Monday, December 5, 2011

Zuni Cafe's Roasted Chicken

I bought a whole chicken to roast for the first time this last week. I know that it's fairly easy to over-cook a chicken so I figured I'd turn to brining to ensure a moist roast chicken. In my search for a brine for chicken I came across something known as dry brining. Essentially, rub salt and herbs all over your chicken and let it sit in the fridge for a couple days.

In searching for dry brining technique, the Zuni Cafe Roasted Chicken was referenced over and over by other bloggers. I've heard that the Zuni Cafe, and the associated cookbook are phenomenal, so I figured this recipe would be worth a try. The recipe I used I found on the Smitten Kitchen. She has simplified the recipe from the cookbook to a more digestable length and her photos really do the food justice. She serves hers over a bread salad, which I am sure would be a delicious way to eat this wonderful piece of meat.

Frankly this is the best chicken I've ever made. EVER. Dry brining is only the beginning of it. Once you've let the chicken sit in the fridge for a couple days, you start the cooking process by heating the oven to a super high temp (475), and heating a saute pan on the stove (I used a cast iron skillet). Then, you sear the bottom of the chicken, place it in the oven, then let it roast up for 15-20 minutes. Then, flip the bird over for another 10 minutes, sear the breasts to get that beautiful golden color. Flip the bird back over and let the breast skin crisp up for the last 5 minutes of cooking. As you let the chicken cool, the juices will re-distribute in the bird, and make your chicken one of the most moist pieces of chicken you'll ever taste.

So while there's a little bit of work involved in getting that gorgeous color and the juciness that'll keep you drooling for days when you reminisce about the chicken you cooked, it is totally worth it.

Here's the recipe from Smitten Kitchen, adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
Serves 2 to 4


  • One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds
  • 4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • A little water

Season the chicken: (1 to 3 days before serving; give a 3 1/4 to 3 1/2-pound chicken at least 2 days)
Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.
Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Prepare your oven and pan: (Day of, total time is 45 minutes to 1 hour)
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (we used a 12-inch cast iron frying pan for a 3 1/2 pound chicken). Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

Roast the chicken:
Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Rest the chicken:
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. You can let it rest while you finish your side dishes (or Bread Salad, below). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Serve the chicken:
Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful. You can make this into a gravy, or save it for chicken pot pie or other uses. Don't waste this liquid heaven!

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