon juice brightens it up. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and set the sauce aside until you're ready to serve.

Step 15: Use a Thermometer!

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As the chicken approaches doneness, check its temperature regularly with an instant-read thermometer, and pull it out just when the coolest part of the breast registers 150°F. Let the chicken rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving.

Step 16: Carve and Serve

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Transfer the chicken to a cutting board...

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...and carve it by removing the legs and splitting the thighs from the drumsticks, then splitting the breast into two halves, and each breast half in half again, for a total of eight pieces.

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Serve the chicken with the sauce at the table. A nice simple green salad and some roast potatoes are perfect partners for a roast chicken.