A six pound, ten dollar chicken should not taste this good
I’ve got a guy at our enormous public market who sells premium meat and poultry, mostly to restaurants, but sells retail on Saturday mornings. His chickens are yellow, true free range, organic…you know, those expensive but delicious birds. This chicken was not one of those.
I was cooking at a friend’s and she said she had a whole chicken in the fridge. When I took it out, it was big, six pounds big. A hen this big should be an old stewing chicken, tough but full of flavor. But this was a big corporate chicken, in spite of its label claiming it was cage free and no antibiotics (!). A cheap grocery store chicken. I had no hopes for it, flavor wise, but it was what we had to work with.
I had a classic a French chicken recipe in mind, en cocotte. Literally, in a casserole. Probably the second most common way of cooking a whole chicken, after roasting, in France, the home of great chicken dishes. A peasant classic, homey and unassuming, or so I thought. It is now my hands down favorite way to cook chicken.
En cocotte is chicken browned in a Dutch oven on the stovetop with aromatics, then covered tightly and baked low and slow so it stews in its own juices. A chicken as big as this one should take about 90–110 minutes at 250–275 degrees F. The only challenge in this recipe was the weight of the big bird and the cast iron Dutch oven combined. I’d really recommend a smaller chicken but, as I said, this one was on hand.
I patted the chicken dry with a paper towel, liberally seasoned it all over with sea salt and black pepper, poured a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into the pan and put the chicken in breast side down to brown it a bit over medium heat. After ten minutes, with the aid of a big pair of tongs and a meat fork, I wrestled the thing over onto its other side and let that brown for another ten minutes.
In the meantime I cut an onion into quarters, peeled six cloves of garlic, and roughly chopped a big late season carrot into chunks and tucked these into the pan around the bird. If I had celery, I would have added that. These are the aromatics, in there strictly for flavor, not eating, though we did eat the carrots later. They were amazing.
Finally, I bundled a sprig of rosemary, some thyme branches, and a big bay leaf together with butcher’s string and tucked that in. The rosemary and thyme were the remnants of our balcony planter attempts at an herb garden, now wilting after the first freeze of fall.
I covered the pan with a double layer of foil and put the heavy lid on and hoisted the very heavy and awkward combo (cast iron and a six pound bird) onto the lower rack of the preheated 275 degree oven, noted the time, and made us a cocktail.
Ninety minutes later, not expecting anything exciting, I hauled it out and temped the legs and breast meat, looking for 175 and 160, respectively. It was done and swimming up to the shoulders in a fragrant deep brown liquid, the bird pale and plump. I set it on a platter, reused the foil to tent it to rest for twenty minutes and started reducing the pan liquids to have as a sauce, fishing out the herbs and veg.
A half hour later we sat down to plates of the ultimate comfort food. The chicken was amazingly juicy and flavorful, the jus was the concentrated essence of chicken stock and we were beside ourselves. Who knew?
- Some recipes call for a splash of white wine, which sounds accurate for a French home-style dish. I did not have any open and did not miss it though I did add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to the jus at the end. The bit of acidity helps brighten the fatty flavor of the braising liquid.
- It looked like a huge amount of liquid when I lifted the lid, but once I had the bird and aromatics out, it was about 1.5 cups, which I reduced to a cup. It didn’t really need reducing as it was very concentrated in flavor. It would have made a fantastic gravy base.
- Don’t expect crispy skin. I took the skin off and discarded it before carving as it had given up its fat and flavor during the braising.
- Next time a smaller chicken, mainly because this one took up a lot of space and most recipes recommend having some air around the bird to steam it. And it would be easier to manage the turning and moving the pan around.
- We kept the sides simple. Boiled potatoes and yellow wax beans from the market, and those pan juices.
- The leftovers make really great chicken sandwiches because the meat, including the breast meat, was so tender and juicy. It can be a big challenge to get breast meat tender, especially when roasting.
- My friend’s place is a large, high ceiled loft and it smelled amazing in there when I lifted that lid. Essence of fall evening comfort.
As Julia would say, bon appetit!