Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Heston's roast chicken

Heston Blumenthal's perfect roast chicken on BBC 2 last night was a refinement of the slow-roasting technique he promoted in his first book, Family Food. You brine your chicken -- a Poulet de Bresse, please. You blanch it for 30 seconds, plunge it into iced water, then repeat the process. You cook the chicken for four and a half hours at 60 C. You fry the chicken quickly in groundnut oil. Voila!

The brining helps to keep the meat moist. The blanching -- the Chinese do it with duck -- promotes crispy skin. Slow cooking means that the proteins do not squeeze out moisture. The last stage is the crisping of the skin in a frying pan.

I am sure that brining works well -- it certainly did when I tried it with belly pork. It does produce salty meat, though, so you have to be sure that you want that. However, something else rules out my trying the Blumenthal method: my oven. A not-inexpensive Parkinson Cowan, it has a lowest temperature, according to my oven thermometer, of more than 100 C.

So I shall stick to my imperfect recipe. Roasting chicken -- unless, like Gordon Ramsay, you separate the legs and the breast -- involves a compromise: you have to cook the legs properly, and to brown the bird, while trying to ensure that the breast, which requires only a short cooking time, does not dry out too much.

I follow Nigella Lawson's timings: 20 minutes for each 500 g, plus half an hour. But she suggests a temperature of gas mark 6/200 C throughout -- unnecessarily high, I think. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells you to lower the temperature to gas mark 4/180 C; but that, too, is fiercer than you need.

I reported that, for the first time ever, I had found my chicken not properly cooked after the standard time. At the weekend, I was determined to make no mistake. I took the chicken out of the fridge four hours before I was due to put it in the oven. (Richard Ehrlich has shown that a chicken will hardly warm up at all after the one hour that is usually recommended.) I turned the oven up to full heat for half an hour, spread butter over the chicken and between the skin and the breast, squirted over half a lemon and put the hull inside the bird, ground over salt and pepper, turned down the oven to gas mark 6/200 C, and put in the chicken. After half an hour, I turned down the dial to gas mark 2/150 C.

You need the initial blast of heat, I think, to brown the skin and to get the cooking process properly underway, so that the chicken will not have to spend too long in the oven. After that, a low temperature -- next time, I shall try gas mark 1/140 C -- will continue the job perfectly well. In my experience, turning the chicken during cooking is not worthwhile.

I took my 2 kg chicken out of the oven after one hour and 50 minutes, and let it rest in the grill section above the warm oven for 25 minutes before carving. (Hacking is what I do.) It was not perfect. But it was pretty good.

See also:
Brining chicken revisited
Heston's roast chicken: support for my scepticism


Anonymous said...

As Heston said in the show you need an oven thermometer to get the right temoperature, your oven will probably produce heat before the temp dail reaches a 100 and the thermometer will tell you the right temp. Or as he suggested with his steak recipe, you can prop the door open (not exactly environmentally friendly, but then ovens aren't anyway).

Anonymous said...

What the f? How can you start out reviewing a recipe by Heston Blumenthal and then, because your equipment is not up to the task, take out the essential part, slide down the culinary ranks via Gordon Ramsay, to end up at rock bottom using "Nigella Lawson's timings". That's like reviewing a Bob Ross because they wouldn't let you see the Rembrandt. Frigging blasphemy in my book.

Jhoy E. Meade said...

I know in the end that people just remember the chicken and so did I along with the potatoes, but I knew there were other things on the plate too. I just wasn't in the room for that part. Did he get as picky with them as he was about he potatoes and what were they again?

Anonymous said...

Not sure where you got your times from but Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's roasting times are not what you say they are.

Hugh' Meat book uses the method you use at the end. High heat for 20/30mins then lower heat for the remainder of the cooking.

Nicholas Clee said...

Sorry - I didn't mean to imply that the timings were HF-W's. They (but not the oven temperatures) are Nigella's.

Anonymous said...

10;00pm and I have just arrived at my computer after a Sunday roast chicken a al Blumethal. We usually buy free range,corn fed birds that are invariably succulent and tasty. Went through all the brining faddle (at the correct concentration) and roasted the bird at 70 in a reliable fan oven (as directed in the downloaded recipe). The bird was 3kg not 2kg so we were prepared for a longer wait. After six and a half hours and a slight hike in temp, the probe showed 64. I was still not confident that this would be cooked but put my faith in Heston and rested the thing for 45 mins. Then back in the oven it went to brown at 275 (highest temp) for ten minutes. When I cut off the legs, the joints were running with blood and not cooked. As everything else was ready, in hunger and desperation the legs went into the microwave to finish them off and the chicken back in the oven at normal cooking temp to finish cooking. Next came the eating. The usually succulent chicken flavour had been replaced by something more like very mild boiled ham. And I forgot to mention, having finished the process at this high heat, the "tasty pan scrapings" for the gravy resembled a car oil change - they were just oil with charcoal and thus unusable. Moral of the tale: If you want to know how to roast a chicken, ask a chef not a circus performer. Michael Adrepos

Nicholas Clee said...

You've done me and any readers of this post a great favour, Michael, if that's any compensation for the effort and disappointment you went through. A 3kg bird is unusually large; but I don't think size can be blamed for the failure of the recipe. I wouldn't have faith that 70C could do the cooking properly. And I am not surprised that brining has the effect on the flavour of chicken that you describe.

Anonymous said...

I've just tried Heston's method and only come across the blog afterwards. It was a 2kg free range corn fed bird from Sainsburys. Admittedly my oven temperature was 100, but I reduced the oven cooking time to 2 hours to compensate. The bird was overcooked a little for my liking, which is nothing to do with Heston's recipe, but what I would say is that it was very much bordering tasteless. The recipe that he gives us is essentially roast chicken with a bit of butter injected into the meat, nothing else - there's no real flavour there, it's very dull and very boring. The brining probably kills some of the chicken flavour, hence the need to inject the roasted chicken flavoured butter - which itself was very much bland, because the wings he used didn't really add much flavour to the butter anyway.

The recipe, imo, is totally and absolutely not worth the effort of brining and blanching (then drying overnight). To be quite honest, I think he's produced this recipe as a way of being different, he's copied the Chinese method of producing crispy duck, but has overlooked the notion that what works for duck might not work for chicken (different meats, different tastes, different fat content).

Nicholas Clee said...

Nigella is a great advocate for brining turkey. But I find that the texture of the meat suffers, just as does that of chicken. I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Just tried it with home grown corn fed Organic Chook. Fantastic. Best Chicken our family has ever had.
I took some cold meat to work for lunch today, still amazingly moist and tender.
I don't know what you people with less than perfect results are doing wrong.

Nicholas Clee said...

I'm glad to hear that it can work. Perhaps I'll give it another go sometime.