Monday, April 2, 2007

Perfect Roast Chicken for Imperfect Cooks

There's nothing like it: a tender, juicy, tasty roast chicken each and every time, like clockwork, no double guessing, no worries, very predictable, with all the trimmings, perfectly done, with potatoes and veggies, and I - Ordinary Cook - have such a recipe.

First, google: "perfect roast chicken". I got over 10,000 hits. There's so much perfection out there in Chicken Land! Each one incorporates a different approach. I tested at least 6 "gold star" recipes which claimed "perfection". Even the Food Network Gods, gold-plated actors with scripts - if they don't have a simple roast chicken in their repertoire, they're TOAST, in my book. And they don't. Each one gets something wrong they didn't warn you about. Even Saint Emeril the Bam-Meister. They don't get the herbs right either.

It appeared more often than not, the most successful "perfect" roast chickens are done at high temps for a short period of time like 40-50 minutes. The theory is that this seals in the juices and gets the job done with short cooking times to prevent drying it out. That isn't the entire drill though.

Trust me, 500 degrees for 45 minutes will serve up one HOT chicken (key parts at 190 degrees no less) with near RAW places inside. Why? Unless you started with a near frozen bird, there are two questions to consider, and you're not going to like either one: The first one is IS YOUR RANGE/OVEN FAITHFUL? and the second one is are you purchasing UNDER-AGE CHICKENS.

Your oven, my oven, the big question mark is your oven faithful at 500 degrees? Mine is rock solid at 400, even 450, but it sure isn't at 500. Like marital fidelity, a lot can go out the window under extreme conditions. Perhaps yours is faithful, but at 500 degrees, you have to tend things closely, expect "errors", and make allowances. Don't be too judgmental if there is a screw-up or two; if all this makes you think of trading in ovens, remember, they're mostly all alike in our "price range"... I tried this maximum of settings (500 degrees) in other ovens, and seems medium to low end residential ovens flake out at high temps. Okay, back to roasted chickens.

Any 500 degree roast recipe requires up to double the "Professional Cooking God" recipe stated times, unless you have a superb quality top of the line professional oven and sous-slaves basting to the crack of your whip.

I studied the one ethnic chicken dish that gets rave reviews the world over: tandoori chicken. I do not want lipstick-red tandoori on my dinner table (did you know the red color in tandoori chicken these days is food dye masquerading for special sauces?) - however, I did want the unbeatable succulence and whatever delicate taste I chose (thyme, lemon, garlic, rosemary) to survive the roasting.

The tandoori gets rave reviews because it is succulent each and every time. And so very tasty. Tandoori chickens are marinated in a yogurt mix without their skin, and stuck in a clay oven which can reach 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and faster than you can say " "high-temperature reusable surface insulation" they are done! For reference, the Space Shuttle tiles are re-usable up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, while average home ranges/ovens max at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

"A tandoori oven is designed to provide very high, dry heat. Fuel for this fire is provided by charcoals lining the bottom of the structure. In order to produce temperatures approaching 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius), employees maintain a long vigil to keep the tandoori oven's coals burning all the time. At such high temperatures, most foods cooked in a tandoori oven develop a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing moistness on the inside."

Hot and fast. The entire bird is done, no chopping into pieces or it won't work. That sounds like roast chicken to me.

Best Roasting Rule #1:
I went with the extreme salting and peppering inside and out, as much under the skin as you can get, and squeeze a lemon over it. Also, it doesn't take a Space Shuttle Scientist to figure out adding a bit of sour milk to the lemon squeeze would do wonders for the taste.

Best Roasting Rule #2:
Short of Space Shuttle tiles and a bevy of coal workers, I was going to have to figure out how Mr. Average Oven could be utilized to simulate 500 degrees. You might marinade things perfectly, but you might still be stuck in non-professional range/oven land. Locate the oven's thermometer.

If you review ovens, say at ePinions you'll see ovens first categorized "Below $1,230" to "Above 9,190", then by brand, by type (single, double, triple) and by "Energy Type" (gas, electric dual); Kitchen Ranges are "Below $740" and "Above $5,200" etc.

For yuks I selected one of the "most affordable" ones, from GE, and went to read the thousands of reviews. Not a single review actually spoke about the product (the range/oven itself). Instead, they griped about the stores they bought their item from. I chuckled at the litany of "rude", "scamster", "unethical", and then scolded myself, "Self, you are living in the kingdom of the corrupt, don't waste your time on the obvious". If a consumer wants actual reviews, a subscription to "Consumer Reports", or some such is the only way to "truth". When I believed in being a consumer I dutifully maintained such subscriptions. I was often quite irritated as "they" would ALWAYS omit from their reviews, at least two of the most or nearly most popular item in a category. So, I wouldn't want to subscribe and then discover for "Kitchen Ranges", they might have omitted "GE", for example.

