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Ah, the roast chicken. Such a simple food with so much to teach us.
When I first started cooking, a roast chicken seemed impossible. Only for fancy people. Definitely not for the everyday cook, and especially not for me. Not so, my friends! With a little bit of knowledge, some salt, and a probe thermometer, you too can cook a perfectly seasoned, succulent roast chicken.
Let’s start with some science: brining.
What is brining? Brining uses salt, or a saltwater solution, to season meat from the inside out using the processes of osmosis and diffusion. Basically, the salt and water introduced to the meat are seeking an equilibrium, and in doing so draw the salt evenly through the piece of meat being brined. For more information, please see page 29 of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. Poultry is often brined because it is such a lean meat, and prone to drying out. A brine helps chicken retain moisture. There are two methods of brining – wet and dry.
A wet brine is a saltwater solution, often with other seasonings and aromatics, into which the meat is submerged and left for a period of time, often overnight. Osmosis and diffusion will distribute the salt and other flavors throughout the meat.
A dry brine is salt and other spices that are rubbed directly onto the meat, which is then left to rest for a period of time, during which the salt will distribute through the meat.
Time is the key element of brining. A rather long time is needed for the salt to dissolve into and disperse through the meat. It’s well worth the wait though. A brined chicken will always be more well seasoned than a chicken that simply has salt rubbed on it just before cooking.
But, hold on, doesn’t salt draw water out of things? Won’t that make our chicken dry and tough? Samin says it best:
Because salt also initiates osmosis, and visibly draws water out of nearly any ingredient it touches, many people believe that salt dries and toughens food. But with time, salt will dissolve protein strands into a gel, allowing them to absorb and retain water better as they cook. Water is moisture: its presence makes meat tender and juicy.Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat
So, for juicy chicken, brining is a must.
Now the question is: which is better for a whole chicken – a wet brine or a dry brine? To the test kitchen! I brined two whole chickens (giblets removed) for 24 hours. One in a wet brine solution, and one rubbed all over with kosher salt. I kept these brines very simple as I just wanted to see which yielded a better flavor, without too many competing factors.
For the wet brined chicken, I removed the giblets and put the chicken into my 6 quart Instant Pot insert. I then added 10 cups of water mixed with 2/3 cup kosher salt and 2/3 cup granulated sugar. I then weighed the chicken down with a plate to keep it submerged and put it in the fridge.
For the dry brine, I placed the chicken on a quarter sheet pan and covered it in kosher salt. I then slid the whole tray in the fridge and left it uncovered. Make sure your chicken is in something with a rim, as there will be some juices left in the pan.
After 24 hours, I removed the chickens, placed them on a half sheet pan with a cooling rack placed inside, and let them come to room temperature for about an hour. I then placed them in a 350 degree oven with a probe thermometer in the breast of the dry brined chicken. In the pictures above, the wet brined chicken is on the left, and the dry brined on the right.
I removed the chickens when the temperature of the breasts measured 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This is where things got interesting. I tasted the two birds, and then I had 2 blind taste-testers. We all agreed that the dry brined chicken tasted better. It was saltier and seasoned throughout. The wet brined chicken was fairly bland. Now, I’m not saying that wet brining is always inferior. I think there are some great wet brines and they definitely have their place in the cooking world. In this case though, the dry brine won. There was a problem though. Both chickens were SO DRY.
I’ve cooked a decent number of roast chickens in my day, but they have never turned out this dry. Usually I cook them with butter under the skin (which I will discuss below) and they turn out better. However, with nothing to hide behind, the simply brined chickens cooked to 165 internal temperature were…not that great. Dry, dry, dry.
I couldn’t share a recipe for a dry chicken with you, so a-researchin’ I went! What I found surprised me. Are you ready for a controversial hot take? Don’t cook your whole roasted chicken to 165 degrees. Pull it out of the oven at 145 degrees. Let’s discuss.
The USDA and the FDA recommend cooking chicken breast meat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the temperature at which all bacteria is killed simultaneously, pasteurizing the chicken. However, pasteurization is a product of temperature and time. ThermoWorks, the company who makes the best thermometers ever (not a sponsor, I’m just obsessed with them) says the following:
The FDA Food Code recommends cooking chicken to 165°F (74°C), but the pasteurization of chicken is actually a function of both temperature and time. If you can hold your chicken at 145°F (63°C) for 8.5 minutes, you can achieve the same bacterial reduction as at 165°F (74°C).Thermoworks blog
Obviously, I had to try this. Here’s what I did:
- got another chicken, removed the giblets, and rubbed it down with kosher salt
- let sit uncovered in the fridge overnight
- the next day, I mixed 1 stick of softened butter with garlic, lemon zest, chopped rosemary and a little pepper (this is called a compound butter – butter with stuff in it)
- ran my fingers under the skin of the breasts and legs to create a cavity, and stuffed the compound butter in
- let the chicken sit on the counter for about an hour with an ice pack on each breast. This allows for even cooking of the breast meat and leg meat. The leg meat needs to get much hotter to be delicious. See the ThermoWorks articles for more information. The chilled breast meat gives the legs a thermal head start, so by the time the breast meat is ready to come out, the leg meat is perfect.
