Oven Roasted Chicken Showdown

A couple of months ago I saw the No Reservations “Techniques Special” episode.  As many of you know I thoroughly enjoy both the show and its host, Anthony Bourdain.  Obviously the show is enjoyed by many viewers and Tony has made quite a name for himself with both it and his writing.  While typical episodes show Tony enjoying the gastronomic offerings of specific locales, this episode offered basic simple cooking techniques that he felt everyone watching should master.

Several interesting things were presented in the show, but I was most struck by Thomas Keller taking a chicken, putting it in a sauté pan, putting sauté pan/chicken combo in a hellfire hot oven, and then removing golden roasted perfection 45 minutes later.  All he did was truss and salt that bird and exposed it to heat!  That was it! It takes me no less than two days to make a chicken and he had his hands dirty for maybe a minute and a half.  Watch for yourself here:

Now, I am assuming that most who are reading this have either cooked a chicken or have eaten a chicken that someone else has cooked.  From that experience, I am also assuming that you were left thinking that cooking a chicken was a little more involved than what Mr. Keller presented here.  Many many things went through my own head after watching this.  This technique was counter to so many things that I do to cook poultry but at the same time I was drawn to its simplicity and pure…how shall I say…chickeness.

I personally know people who do not like chicken or view chicken as boring.  To them, chicken is dried out economy fare that is commonplace at banquets and weddings in bulk. “Tastes like chicken” is never said with reverence.  Personally, I enjoy the taste of chicken and how well it can go with so many things, but in response to other people’s feelings of indifference towards chicken, I have gravitated towards a more involved cooking method that involves a bit more preparation but guarantees a moist flavorful dish.  It started with a Thanksgiving turkey (a bird even more detested by some) several years ago when I learned about brining from watching Alton Brown, but I now use several combinations of things I have learned to ensure that my bird will be moist and flavorful.  At the center, though, is brining and I now have a pretty set recipe for the brine that typically involves stock (I often make my own for it), fruit juice or sugar, salt and Old Bay seasoning. The brine gets made a couple days before dinner, the bird goes into the cold brine the day before, and just prior to oven time the bird gets rinsed, toweled off, and is given a luxurious massage with butter, garlic and herbs. I do not have a handy dandy video highlighting this process, but I can assure you that it would not be less than five minutes long.

It is, of course, always good to experiment and evolve with all things in life and not get set in your ways, even when you think you’ve got the best thing going. So, in this spirit, I bought two $3 chickens and set out to compare Thomas Keller’s roast chicken to my own. I tried his out first.

The first thing I realized is that Thomas Keller does not use the same chickens that I do. Well, I think I could even tell that from watching the video but I was sure once I started handling mine. I have never ever been told that it was a good idea to let your poultry get to room temperature before you cook it but I am guessing that high quality fresh chicken’s do not have the same problems that our grocery store chickens do. Also note how Thomas wasn’t shy about getting that pepper mill right up inside his chicken, that was either his chicken-only mill or this man has no fear of cross contamination. I was still a little cautious and only let my chicken get up to 50 degrees, which any winter time guest to my house knows is room temperature. Another sign of the quality of my chicken was discovered after I dug out its wishbone. I took that extra step, only to find that at some point, alive or dead, this chicken suffered a serious shoulder injury and had broken its wishbone. I wasn’t sure of the actual need of that step, but I wanted to try it anyways. There is some debate about trussing as well but again, went for it and was all set.

Wings folded back, legs trussed and neatly at home in a sauté pan.

I kept a thermometer in the chicken and only peeked in on it once or twice.  Thoma’s chicken was kept very dry and I was attempting to recreate this.  I quickly realized that there was a significant amount of dripping pooling in the bottom of the pan.  This is normal to me, especially with brines, and for the fact that in a roasting pan there is a rack to provide a barrier between meat and liquid.  Again, I blame the difference on Thomas’s probably-not-$3-chicken.  There was some large fatty bits I probably should have trimmed off on this bird to cut down on some of the dripping, but, I had never had a problem with it being there before.

That was easy.  Really easy actually, and who doesn’t mind a little pan drippings.

I will wait to give my thoughts once the second chicken is done.  Needless to say, I ate the first one and used its carcass for stock for the second one.  I allowed the second chicken to brine for about 20 hours and before it went into the oven I tried to get it as dry as possible and allow it to warm to 50 degrees.  I left the wishbone intact but trussed this bird like Keller’s.  At this point, I realized that I like the pan set up that Keller uses and plan to use it in the future.  I like the idea of being able to use the pan I baked in right on the stove for a sauce…it also looks kind of bad-ass, so it stays.  A word of caution however:  A frying pan that has come out of the oven does not behave like a frying pan used on the stove, especially in the handle department.  My brain is at times a rambling mess of ADD and actions happen without checking in and getting all the facts first.  This was the case when I went to move the pan from the cutting board to the stove and I just bare handed the oven-hot handle with a firm purposeful grip.  Rather than just let it drop, I held on and got that sizzling hot puppy back up on its trivet.  Dumb.  Trussed and dry, I treated the second bird much like the first, and put it into the hot oven until the thermometer read 170 degrees, but this time I was extra cautious with my handling of the pan.

The second chicken. Please note the presence of the 'Ove' Glove over the handle of the pan.

Even from the picture, you can see the first thing I see.  The skin does not look as good.  That is usually the case with brining I have noticed, the skin gets papery and tends to blacken a little bit.  Aside from that, the main difference was in the meat.  Thomas Keller’s chicken, in all honesty, tasted like chicken.  It was pure, honest to goodness chicken.  Its flavor was nothing out of this world, but it would be an easy way to make chicken meat that was to be used in another dish, but I do not think I would serve it as -is.  With all the more that went into it, I can easily respect that.

The chicken that I brined was different.  As my friend The Gourmand said, “It is the best chicken I have ever had”.  He is also one who does not really like chicken.  The meat is perfectly salted and seasoned and moist throughout the entire bird.  Is it better?  I guess I’m not entirely sure when I think of my desire to cook simply.  In addition, some people do not like brines as the extra flavor and moisture takes away from some of the chickeness that I mentioned liking before.  In the end, I guess I realize that neither method is perfect and so yet again, I adopt some of the methods used by a chef and add them to the ever growing complexity of what it takes for me to roast a perfect chicken.  I do not have to do it alone though.  Take your favorite recipes and try them out compared to someone else’s and get cooking!


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