I know of many people who are scared to prepare a whole chicken because they have no clue how, and then once they cook it, they’re afraid of the part after carving the chicken. Fear no more, I’m sending help!
Brine. Your. Chicken
Ok, putting your chicken in a brine sounds more complicated and more of a hassle than it is. What is a brine? So basically, there are dry and moist brines. Both techniques are used to make the chicken soak up water and salt to be more tender when roasted. This will take more time with a whole chicken; with chicken breasts or legs/thighs, brining will go faster. Basically, without going into too much chemistry, which I suck at anyway (I’m a shame for the family, my mother’s parents were both chemists), osmosis happens here. The chicken cells take up more water and salt, and once inside the cells, the salt makes sure that the additional water stays inside. Fact: the chicken stays moist and juicy and doesn’t get dry while being fried or baked.
With dry brines, you marinate a chicken in a mix of salt and herbs. The salt will draw out moisture from your chicken, dissolve in it, and then both the liquid and salt will be reabsorbed by the chicken. This way, the texture of the chicken gets more robust and the skin crispier. You can add any seasoning you want, like paprika, za’atar, coriander seeds, you name it. Just keep in mind to add around 1tsp coarse salt per 250g chicken. More salt than this might make the chicken too salty—dry brine your chicken for anything between 2 and 24 hours.
Wet brine means that you dissolve salt in water, along with spices and seasoning if you want. You keep your chicken in there for anything between 2 hours for small pieces to 12 hours for a whole chicken. You will need around 40g of salt per liter of water. You can also add a tablespoon or two of sugar, which makes the skin nice and crunchy and gives it a beautiful color.
Most of the time, I keep it simple, but sometimes to spice things up, I like to add peppercorns, bay leaves, chili, fish sauce, curry leaves, star anise, basically any flavoring I want. If you add herbs or spices, bring the brine to a boil and then completely cool down before adding the chicken. Boiling it up beforehand makes sure you get all those lovely aromatics into your chicken.
Keep in mind:
- The brine should entirely cover the meat. Either in a pot, a bowl, or a plastic bag. Cover it.
- Always brine in the fridge! If you leave your chicken at room temperature, bacteria will form, and we don’t want our chicken to get bad.
- You can also brine pork. In general, you can brine all ‘drier’ meats before cooking. I usually don’t wet brine beef.
- Don’t go over 24h with a brine.
- If you brine meat, add less salt to the marinade you use after, or you can end up with a very salty piece of meat.
- First brine, then marinade.
Unlike wet or dry brining, marinating the meat only affects the meat and skin’s upper bits and is used mainly for flavouring the meat. Marinating usually involves acid, which breaks down the meat’s proteins and makes them absorb the flavour. Don’t marinate for too long, as this can lead to the cell structure breaking down too much and your meat becoming mushy. Not nice! I like to brine chicken thighs overnight, so they get nice and tender. Then, I pour away the liquid, pat the chicken dry and marinate it with some fun stuff like chilis, onions, garlic, citrus juice, or zest. I leave the marinade on for, say max. 4-6 hours, not more. Even two hours would be sufficient as I’m only looking for flavour here. The brining will make the chicken tender; the marinade will make it tasty. Just make sure not to add too much salt to the marinade if you brined your meat before, as it might get too salty. You roast or fry the chicken along with the marinade. Don’t get rid of those tasty bits! In general, I like to throw things into a blender and marinate my chicken with that. You can blend anything. Believe me.
How to cook a whole chicken
Now that you know all about brining and marinating, I’ll give you a few ways to cook your chicken. Before doing anything to my chicken, I always rinse it under cold water and pat it dry. It’s ready to go.
1. Brined and roasted chicken
Take enough water, add some salt, 40g per liter of water, some bay leaves, let’s say 3, a tsp of peppercorns, and cover your whole chicken with that in a pot. If it’s not enough brine, fill up with some water. Cover, let stand in the fridge overnight. Get rid of the brine, pat the chicken dry, and put it into a deep oven dish. Add a bit of water and wine, or some veggies and oil, and roast in a 180C preheated oven. This will take around 45 minutes for a regular chicken. Make sure to pour over the juices now and then so the top of the chicken stays moist, too. Glaze the chicken with honey for extra crunchy skin.
2. Brined, marinated, roasted chicken
Brine the chicken, marinate it. Then: roast it, same as in point 1, adding it to an oven dish, along with all the marinade. Make sure to brush its top with the dripping down marinade during roasting, so it stays juicy and tasty. You can use anything as a marinade. Crushed garlic, ginger, coriander seeds, salt, some olive oil, and lime. Paprika, pepper, parsley, olive oil, and lemon. Za’atar, nigella seeds, tahini, lemon juice, and pomegranate molasses. Soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, lime, ginger, garlic. Endless choices.
Brine the chicken. Drain the brine. Cover the chicken with water. Add ginger, lemongrass, garlic, carrots, leeks and bring to a boil. Once boiling, bring down to a simmer and keep simmering until the chicken is tender like a baby’s butt. I’ve never eaten one before, but I guess that’s the texture it would have. Gross, yes. Take out the chicken from the liquid, dissolve all meat from the bones. It will basically slide off. Shred-it into bigger or smaller pieces. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil again, then let simmer until reduced and more pungent in taste. You can add some fancy stuff like soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, or fish sauce. Put back the chicken, maybe add some noodles or rice and enjoy your chicken soup. Tastes even better if you let the chicken stock rest in the fridge overnight as then all the flavors break down and get more intense. You could even stir in some coconut milk the next day. I even cooked chicken once in whey brine, used it for Tacos, and ate the remaining whey brine liquid as soup. Very delicious.
4. Shredded chicken for salads or Tacos
Do the same as in point 3, but instead of putting your cooked, shredded meat back into the liquid, add some homemade BBQ or tomato-based sauce to it and mix in. That makes the perfect taco filling. Or mix with some herbs and mayonnaise and add to a salad.
How to cook chicken breast
Those dry, dry chicken breasts. Apart from quickly wet brining or dry brining them and slathering them with a juicy marinade, I always do one thing; Heat a pan on medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil that’s good for frying. Fry the meat until golden brown and crispy from both sides, around 2 minutes. Put on a lid for 15 minutes and set your heat on low. DON’T lift the lid! After 15 minutes, your meat will be done, nice and tender. Only then you are allowed to lift the lid. For an equal result, you can try to slap the chicken breast into an even and thinner piece. A dough pin is perfect for that.
How to use chicken feet, livers, hearts
‘Eeeeew!!’ is something I might’ve thought some time ago when being presented with those parts of a chicken. I remember my mom cooking a Polish recipe, where you basically fry chicken liver with some onions, and I think you serve them with apples, too. Like, soft, cooked apples. The whole house smelled of this, and it wasn’t pleasant; I still don’t like it.
However, there’s plenty of other ways to prepare chicken innards. Making homemade chicken liver pate, for example, can be a lot of fun and is a must in a Vietnamese Bánh mì sandwich. Chicken hearts taste surprisingly well when marinated in fancy spices like chili, fish sauce, sesame, and ginger, and fried or grilled. In turn, chicken feet are a great source of calcium, collagen, and protein, and when boiled in soups, don’t only give all of these to your body but also make it taste rich and tasty. It sounds odd, but I try to make use of the whole animal if I’m already eating it.