Review of ranges/oven idea screwed, I am back to relying on my own common sense: The oven is supposed to get up to and hold 500 degrees. If it did not work once for you, then it won't work the second time. I located where the thermometer was placed (e.g., at the top left rear) and decided that will be the "truest" part, and kept turning the bird so every piece of it gets a bit of "prime time" at 500 degrees.

I did a baseline test for the first one: roasted for the "perfect Roast Chicken" recipe instruction that in 40 minutes it would be done. It wasn't - it was cooked unevenly - on top and raw underneath. With burned thigh ends.

OK. I put it back in, foiled the thigh ends, flipped it and decided it was done at 90 minutes. But by then it was so late in the day, I refrigerated it, and heated it up the next day in the oven, for half and hour. ONLY THEN WAS IT DONE!

However, it was very moist and exceedingly delicious. Something was up. It wasn't supposed to be this way, and I suspected the roaster had been chemically treated somehow, such as being injected with solutions of phosphates and flavoring compounds. If they don't "getcha" on the hormones, the Korporate Food Machine will "getcha" on the chemicals another way. More on that later, and if you think I'm being paranoid just keep reading.

I knew the very high temperature approach was the way to go. I ate the other half two days later, heating it up in the oven for 40 minutes. Again, I could not believe how moist it was. That is not supposed to happen, ever. This occurred even with a frozen chicken I had allowed to thaw thoroughly.

I tested various roaster recipes again. I changed the herbs and the timings and temps and performed proactive oven management and discovered:

Perform Pro-active Oven Management: Turn often - every 15 to 30 minutes, flip the bird once, let it roast for almost two hours at the highest setting of 500 degrees. IT WORKED LIKE A CHARM. As for basting, it isn't worth it and it's too dangerous to get near a spitting bird with your face unless you do this every day. You don't need to baste.

Oven at 900 degrees (just kidding) - 500 degrees, OR it's best shot at simulating that.

Personal Safety Check:
When playing with really hot ovens, pay attention to personal safety. Wear a pair of spectacles, sunshades or safety goggles when you open the oven, as the roaster will likely spit at you and you don't want that in your face. Wearing an apron is not an option, it's not about keeping your clothes clean, it's about protection. Make sure your hair, if you have any, is pulled back. Make sure you have several oven mitts, and sheets of aluminum foil out, and several kitchen towels available. Make sure you have standard safety equipment in the kitchen, a fire extinguisher, aloe-vera gel, and ice. Keep the cat occupied elsewhere. Make sure your kitchen floors are clean and dry to avoid slippage. Make sure your fan/range vent is on at least low. Make sure there is light ventilation in the house, and your smoke detectors are working but not neurotic. If it tends to go off toast bread on "dark", you're going to have to do get rid of it because it will go off on a 500 degree oven that is smoking a bird: the sudden, excruciatingly loud noise might make you drop the roast. On the cat. Make sure you keep a surface clear and with heat resistant tiles, e.g. half the range top, so you can place the roast pan on top for the "flippy-thingy" and testing.

For Chicken: A roaster that (1) isn't underage and (2) hasn't been frozen, or if frozen, the penalty is you have it thawed and marinated for hours. Marinate in salt and pepper with lemon juice and optionally, a bit of sour milk or yogurt only.

For Marinade: Lemon, Butter, Olive Oil or Sesame Oil, Rosemary or Thyme, one heads worth Garlic cloves, Bay Leaves.

For Trimmings: Potatoes, Carrots, Celery, Onion, Ginger (optional)

For time: Maximum, 3 hours start to finish, 1 hour easy, slow prep , 2 hours easy, slow watching the oven.


Do Trimmings:
Boil a large pot of water with onions. Peel large potatoes, and cut into quarters. Place in boiling water for 5-6 minutes, then drain water, leave spuds in pot, with lid on and shake the crap out of it. This will scuff them - giving nice chuffy and puffy roast potato skins.

Remove lid and the "mash potato'" looking stuff from pot and lid. Remove spud, and if you want coat each with some of the mashed potato-y looking stuff. Place these potatoes in a large oven roasting pan around the rack for the chicken.

Peel carrots, slice lengthwise, and cut into 2-3 -4 inch pieces. Do same with celery and ginger. Cut one large onion into large thick slices. Place these trimmings in the roasting pan and spritz with sesame oil and some soy sauce and brandy (or not).

