a home cook with notions & an appetite
When I first started researching go-to roast chicken recipes, there were many, many opinions. One recipe mentioned with regularity as a “go-to” for many people is the one that hails from the Zuni Cafe cookbook. And when I say “mentioned,” I really mean begged you to join the cult of Zuni chicken with a passionate fervor. This is a chicken that requires a 3-day lead time, but as I and all the others who fully endorse this chicken will tell you, it’s very little effort for a lot of payoff.
Does it beat the Tea-Brined chicken? Well, no. But it’s definitely moved up to second place. For test chicken #8, that’s saying a lot. In terms of what’s involved to get this delicious bird, it feels like cheating.
So what’s in this amazing bird? It’s crazy:
If you’re looking for more, read the list twice, because this is really all that it’s going to take to make this bird.
3 days ahead, it’s all about prepping the bird. I cannot stress the need to have a steady supply of paper towels enough for this. After trimming away the excess fat from the front of the bird, it’s all about drying out this bird inside and out. You’ll deal with more moisture in three days, so you don’t want to end up with extra. If you aren’t thorough, you run the risk of steaming the bird instead of roasting it which will mean you’ll not get that beautiful brown skin. Once I dried the bird, I did what so many of the birds before called for, which was opening the cavities that lie between skin, thighs and breasts and stuffing each of them with the fresh thyme:
At this point, I salted and peppered the bird. The cookbook recommends about 3/4 tsp salt per pound of bird – what I refer to as “liberal.” The salting is primarily on the outside of the bird, with a tiny bit on the inside and most on the upper, thicker parts of the bird and only a bit on the backside. The bird then went in a dish and I barely tented it with plastic wrap – I didn’t even seal it around the dish – and into the fridge the bird went for 3 days.
On the day of baking, I did bring the bird out about an hour early so the meat could come up to temperature. During this time, I was preheating the oven to 475 degrees on my convection setting. Want to know what a liberally salted dry bird looks like after three days? Here it is:
If you can’t see from the 2nd picture very well, the paper towels made a comeback as I dried the bottom and inside of the bird. Salt has this habit of pulling moisture out of things, so yay! more drying. What was the point of drying this in the first place? Notice how it’s not that much liquid? If I hadn’t dried it to begin with, there would have been a lot more liquid and the meat could have run the risk of simply becoming so waterlogged that drying the outside wouldn’t have helped.
I went with the cast-iron skillet as a cooking and had that heating up on the stove-top over medium heat. If you can’t tell already, this method will involve flipping the bird, so preheating the cast-iron skillet will help ensure that the skin sears instead of sticks. I simply put my bird, breast side up in the pan and listen for the sizzle before putting it in the oven.
As I mentioned before, I have the ability to do convection with my oven, so this makes the first 30 minutes at 475 much easier. It’s important that in the first 20 minutes that the skin start browning, but not charing. At the end of 30 minutes, it was time to set the oven over to regular bake (instead of convection) and to flip the bird over in the pan for about 15 minutes. I then flipped the bird over a third time (breast side up again) for about 5 more minutes to recrisp the top skin and to ensure the bird was up to temp. It looked like this:
The final step is to take the bird out of the oven, and to let it rest in a clean pan. You know, the rest that all the other birds take.
If it’s not apparent from the photos, what the drying of the chicken, the salting and 3 days in the fridge do is help create a nice dry skin. What the method allows is for the skin to brown and become taught which allows fat underneath to completely render and keep the meat moist. I usually say this kind of thing sarcastically, but I’m being sincere when I say this is sheer genius in its simplicity.
I suppose we should get to taste. Really good stuff. The meat is moist and the skin is crispy. It is, of course, a nice salty bird, and you do get hints of the herb in the thigh and breast meat. Outside of that, the reason for the raves on this chicken aren’t so much about the flavor of the chicken, but about the skin and the meat. I think the only way you could really dry out this bird would be to cook it for an extra half hour. This is also a great, crispy skin that you want to snack on right out of the oven. It’s not as evenly, picture-perfect brown as the America’s Test Kitchen chicken skin, but it has it beat in terms of crispy. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we really want?
So, if you find that tea-brined chicken too intimidating, but are still willing to put in a small bit of effort 3-days ahead of time, you too can join the cult of Zuni.