When it comes to chicken dinners, there are two schools of thought. Some people, feeling no need to improve on “perfection,” are more than happy to eat crunchy Southern fried chicken or a juicy roasted chicken week in, week out. The other group, who’ve been making the same old recipes for more years than they care to admit, have hit what I call “chicken burnout.”
Whether you’re content with the status quo, would like to learn to make a better roasted chicken, or just want an injection of recipe inspiration — here's help in the form of a little chicken education and a few terrific original recipes.
Heritage, Organic, Free-Range Chickens
It doesn't matter if you’re preparing fried chicken or coq au vin, the single most important factor is working with the most flavorful and healthiest bird available. “Modern chickens have been bred for confinement to convert grain feed into fat as efficiently as possible,” explains Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill at Stone Farm restaurant and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm, in New York state. “Unfortunately, that equation leaves little room for flavor, which is why it always helps to buy a heritage breed.”
Because these birds are raised in healthy living conditions and given natural feed and fresh water and allowed to mature, they have firmer flesh and taste better. Breeds like the barred Plymouth Rock — the original chicken produced in the United States in the mid-19th century — and the dark Cornish are the gold standard, but they often cost three times as much as a commercially raised bird.
But if you can’t find, or afford, heritage breeds, organic free-range chickens are the next-best thing, says Ariane Daguin, founder and chief executive of D’Artagnan, the New Jersey–based game and poultry purveyors. “They’re less expensive than heritage breeds, yet better nourished and far tastier than mass-produced birds — and only modestly more expensive.”
To be labeled organic, a chicken must eat 100-percent-certified-organic feed (i.e., food grown in fields where no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or genetically modified organisms have been used for minimally three years), and it must be free-range, meaning allowed to roam outside the coop for part of each day. (The USDA doesn’t mandate for how long or in how large a space.) This is important, because exercise and scratching for food outdoors builds muscle, which is what creates the taste and juicy texture of these birds.
Another benefit of organic over conventionally raised chickens is that organic birds aren’t given prophylactic antibiotics to prevent the kinds of diseases frequently contracted by chickens living in crowded conditions. Research suggests that eating animals treated with “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics plays a role in human antibiotic resistance, a serious personal and public health threat.
Young chickens (often three pounds or less) that have been fattened with growth hormones or genetically modified feed may appear large enough to be brought to market, but they won’t have much taste or texture because they haven’t had the time to develop any muscle. Some mass-produced chickens are shipped in less than 40 days, but organic and heritage breeds are given 60 days or more to mature.
(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Great New Meat Alternatives)
How to Shop for Chicken
Avoid the rock-solid chilled birds you find in supermarket display cases. While the USDA allows any raw poultry product that’s never been stored below 26º F to be sold as “fresh,” when you buy a bird with ice crystals, they melt and that liquid leaches into the plastic wrapper — this represents a loss of flavor. Ask the people behind the counter whether the chickens have ever been stored below 32º F (a bad thing) and look for “less than 2 percent water weight” on the package label.
A good alternative is getting your chicken from a reliable local farmer, cooperative or artisanal butcher and asking questions about where and how it was raised. If they can’t tell you where the chicken came from, what kind of feed it had or how long it has been in the store, try another farmer/butcher.
Once home, store the wrapped chicken in the refrigerator and use within two days. Dan Barber says, “There’s no need to rinse it — it’s only more likely to contaminate your kitchen; just pat it dry with paper towels. When you’re finished, always wash your hands with soap.” Ditto for all knives and cutting surfaces. (The United States Department of Agriculture advises against rinsing poultry before cooking it. When you rinse raw chicken you're allowing the bacteria that is present on the surface of the poultry to spread to everything else that's nearby. Any bacteria present on the chicken's surface will be destroyed if you cook the poultry properly and thoroughly.)
How to Roast a Chicken to Perfection
Barber offers two options for roasting: “Either cook it at really high heat in the oven — about 500º F to 550º F for a really short time — until the bird is really crisp and golden brown, then cover it with a little aluminum foil and keep it in a closed oven until it is done; or cook it slowly at 260º F until done.” The meat is done when the juices run clear and when the meat is pricked deep in the thigh and the joint moves easily in the socket. At the end you can turn up the heat to crisp the skin a bit.
My personal system for testing doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer that gives a fast and accurate reading. As a rule of thumb, you want the temperature of the deep-thigh meat to read 165º F.
The (not-so) secret to a tasty, perfect roast chicken with crispy skin is to spatchcock the bird — remove the backbone and breastbone — then brown it skin side down for a few minutes in a hot cast-iron skillet, turn and cook it in a hot oven until done, about 50 minutes. Both the breast and legs get done at the same time and, by flattening the bird, you cut time off the cooking. Once you master this simple technique, you may never do it any other way again.
Once the chicken is out of the oven, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit down, and let both of you take a breather. It, like you, needs to rest. If you carve a bird right away, the juices will flow out and the meat will be dry. A whole bird can sit for 30 to 45 minutes; a spatchcocked chicken, 20 to 30.