Do Marinade:
Finely dice (I mean really tiny) about 8-9 large cloves of garlic. Place in 3-4 TB olive oil or other oil. Add chopped up rosemary about 5 fresh sprigs, and 1/2 as much thyme, a tiny bit of sage if you have some. Place all this in the olive oil, and add 1/4 cup of softened butter.

Do Chicken:
Wash and pat dry with paper towels. If you have a problem getting the chicken to stand while you prep it - get a clean empty soda can and insert into where you just pulled out the gizzards. But remember to remove it. Now you can coat with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, inside and out. Squeeze a large lemon all over inside and out, and save rinds to insert in cavity later. And, this is where you can mix the lemon with sour milk and rub in.

Using your hands, grab some marinade and coat the chicken with the oil/butter/herb mixture inside and out. Lastly, insert the bay leaves and the lemon halves.

Transfer the chicken carefully onto the rack inside the roasting pan and place in oven.

Roast for 30 minutes and check to see if you need to tent with aluminum foil, or if you should turn the pan around. (Some ovens do not heat evenly). If some part is getting real dark, tear off a piece of foil and cover it, the way they do women's hair in a salon when they are dyeing it.

At 45 minutes turn the pan around.

At the one hour mark, flip the bird over, and continue to cook for 45 to 60 minutes, total 2 hours. To flip the bird over, I remove the roasting pan carefully and quickly from the oven and place on top of the stove. I make sure both hands have oven-mitts, and in each mitted hand, I have grabbed a large square of foil, then I secure the bird with my foil-mitted hands and turn it over. With confidence. Then I return the roasting pan to the oven.

(The preceding is for people who do not have expensive kitchen accessories, and do not wish to have third degree burns while handling really hot stuff.)

Now turn the pan every 10 minutes for another 30 minutes to the 90 minute mark.

At 90 minutes mark, check to see if the roast will be done when the meat is pulling away from the bone, and the juices are running clear. HA! I had that happen and still had red and pink spots at some places inside. But is that really a sign of not being done? NOPE! If you stick a thermometer in at two places in the breast and see it gets up to 180 - 190, that mostly means it's done - or not?

When is is done?
If it looks a nice golden brown all over, and has clear juices, and it's at the correct temps, and you left it in long enough, and you cool it for 10 minutes and you cut it to the bone, and then wait a few minutes for any pink to turn, then see for yourself, only then is it done. If you do not have a meat thermometer, check this out: for thousands of years people didn't. They went by the other signs.

But what if really, you have all the signs it is done and you cut it and oh my gawd, it's still bloody and red inside? Oh the horror, the embarrassment!

This is where we have to have the sad little talk about UNDERAGE CHICKENS.

Here is some good advice on when a chicken is done because even when it is, these days you'll be cutting into the chicken and finding worrisome red spots.

"A more technical explanation of the "bloody chicken" phenomenon is
that chickens today are sold much younger than in years past. As a result, their bones are soft and porous due to lack of maturity. This allows bone marrow to seep from the bones into the surrounding meat, especially if the chicken is frozen and thawed. This can result in an undercooked appearance even when the meat is cooked to 185°F."

And even worrisome PINK spots:

"Regarding thigh meat, "it's almost always a little pink when you first cut into the joint, even when overcooked." But if the thigh has been properly cooked, "the meat will lose its rosy tint very quickly on contact with the air."

Be forewarned: The following can turn you into an instant vegetarian - I suggest you read Bloody Chicken by O. Peter Snyder, Jr., Ph.D. of Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management. He summarizes thusly:

"The retail food industry is being forced to sell grossly overcooked chicken in order to get rid of the red blood color around the bones. The result is chicken that is dried out, unappealing, and does not taste good. A counter measure is to needle the chicken, pumping in solutions of phosphates, flavoring compounds, and water, which puts pathogens in the middle of the chicken. If consumers were taught to eat safely prepared, bloody chicken, as they want to do with beef, they would be able to enjoy juicier chicken. This is an interesting problem for the USDA to solve. "

Then he illustrated that these chickens were cooked properly, and pasteurized but noted that a customer would likely call the Department of Health with a complaint if served these wings.

The spuds will have thick, crispy roasted skins, and the carrots will have shrunk to lovely pieces of carrot sugar; the onions may be black so give them to the person who loves burned onions, there's always one. I place the onions over the other veggies so it can drip onion on the veggies during the roasting, the veggies won't burn but some onions will, but burnt onions are my favorite part of any roast.

Pour a cup of hot water into the pan, scrape pour the drippings into a saucepan. Add some root (e.g., kudzu root) - a bit of soy, brandy, water, bring to a boil, and that's your gravy.


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