Why It Works
- Removing the backbone and spatchcocking (a.k.a butterflying) the chicken makes it easy to get perfectly roasted breast and leg meat.
- Skipping brining and basting helps to ensure crisp skin.
- Rubbing the chicken with herbs boosts flavor.
- Saving the chicken backbone means you can make a flavorful jus for serving.
Who doesn't love roast chicken? Crackly, crisp, salty skin. Moist tender meat. Deep aromas filling the house. Little bits of fat and meat to tear off with your fingers and teeth. It's about as classy and classic as food can get, and my go-to meal for company.
But to be perfectly frank, most of the time, I don't like roast chicken, because most of the time, well, chickens just aren't roasted very well.
The problem is one I'm sure everyone here has experienced: dry breast meat. And at first glance, there seems to be no way around it. With a chicken, there are two factors that inevitably conflict with each other.
- Above 150°F (66°C), breast meat dries out. Chicken breast meat is very lean. Looked at under a microscope, it's essentially a bundle of straw-like fibers filled with juice. As these fibers are heated, they begin to shrink, squeezing that juice out. Despite government warnings to cook chicken to an unthinkable 165°F (74°C), in reality, once you cook breast meat above 150°F or so, its muscle fibers are almost completely collapsed. Congratulations! Your chicken is now officially cardboard.
- Leg meat, on the other hand, must be cooked to at least 170°F (77°C). OK, that's a bit of an overstatement. It'll still be perfectly edible at around 160°F (71°C) (any lower than that and the abundant connective tissue will remain tough), but the juices will still be pink or red, and it will not have yet reached optimal tenderness. Unlike breast meat, leg meat contains plenty of collagen. Given a high enough temperature (160°F and above), and a long enough time (the 10 minutes it takes the legs to get from 160°F to 170°F), this collagen will begin to convert into rich gelatin, keeping the meat moist and juicy, even after the muscle fibers have shed most of their liquid.
So the question is, how do you cook legs to 170°F without taking the breasts beyond 150°F? I'm going to go ahead and give away the answer here: Butterflying (a.k.a. spatchcocking).
Why does this work better than any other method? Well, let's first take a look at some of the other "fixes" I've experimented with in the past:
Brining the bird (which we've already discussed in relation to turkey) by placing it in a salt water bath for a few hours helps a bit. It loosens up muscle fibers, allowing them to retain more moisture as they cook, and giving you a slightly expanded moist temperature range for the breasts.
The problem? Well, first off, it's fussy. Secondly, it soaks the skin right through to the skin,* ruining its chances of attaining crispness (and let's face it, what's a roast chicken without crisp skin?). It also tends to dilute the flavor of the bird. Not so bad for robust turkey, but mild chicken needs all the flavor it can muster.
*Bonus points for anyone who can name that reference. Hint: classic 1960s comedy.
Salting (or "dry-brining") the chicken is a better solution. It works much like brining does, but rather than use a water and salt solution, you instead rub salt directly onto the meat and and skin of the bird and let it rest uncovered in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight).
Initially, the salt draws moisture out through the process of osmosis. It then dissolves in this liquid, creating a concentrated brine, which eventually gets reabsorbed. So you get the benefits of the brine, without watering down the flavor of the chicken. It also doesn't saturate the skin the way a wet brine does. Sounds great, but it's at best a buffer, keeping the breast meat a little moister, but still far from optimal.
I've seen it mistakenly suggested that barding, draping the chicken with a fatty meat like bacon, or spooning melted butter or pan juices over the top as it cooks will help it stay moist. The theory is that some of the fat will get absorbed into the breast meat. Poppycock. That breast is shrinking, and it ain't absorbing nothing!
As much as I love most things wrapped in bacon, bacon makes the chicken taste like, well, bacon. And if I wanted bacon, I'd cook bacon. It also precludes the possibility of crisp skin.
Basting with hot pan juices not only increases the rate at which the chicken breast cooks, exacerbating the dryness, the moisture content in it (or in melted butter, which is about 18%), also keeps the skin from crisping properly. It's much better to brush the skin occasionally with oil (or rendered duck or chicken fat) as it cooks. This can help the skin brown more evenly, but it does nothing to increase moisture levels.
At the very least, if you're going to cook a whole chicken, you ought to truss it. What's the point there? Well, it plumps up the breast meat a bit, making it thicker. Thicker food takes longer to cook, so that keeps the temperature of the breast meat down a bit. It's the method Thomas Keller recommends, and was my go-to method for a while. But it's still not perfect, and I found myself often having to choose the lesser of two evils between dry breast meat or chewy thighs.
