Cindy - Column for 10/19

Bork, Bork, Bork

Okay, so I've written a few recipe columns and have yet to receive any messages from people saying "I tried your pot roast and DAMN it was good!" so I have no choice but to assume I'm speaking to the wrong audience.

So I'm going to stop with the "good cooking tips to non-cooks" advice, and head straight into some of the intermediate material.

This time around, I'm going to share with you some secrets to baked chicken.

The nice thing about these ideas is they can all be done together, or they can all be done separately. Stacked on top of one another, all these methods make a damn fine roast chicken. But if you don't have time for all of them, any one of them will improve your basic baked chicken immensely.

Tip #1: Fresh chickens are best. That means buy one that has an expiration date of several days from now, and bake it TODAY. In a pinch, you can bake it tomorrow. Ideally, buy it from a Chinese grocer who killed it this morning, who will sell it to you along with the feet and head to prove its freshness. But for those of you who don't live in a major metropolitan area, second choice is a nicer grocery store with a butcher's counter. But your third choice -- the meat aisle at your local Soulless MegaFood chain -- is ultimately just fine, so long as it's still on the fresh end.

Tip #2: SALT. Lots and lots of SALT. Not after you've cooked it, obliterating the flavor, but before you put it in the oven. I'm not talking about "sprinkle your salt shaker over the chicken", I'm talking "rub whole fistfuls of salt into the skin." The surface of the chicken should feel like coarse-grain sandpaper before you put it in the oven. What does this do? I remember exactly two things from my 7th grade science class, and "osmosis" is one of them. The salt pulls the water out of the skin, to the surface where it evaporates in the oven. The skin gets crispier, and the chicken inside stays juicier. The skin is a little salty, yes, but if you're one of those people who tosses out the skin in the interests of health the meat underneath isn't salty, and if you're one of those people who eats the skin, oh lordy it's good this way.

Tip #3: Garlic and rosemary under the skin. Slice garlic thinly, and slide it under the skin. Squidge it around until you've got little dime-sized pieces littered across the breast meat. Then follow with a slim sprig or two of rosemary under the skin of each breast. These can take a little practice, but aren't hard steps. They just require a little more familiarity with raw poultry than some people are comfortable with.

Tip #4: Two small Lemons. Take two small lemons, and roll them around on the counter, or between your palms, until they're as squishy as you can get them without breaking the peel. Then poke them all over with an ice pick or a fork so they've got 20+ holes in the peel. Insert these inside the chicken's cavity. These provide both flavor and moisture to the cooked bird. Leave these inside the bird while you carve it, or if you take them out be careful. They can squirt a little, and if you think lemon juice in your eye is uncomfortable, try boiling lemon juice in your eye.

Tip #5: Take the Battery out of your Smoke Detector. High heat kicks ass when you're baking chickens. Screw that 350 degree shit, it's time to open up your oven and see what she can do. Most recipes recommend giving the chicken about 20 minutes per pound at 350-375 degrees. Take that up to 500 degrees, and you can cut that down to 12 minutes a pound. My interests here aren't saving time, it makes the skin crispier and allows the meat to remain juicy without being uncomfortably pink. But it will create a lot of smoke and the drippings might be a little too charred to make into gravy.

Tip #6: Let the baked chicken rest for a full half hour before carving. I know, you're saying "but it will get cold!" And yes it won't quite be that piping hot, steam wafting off the dinner-plates roasted chicken you might be used to, but it will still be plenty warm. It will also be much, much, much juicier than what you've come to expect from chicken. The basic principle is that when the chicken is straight out of the oven, cutting into it will provide an easy path for the juice to escape, and it will just fill up the reservoir of your carving platter (or spill over the side of that dinner plate you're using, you cheap bastard). If you let the bird rest, those juices will settle back into the meat. I often lack the patience for this step, but every time I've done it I've seen a clear difference.

Enjoy.

Columns by Cindy