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Humans have been cooking with hot stones more or less since we first learned to control fire. Before metallurgy allowed for cookware made of copper, iron, and steel, and even before anyone had figured out how to turn clay into earthenware, we were heating stones to cook on—and sometimes under—them. They were nature's griddles, broilers, water boilers, skillets, and sheet trays. In that light, the technique behind Italian chicken under a brick (pollo al mattone) is a pretty ancient one: Heat a heavy weight (whether it's made of stone, ceramic, clay, or metal), then slap it down on a chicken to sear it rapidly from above while it also cooks from below.
The method works whether you're cooking on a grill or roasting in an oven. What it delivers is a faster cooking time and skin so crispy you'd think it was glazed and fired in a pottery kiln. It requires the bird to be spatchcocked, which is done by cutting out its backbone and pressing it flat; this flatness is key, since we want the flat "brick" to make as much contact with the chicken as possible. Spatchcocking is a technique we recommend for just about any roast chicken anyway, even if you're not planning on using the brick. In Italy, the bird is usually marinated first with herbs, olive oil, and lemon juice, for even more flavor.
Working on this recipe came down to figuring out the two big parts of the process: the best way to marinate the chicken, and what gear you really need to pull the technique off.
The most common marinade for pollo al mattone includes olive oil, lemon juice and zest, garlic, red pepper flakes, and herbs like rosemary or sage (or both). I've seen renditions that stray from this basic ingredient set, but I decided to stick with it for this classic version. One thing I wanted to figure out was whether it was better to mince up all the aromatics or leave them in larger chunks. Mincing the aromatics would, in theory, offer more flavor by increasing their surface area, but it would also be more difficult to remove all those little minced bits later—which, given the high heat of this cooking method, could lead to burnt little specks that might be unpleasant. The alternative was to leave the aromatics mostly whole, just crushing or bruising them slightly to help release some of their flavor.
Side-by-side tests had me leaning in favor of mincing. In the batches in which I crushed the garlic and bruised the herbs, but otherwise left them whole, their flavor never really reached a sufficient level in the chicken. In the ones for which I minced the aromatics, it did, and my worry about them burning turned out to be pretty much unfounded: I just scraped the marinade off before cooking as best I could, and the few remnants that did scorch did no real harm to the flavor of the chicken.
The second marinade question to resolve was how to go about marinating the chicken, and for how long. I tried three ways: rubbing the chicken with salt, pepper, and the marinade and letting it stand overnight; rubbing the chicken with salt, pepper, and the marinade and letting it stand for 30 minutes; and dry-brining the chicken overnight with salt (to give the skin a chance to dehydrate, in case that led to superior crisping later) before adding the marinade and letting it stand 30 minutes.
That last option, dry-brining overnight and then marinating briefly after, was the most cumbersome and didn't produce better results, so that got crossed off the list. The remaining two options (marinating overnight versus marinating 30 minutes) produced remarkably similar results, with the overnight marinade yielding just slightly more flavorful chicken than the 30-minute one. This is in line with what we already know about marinades—they're primarily surface treatments that don't penetrate deeply into the meat. If you have the time for an overnight marinade, or just want to get your prep out of the way in advance, there's no harm in doing it, but you don't need to. Marinating for an hour or two will be more than enough, and even 30 minutes gets the job done.
The biggest impediment to being able to cook chicken under a brick is not having the brick. Or, at least, that might seem to be an impediment. But the truth is, there are many ways to do it. The fanciest-looking approach is to use a round clay or terra cotta mattone that's designed specifically for this task, complete with a little knob on top to help you move it on and off the chicken. The downside is that these can be hard to find, are pricey, and don't have much utility beyond this one dish. Staub sells a mattone alone, or as part of a set with a nice 12-inch griddle pan.
Another approach is to use actual bricks. You'll need a couple to cover the entire chicken, and it's best to wrap them in heavy-duty aluminum foil for easy cleanup.
When I used to cook in restaurants, we'd fake the setup using large aluminum skillets, sandwiching the bird between them and sliding a five- or 10-pound barbell weight plate into the top one to make sure the top pan really pressed down onto the bird. (Some heaviness is important to ensure even contact across the entire top surface of the chicken.)
Stainless steel skillets can work well, too, but in both cases you should make sure the exterior of whichever pan goes on top is appropriate for direct contact with the chicken. Plain aluminum or stainless steel surfaces are what you want, both inside and out, with no special finishes that might create problems. Cheaper is also better here, especially for the top pan, since you may blacken the exterior and scuff the interior (if you're using a weight plate).
Many home cooks already own a cast iron pan, which is another good option for this recipe: It's naturally heavy and seasoned all over, which makes the bottom exterior just as good of a cooking surface as the interior (assuming it's not enameled on the exterior).
Even before my testing, I knew all these methods would work, since I've used them all at one point or another. The question was, would one of them prove to be superior in side-by-side tests?
The good news is that the answer is no—every one of these setups works equally well and produces nearly indistinguishable results. What that means is that you really can make this recipe work and get the best results using whichever of the above options is easiest for you.
One big consideration before trying any of these methods is how heavy each promises to be. Two cast iron skillets sandwiching a four- or five-pound chicken is a lot of weight, more than many people are probably able to safely handle. The same goes for the aluminum skillets with a weight plate set on top. The last thing you want to do is drop it all on the floor. If you're worried about being able to lift it all into and out of the oven, your best option is the foil-wrapped bricks or the dedicated mattone, the two lightest of the various setups. (I should add, though, that my dedicated ceramic mattone cracked in half after its second use. I may have just had a flawed one, but given its higher price compared with the other options, it may not be a risk you'll want to take.)
Making pollo al mattone is incredibly easy. Get your bird ready by spatchcocking it and marinating it. Then preheat your oven and preheat your cooking equipment—that includes both the bottom skillet and whatever you're using on top. You want everything extremely hot so that the chicken sears from above and below as soon as you sandwich it between the pan and the top weight. If you're working over a grill, simply preheat the grill with the brick or other weight.
Make sure to grease all cooking surfaces (both above and below) before pressing the chicken between them to reduce the risk of sticking. Nonstick cooking spray is particularly helpful for this, since you can quickly spray an even layer of oil onto everything without having to rub it around with a towel.
The rest goes exactly as it would for any roast chicken: Toss it all in the oven, and cook it until it reaches 150°F (66°C) at the thickest part of the breast. In my tests, a four-and-a-half-pound bird was fully cooked through at 475°F (245°C) in just 30 minutes, about 15 minutes faster than one would expect from cooking at the same temperature without the weight on top. When it's done, the top weight should come right off, exposing some of the most beautifully browned, crispy skin you've ever seen.
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