Spatchcocked Chicken: A cooking methods review
Abstract: Cooking a whole chicken can be intimidating and time-consuming, causing inexperienced home cooks to be fearful to attempt such culinary applications. The authors propose that spatchcocking a chicken to flatten the carcass is an expedient method with which to prepare fowl for cooking. The favoured method of cooking described in this article is oven roasting of the spatchcocked chicken in a cast iron pan.
In an informal survey performed by the authors, only roughly 15% of Montreal Plateau inhabitants felt capable of roasting a chicken without supervision. Many home cooks experienced feelings of consternation and/or distress and anxiety when faced with whole poultry preparation. This anxiety stems principally from a fear of enteritis salmonellosis caused by Salmonella, a gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria. This bacteria can cause a zoonotic infection, meaning although the host is often poultry, it can infect humans who consume the poultry. Luckily, Salmonella can be destroyed through the application of heat. If the medium hosting the bacteria, in this case poultry, can be heated to an internal temperature of 155°F, the bacteria will be destroyed therefore ensuring proper cooking time is key to alleviating this fear.
In it’s intact form, whole chicken consists of the body with wings and legs attached which forms a hollow cavity by way of the rib cage, backbone, and sternum. Such a formation requires that heat penetrate the chicken from the outside as well as the inside (hollow cavity) to properly cook the meat and destroy any bacteria present. The dual-penetration of heat necessary can take long incubation times in the oven which make cooking whole poultry at home time-consuming and therefore undesirable to the home cook. To this end, the authors propose spatchcocking of the chicken body to create rapid incubation time.
Spatchcocking is a method to dispatch of the hollow internal cavity of the chicken, rendering it into a flat, two-sided piece of meat. Although spatchcocking can be done at the point of sale of the poultry (butcher, grocer, etc.), it is a simple task that requires minimal equipment and skill. In a spatchcocked chicken, the spinal cord has been removed. This allows the cook to open the carcass and crack the sternum to fully flatten the breasts. The flattened carcass now has maximal surface area which can be in contact with various implements of heat such as a cooking vessel or grill.
The authors feel that the best vessel in which to heat the spatchcocked chicken is a cast iron pan. As the name implies, a cast iron pan is formed by iron, melted and cast into an appropriate shape. The iron is then coated in thin layers of plant or animal fats and heated to “season” the pan. The fats, which consist partially of long chains of carbon, heat in the oven and undergo polymerization of the of the carbon chains. The polymerized carbon creates a non-stick surface while the iron core of the pan creates a long-lasting and even heat distribution to any materials placed in the pan. The simplicity and availability of materials to create cast iron cookware can be evidenced in it’s historical background. The earliest finds of cast iron to cook dates back to the Han Dynasty in China where the vessels were used for salt evaporation. The nature of cast iron which allows it to be placed directly onto a heat source such as open flame made it a popular material choice for cooking over a hearth or fireplace. Although cast iron is often set aside for teflon coating, it remains an efficient and flavourful option in the kitchen.
By cooking a spatchcocked chicken in a cast iron pan, the authors posit that the chicken can be cooked quickly and efficiently. With a more reliable way to heat the chicken through, fears of enteric salmonellosis can be set aside and a flavourful and easy chicken can be served.
Materials and Methods:
To spatchcock a chicken, one may utilize a large knife or a pair of kitchen shears, both preferably sharp. The chicken is laid out on a cutting-safe surface with the spine on the cutting surface (knife method), or with the spine facing upward (shears method). The spinal cord is excised from the poultry carcass by cutting along both sides of the spine, through the attached ribs. The spine can be discarded or saved for the creation of chicken stocks. The chicken carcass can be opened and laid down skin/breast-side up on the cutting surface. Using a hand, one applies pressure upon the chicken breasts to crack the sternum and flatten the breasts.
Figure 1: Spatchcocking a whole chicken. (A) Top view of a chicken can be seen. Breasts face up. (B) Bottom view of the chicken. Note this is where the spinal column will be most easily accessible. (C) Spinal cord excision. Cuts are made to either side of the spine, eliminating the open cavity of the chicken. (D) The chicken is placed back breast side up (similar view to (A)), and pressure is applied via a hand to the center of the chicken breasts.
Cast iron use:
Seasoning of the former internal cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper is a crucial step to ensure flavourfulness. The spatchcocked chicken is laid down in the cast iron pan with the skin side up and the skin is patted dry using a blotting paper. The skin can now by seasoned with salt, pepper, and a selection of spices. The authors used paprika and cayenne. The chicken can be drizzled in oil and placed at 450°F for 30-45min (assuming an original chicken weight of 3lbs). Be sure to rest the chicken on a flat surface covered in tin foil for 10min before carving and serving.
In comparison to preparation of a whole chicken, the authors found spatchcocking took less time. Normally, the chicken would have been seasoned externally and internally, then roasted in an assortment of root vegetables. Although root vegetables could have been used here, the authors were experiencing a shortage of potatoes and other roastable root vegetables so they were excluded. The excision of the spine was a quick procedure which was accomplished with kitchen shears. One detractor of this method is that the sheared ribs become sharp objects so care must be taken when handling the opened chicken.
Cooking time and temperature of the chicken also varied between classical oven roasting and spatchcock cast iron roasting. Notably, whole chicken tends to be roasted at 350°F, a relatively medium heat which penetrates evenly throughout the chicken. In this application, the heat was set to 450°F which would normally be a poor chicken-roasting temperature. However after spatchcocking this high heat method allows for rapid cooking of the chicken flesh as well as crispification of the chicken skin which is normally achieved over a long period of roasting. Comparing incubation times, the spatchcock/cast iron method is 2.3x faster than traditional roasting (data not shown), a feat accomplished through increased heat and surface area.
The finished product was fully comparable to a traditional whole chicken. The flavour and juicy-ness profile were indeed highly similar, although the skin was not quite as crispy as previous attempts with a whole chicken. This is likely a function of the decreased incubation time, possibly in combination with above-average skin thickness on the particular chicken selected for cooking. Overall, the slight difference in skin crispyness is not enough of a factor to outweigh the significantly decreased cooking time provided in the method described here. In the future, the authors would include small potatoes in the cast iron pan around the chicken, believing that this environment would likely yield crispy potatoes. The authors feel that this method constitutes a reliable and quick method of whole chicken cooking suitable to weeknight meal.
Acknowledgments: We thank Perelman et al (Smitten Kitchen cookbook, 2012) for providing inspiration to our dish. We also thank Loblaws for providing whole chickens at a sale price at the time the authors set out to procure a chicken.