So far, all these methods are, at best, Band-Aids. They don't address the root of the problem. In order to perfectly cook chicken, you must find a way to cook it such that the breast meat comes to 150°F just as the legs reach 170°F. Performing fancy acrobatics in a roasting pan, such as flipping the bird (both figuratively and literally when you get splattered with hot chicken juice) three or four times so that the legs get exposed to the bulk of the oven's heat works, but there just has to be an easier way, right?
I've since switched over to butterflying the bird, and have always been impressed with the results, but it never occurred to me why it works so well until I accidentally burnt a tray full of breadcrumbs the other day. This is what they looked like:
Turns out that as the hot air rises from the bottom of the oven, the wide sheet pan creates eddies in the convection currents, causing whatever's at the edge of the pans to cook a little faster than the center. Now with a quick cooking item like, say, a cookie, this isn't much of a problem. But leave your breadcrumbs in the oven for a full thirty minutes, and you see it beginning to express itself.
Notice the center of the pan is much blonder than the dark, burnt edges? And notice how that blond spot is suspiciously breast-shaped?
Butterflying the chicken allows you to take advantage of this uneven cooking. By cutting out the spine of the chicken (perfect for making quick jus as the chicken roasts!) and flattening the carcass, you can arrange it in the pan such that the breasts lie right in the cooler center, while the legs sit closer to the edge of the pan, where they are exposed to more energy.
The result is a bird that cooks exactly the way you want it. Blast it in a hot oven (I'm talking 450 to 500°F or 232 to 260°C here), and you'll find that miraculously, the breast will reach 150°F (66°C) just as the legs reach 170°F (77°C) and the skin reaches delicious. No brining, no salting, no flipping, no problem.
Of course you do lose the prettiness of bringing a whole trussed bird to the table for carving, but you gain the vastly preferable prettiness of perfectly cooked meat instead, and that's a trade-off I'll take any day.
How to Butterfly (Spatchcock) a Chicken
Step 1: Cut Out the Backbone
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 the Chicken
Set the backbone aside for now, then spread the chicken's legs apart and flip it over so it is skin side up.
Step 3: Press and Crack the Breastbone
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
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 and finish preparing it for roasting as directed in the recipe below.
How to Make Jus Using the Backbone
Step 1: Cut the Back
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 2: Brown the Back
Heat a tablespoon of neutral oil (such as 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 3: Brown Aromatics and Deglaze
Add a chopped onion, carrot, and celery rib to the pot, and cook them until they're lightly browned. 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 4: Simmer and Strain
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 5: Season and Mount the Jus
Finish the jus 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.
1 large chicken, about 4 to 5 pounds (1.8 to 2.3kg)
2 tablespoons (30ml) light olive oil or other neutral-flavored oil, such as canola or vegetable, divided
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (see note)
1 teaspoon (5g) baking powder (optional; see note)
2 teaspoons (10g) chopped fresh parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, savory, or a mix (optional)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 medium rib celery, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 leaf bay leaf
1 cup (240ml) dry vermouth or sherry
1 cup (240ml) water
1 teaspoon (5ml) soy sauce
3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons (10ml) juice from 1 lemon
Place oven rack in upper-middle position and preheat oven to 500°F (260°C). Using sharp kitchen shears, remove backbone from chicken and cut spine into 5 to 6 one-inch-long pieces. Set backbone aside. Flatten chicken by placing skin side up on a cutting board and applying firm pressure to breastbone. Transfer to a wire rack set in a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Position chicken so that breasts are aligned with center of baking sheet and legs are close to edge. Drizzle chicken with 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil.
Combine 1 tablespoon (15g) kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, and 1 teaspoon (5g) baking powder (if using) in a small bowl. Sprinkle all over chicken. Sprinkle chicken with herbs, if using. Rub chicken to distribute seasoning evenly all over skin.
Roast chicken until thickest part of breast close to bone registers 150°F (66°C) on an instant-read thermometer and joint between thighs and body registers at least 175°F (80°C), about 45 minutes, reducing heat to 450°F (232°C) if chicken starts to darken too quickly.
Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil in a small saucepan over high heat until shimmering. Add chicken backbone and cook, stirring frequently, until well browned, about 3 minutes. Add onion, carrot, and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and deglaze with vermouth or sherry and 1 cup (240ml) water, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan. Reduce heat to maintain simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Strain out solids and return liquid to pan. Boil over medium-high heat until approximately 1/3 cup (80ml) remains, about 7 minutes. Whisk in soy sauce, butter, and lemon juice off heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove chicken from oven, transfer to cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest 5 minutes before carving. Serve with hot jus.
Adding baking powder to the salt used on the chicken skin will give you extra-crispy results.
If using a different type of salt, be sure to use the weight measurement, not the volume measurement.