Try a Thigh Instead of a Breast
No matter how you dress up a boneless, skinless chicken breast, it’s always a little boring — or at least dry. White meat develops very little intramuscular fat, and without the fat, there’s nothing to carry flavor. Like the best beef stews, lesser cuts of chicken are tastier and more succulent. That’s why they are appearing on many more menus.
Chefs and home cooks are finding thighs reasonably priced, and, for my money, they’re far more versatile. Cook them with the skin on (you can discard the skin later, if desired) to keep them even juicier.
I wouldn’t mind a chicken in every pot — as long as it's juicy, tasty and healthy.
Southwestern Chicken Sliders with Mango-Avocado Salsa
Succulent pulled chicken tossed with chile mayo and set off with colorful mango-salsa, lettuce and tomato makes tempting sandwiches for any time of the day. Half the fun is eating them. (Be sure to serve with napkins.)
Makes 6 small sliders
1 3/4 pounds chicken thighs with skin and bones
1 large clove garlic, minced
3 to 4 tablespoons Frank’s or other hot pepper sauce, divided
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 medium firm-ripe avocado
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ripe medium mango, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
6 whole wheat slider buns
6 small romaine lettuce leaves
6 thin slices tomato
- In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the chicken, garlic, 2 tablespoons of the hot sauce, the maple syrup and vegetable oil; seal and turn several times to coat. Refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes, turning once or twice.
- Preheat the oven to 375º F. Coat a baking sheet with vegetable spray.
- Remove the thighs and blot with paper towels. Discard the marinade. Season the thighs with salt and pepper and bake skin side up for about 40 minutes or until the juices run clear when the meat is pricked deep in the thigh or until an instant-read thermometer reads 160º F.
- While the chicken bakes, mix the mayonnaise and remaining hot sauce in a bowl. Set aside. Peel and cut the avocado into small cubes. Toss with the lime juice in a bowl. Add the mango, red onion, cilantro, oil and salt, and blend.
- Once cooked, remove the chicken and leave aside until cool enough to handle. Discard the skin and tear the meat into thin shreds.
- Open the buns and spread a dab of chile mayo over the cut surfaces. Combine the chicken with the remaining mayo, tossing to coat evenly. Divide among the buns, add the lettuce and tomato slices, and spoon on the mango-avocado salsa, partly closing the sliders before serving.
Burmese Coconut Sauce Noodles (Ohn-no khaut swe in Burmese)
Burmese cuisine is becoming better known as a result of recent political changes. To write Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Naomi Duguid spent months in the country on several occasions, combing the markets and visiting with cooks to learn the food and culture. In addition to stunning photographs, her book contains traditional recipes, like this sublime one-bowl meal that’s favored by many foreigners.
Makes 6 (1 1/2 cup) servings
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/4 cup chickpea flour (see Note)
4 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 cups minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 to 4 (1/2-inch) slices fresh gingerroot
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 pound dried flat egg noodles
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, to garnish
In a bowl, combine the chicken, fish sauce and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt; cover and set aside for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chickpea flour and cook it without any oil, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until it begins to change color, 6 to 7 minutes. If it browns too quickly, lower the heat. Continue cooking until light brown, then remove pan from the heat and stir for a few minutes to cool. Set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer. Slowly whisk 3/4 cup of water into the chickpea flour until smooth. Whisk 1/2 cup of the heated stock into the chickpea mixture, then return it to the broth and whisk until smooth.
- Place a large wok or wide heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the oil and then the turmeric and stir. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add the chicken and stir-fry until the pieces have changed color, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock, ginger, cayenne, and remaining teaspoon of salt. Pour in the coconut milk and bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until the oil rises to the surface, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the ginger and keep warm.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until tender, about 9 minutes. Set out six wide soup bowls. Drain and put about 3/4 cup of noodles in each bowl. Ladle the chicken and sauce over them. Add a few cilantro leaves and serve garnished with some fried noodles, sliced egg, and thinly sliced shallots. Be sure to squeeze some of lime juice into each bowl and serve with extra wedges.
Note: You can easily grind dried chickpeas into flour in a coffee mill instead of buying the flour.
Chicken alla Diavola
In this, one of my all-time favorite chicken dishes, I first spatchcock the bird — remove the backbone and breastbone — then marinate it in lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and red chile pepper for several hours. Both dark and light meat cook to juicy perfection with crisp skin, and the cooking time is shortened by at least 10 or 15 minutes. As its name implies, there is a devilish kick to this dish. Once you master this simple technique, you may never roast a bird any other way.
1 (3 1/4- to 3 1/2-pound) chicken
3 to 4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little to brush the pan
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Remove backbone and breastbone, but do not cut the chicken in half.
- In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the chicken with the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, red pepper flakes and salt. Seal and turn several times to coat evenly. Refrigerate for 5 hours or overnight.
- Remove the bird from the refrigerator about an hour before cooking and blot dry. Discard the marinade.
- Preheat the oven to 425º F. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and brush with a little oil. Lay the chicken skin side down in the pan and cook for about 4 minutes to brown the skin. Using tongs, turn the chicken over and transfer to the oven to cook for 45 to 50 minutes or until the skin is crisp and an instant thermometer reads 165º F when inserted deep into the thigh. Remove and let chicken rest for 5 minutes before cutting it into breast and leg quarters and serving it with lemon wedges.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.
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