- Preheated my oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Placed my probe thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and put it in the oven. I also put the chicken on a half sheet tray with a cooling rack to allow for maximum air circulation. I also did not truss this bird for the same reason.
- Immediately turned the heat down to 350 degrees. The initial blast of hot air helps the skin get a nice color, but you need a milder temperature to actually cook the chicken.
When the alarm on my DOT thermometer sang the song of its people at 145 degrees, I removed the chicken from the oven. Next I set a timer for 10 minutes. Remember, the chicken will be pasteurized if it can hold 145 degrees for about 9 minutes. 10 minutes later, it had not only held at 145 degrees, the temperature had actually risen to 157 degrees due to carryover cooking, a subject for another day.
This is how I’m roasting chicken from now on. It was delicious. My children were sitting on the floor with their plates, gobbling away because they couldn’t wait to get to the table to start eating. It. Was. Awesome. The meat was extremely tender, well seasoned, and nicely flavored from the compound butter – absolutely a winner. One thing I love about cooking is that new information leads to completely different food experiences. I had never had a chicken like this, and I eat my fair share of chicken. Try this technique and enjoy juicy, succulent, wonderfully seasoned chicken, white meat and dark meat.
- This may not be an appropriate cooking method for those with compromised immune systems. Also, my work has not been reviewed by the FDA.
- That said, no one in my house has food poisoning. The FDA and USDA have to be extremely conservative in their guidelines, for good reason.
- You will see some pink juices. Don’t freak out. This actually happens a lot more now at any cooking temperature, because we eat younger chickens than people used to. The bones are not always fully calcified, and it is actually bone marrow breaking down that you see in the juices. After the bird is done cooking, tip the juices into a pan for a pan sauce.
- The only way to know if a chicken is done is with a good thermometer. Seriously. Get one. It will change your cooking.
Say goodbye to dry roast chickens and try this method out! Let me know how you like it. Tag me on Instagram and Facebook, and share this with your chicken-loving friends! Tell me what you would like me to test down in the comments, and have fun in the kitchen today!
The Juiciest Roast Chicken of Your Life
- Probe Thermometer
For the Brine
- 1 3-4 pound chicken
- 3-4 Tablespoons kosher salt
For the Compound Butter
- 1 stick of unsalted butter
- 4 cloves of garlic minced
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 sprigs of rosemary removed from stems and finely chopped
- black pepper to taste
- The day before you wish to eat the chicken, take it out of the fridge (thaw in the fridge for 2 days if it was frozen).
- Remove any giblets left in the cavity of the chicken. Do not rinse the chicken.
- place the chicken in a pan (I use a smaller rimmed baking sheet), pat dry with a paper towel, and rub the kosher salt all over the outside of the chicken.
- put the salted chicken back in the fridge for 12-24 hours.
- Make the compound butter by mixing the butter, garlic, lemon zest, rosemary and pepper in a small bowl. This can be done the day before and either be left on the counter or put in the fridge, just let it come up to room temperature before you take the chicken out of the fridge.
- The next day, remove the chicken from the fridge. Place two baggies full of ice on the breasts, and let the legs come up to room temperature for about an hour.
- Remove the ice packs.
- Run your finger under the skin of the breasts and legs, creating pockets for the butter. There will probably be a membrane you will need to break through. This is normal, just be careful not to break the skin.
- With your fingers, push as much compound butter as you can into the pockets you created under the skin.
- Place chicken on a metal cooling rack sitting inside a rimmed baking sheet, oriented so the legs will be pointing to the back of the oven. This is usually the hottest part of the oven.
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
- Place your probe thermometer into the center of one of the chicken breasts.
- Put the chicken in the oven, and immediately turn down the temperature to 350 degrees.
- Bake until the thermometer registers 145 degrees in the breast.
- Take the chicken out of the oven ad let rest for 30 minutes. The temperature should rise by 10-15 degrees. As long as it stays at or above 145 degrees for 9 minutes, it is safe to eat.
- Carve and serve.