Spotlight: Pasture-Raised Chicken


Chicken Brined, Butterflied, and Cooked Under a Brick

Brining is the most inexpensive and reliable way to go if you're cooking a chicken on the high, dry heat of a grill. Butterflying—or spatchcocking, a chicken is the best way to cook it quickly. Squashing it beneath a hot, clean stone or brick is even faster.

I'll start off by telling you I'm not an expert griller. If I didn't brine meats before throwing them on the grill, the end result would be expensive, pasture-raised cardboard.

Spatchcocked chicken is the fastest, most economical way to make the most of a whole bird. Since it’s flat, a whole chicken prepared this way cooks in far less time than a whole roasted chicken. And if you're using any marinade other than a simple saltwater brine, chances are you care about how many gallons of it you'll be pouring down the drain once the chicken is ready to cook. A flat chicken uses less marinade. 

1. to dispatch

The name spatchcock is jargon for ‘dispatch the cock.’

Grasp the chicken by the neck, breast-down, and take a deep breath. Use your best pair of scissors to snip through the flesh and bone to the right of the backbone. Go all the way to the nub of the tail, which I've just learned is called the parson's nose.

I always remove that parson's nose completely, because I heard there's an oil gland in there that causes off flavors. But I also know people who fight with their next of kin for rights to this particular cut.    

Slice away at the other side of the backbone until have in your hand a backbone with a little flesh left on it. Throw this into a crockpot with an onion, a carrot, some vegetables and herbs, and you’ve got chicken stock. Go ahead and throw in the heart and gizzard, too. Understand that your stock will recall chicken livers if you decide to include the chicken liver. 

Using a sharp knife, make a small vertical slit up and down the breastbone, just enough to make a dent in the cartilage. Flop the chicken over on the cutting board, and flatten it out, as if you were performing a single round of chicken CPR. There will be one last unpleasant noise, and your chicken will be flat. 

For grilling, I like to fold the wing tips back, as if the chicken were relaxing in a beach chair, not so much out of a sense of the macabre, but because this keeps the wing tips from flopping down between the bars of the grill and getting singed. 

Here's a good BBC video of the spatchcocking process.

2. to brine

I once took a two-day charcuterie class with chef Steven Grostick, and perhaps the most enduring memory I have of the whole weekend was his recipe for math brine.

In short, you note the weight of the meat you mean to brine, then figure out how many ounces that is. You'll want to add 2% of the total weight of sugar* and 3% of the total weight of salt to brine the meat. 

Whereas a 4 pound chicken = 64 ounces, 2% of which will equal 1.3 ounces, and 3% of which will equal 2 ounces.

Dissolve your 2 ounces of salt and 1.3 ounces of sugar* in a little hot water, then put the butterflied chicken in a suitably sized stock pot, and add cool water to cover, mixing in the salt and sugar solution as you go. This brine recipe is very forgiving and can be forgotten about in the fridge for up to 48 hours.

*If you avoid eating sugar, know that the sugar in the brine recipe doesn't penetrate far at all into the meat itself, but rather helps to encourage the Maillard reaction, which is delicious. (Sugar molecules are much larger than salt molecules. and they take days and days to penetrate a centimeter into the meat.

**Salt and sugar come in very different grinds. You'll get less of a coarsely ground salt or sugar into a tablespoon than a finely ground one, so take your chances if you don't own a kitchen scale. At my house, a 4 pound chicken requires 3 tablespoons of salt and 3 tablespoons of sugar, because the salt is a little less coarse than the sugar. 

3. grilling under a brick

When it's time to grill, I get out a cast iron skillet and a couple of rocks that live on the ground next to my grill. I turn the grill on as hot as it will go, and set the frying pan on it, empty. The grill gets hot, and I remove the frying pan, put the chicken on the very hot surface breast-side down, then set the very hot skillet on top, and add the rocks or bricks as a weight, pressing on the skillet which presses on the meat. Leave it breast-side down for about 5 minutes, then turn the heat down to low, carefully remove the hot bricks and frying pan, and flip the chicken so it cooks the rest of the time on its ribcage-side. 

Turn the heat down to low or medium-low, and set a timer for 20 minutes or so. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. You're going for 165 degrees. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before serving.