Bell Curve Chicken

So Poultry and I have reached an understanding over the years.

If a loaf of homemade bread is the culinary sacrament that gives meaning to my Sunday afternoon, a roast chicken represents the final official act of my weekend. It carries significance far beyond the kitchen or the table, with powerful, if obtuse, associations that always resonate with me as I cook. Like with the laundry that I always have to have done before I start dinner, or the dishes that I have just enough time to wash before the little guy comes out of the oven, or the abundant leftovers that will save me from having to make much effort to prepare lunch.

All of this bodes well for the upcoming week, one in which my socks match, my lunches are taken care of, and the kitchen sink can hold itself together for a couple of days.

Not to mention the fact that I can sit down with a plate of roasted chicken, good potatoes, a salad, a slice (or two) of bread, maybe with some homemade saffron mayo if I’m feeling especially saucy, and a glass of obscenely sweet iced tea with the store bought ice I love chewing so much.

I’m sure there are better dining options. But this one is my safety meal, effortless to make, physically and emotionally satisfying, and, more to the point, consistently very good.

Like I said, poultry and I have a mutual respect. The chicken, for its part, will always turn out well. Juicy meat, crispy skin, and will have a delicate perfume of whatever i used to season it with. But there is an implicit bargain here. It is understood that I will prosecute my chicken-cooking simply and respectfully, using a commonly used, well-honed method it’s taken many Sundays to adapt to my own kitchen.

There are certain things the chicken will not abide by: It will not consent to playing dressup, it doesn’t like being trussed, bound or tied, and will certainly not tolerate a beer can shoved up its… (this all sounds eerily familiar) but anyway…

I use a two-step method to cook my chicken, a sear on my cast-iron skillet, followed by a stint in the oven carefully supervised by my remote thermometer. Specifically, I bring a chicken to room temperature. I turn the oven to 350, and put a well-seasoned cast iron skillet over the stove at about medium heat. I cut up the chicken. I salt the chicken, I season the chicken, and put it in the skillet in two batches, then move them to a roasting pan. I place the business end of my remote thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and place the pan in the oven until the alarm chirps at 150 (there will be carryover). I cook the legs/thighs a little bit longer. I let the pieces rest, and I devour.

This chicken always comes out reasonably well. Tender meat, with a good texture to the skin, and, if I’m very lucky, that perfect point at which the breast meet is fully cooked yet not fiberous. Why would I want to change it?

First, I barely have the motor skills to dress myself, let alone cut up a chicken. I cite the following video as evidence:

There are other reasons. My remote is sometimes untrustworthy. It turns off once in a while, or is up to ten degrees inaccurate. I sometimes feel like I need to stand over the oven just to make sure. Also, I want jus. To reduce into a sauce, with enough schmaltz on top to save for potato pancakes.

So for the last several weeks I’ve been working on a new Sunday Chicken, something more akin to a poule au pot.

I have a zillion recipes for chicken in a pot. Between Thomas Keller’s complex application in Bouchon to Patricia Wells’ Catalan version with chorizo and peppers to Anthony Bordain’s running commentary on American Gastro Masculinity, I was not without inspiration. But the problem is, most of these recipes are “wet.” Chicken stews would violate the tacit understanding I have with the birds, the moisture can squeeze the chicken dry just as easily as a few hours in a hot oven. 

Though I am loathe to return to Cook’s Illustrated so soon, there was one recipe here that seemed compelling. It’s a slow-cook, but not a stew. The idea is that by cooking the bird at a lower temperature within a tightly sealed vessel, most of the juice will stay within the chicken itself, aside from a cup or so of jus.

The bonus to the recipe is that the chicken is seared in the pot before roasting. The end product won’t yield skin quite as crispy as a sear on a skillet, but it will be close. And quite tasty.

I like to use Herbes de Provence as my poule au pot seasoning. For those of you who aren’t familiar, HdP is a mixture of dried herbs, usually savory, thyme, basil, and sometimes fennel, plus the addition of dried lavender flowers which are powerful and distinct. I like how multi-dimensional the herbs are, without being overpowering.

Culinary-Linguistic Sidenote: one of my favorite thins in the entire world is to overpronounce “Herbes de Provence” in a ridiculous Frauunch accent.


Poule au Pot (or Freedom Fowl, if you’re one of those) Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated, “All Time Best Recipes”

1 4-5 pound roasting chicken. Do make sure it’s a roaster.
1 medium onion, cut up in a manner of your choosing
1 rib celery, sliced.
3 cloves (or more) of garlic, chopped.
2 T Herbes de Provence.
salt. Enough salt.
Olive Oil. See above

Oven to 225

Don’t over complicate this, okay? But prep the chicken properly. Make sure it’s close to room temperature, then give it a good rinse and pat it completely dry. Salt the bird over and under the skin, and rub the herbs under the skin as much as possible. Lastly, rub the chicken down with olive oil and try not to enjoy it too much.

Heat olive oil in a dutch oven large enough to accommodate your chicken. Medium heat. Sweat the veggies and garlic until translucent.

Brown the chicken on both sides, about seven minutes each.

Place a layer of aluminum foil over the dutch oven and crimp tightly before adding the lid. Place the pot in the oven.

Check the chicken in 30 minutes, and turn it over. Then, start checking every fifteen minutes, using a thermometer to measure the temperature of the breasts and thighs. Remove when close to 160 and when the juices run clear. Again, there will be some thermal carryover.

Let the meat rest for 15 minutes.

Pour the juice into a gravy separator. Save the fat because it’s quite useful. Reduce the liquid in a small saucepan along with a dash of white wine and a bit of salt. This jus is a perfect garnish.

Yum! Minute for minute this version of Sunday chicken is a no more complicated than the other method. It takes longer, and may involve more risk, but when done right it is considerably juicer than an already succulent bird. You do endure the typical whole-chicken risk of breasts drying out before legs are done, but the slower cook time tends to be more forgiving. Try it!

If nothing else.  Wait until the next day, pour jus into the bottom of a large bowl, reheat some chicken and serve alongside however much bread you have left.  Not pretty, but really hits the spot when it’s rainy out.

If you throw jus away, we have nothing to say.

2 thoughts on “Bell Curve Chicken

  1. this is my next rainy sunday meal. i’ve tried un-successfully (twice) to make a 40cloves of garlic baked chicken. i need to take breather from that recipe and try this.

    also, when i grow up, i want a pair of poultry shears too.