Saturday, March 26, 2011

Crispy Skin Chicken

My family ends up eating baked/roasted chicken fairly often- just because it's easy and you can get chicken thighs or drumsticks reasonably cheap at the local stores. The problem is that I like my skin nice and crispy - crispy enough that you could strip it off the meat and eat it like a potato chip. With that in mind, I've been trying to come up with methods to keep the meat tasty and still moist, but get the skin nice and crunchy the way I like it.

Crispy chicken skin is a tasty treat!

If you bake/roast your chicken in the usual baking dish- cooking the chicken covered at about 350, then uncovering and bumping the heat up to 450 for the last 15 minutes or so produces half decent results- but when I say half, I literally mean half. The skin on top will come out great, but the rest will usually end up soggy, flabby, and generally unappealing.

The solution I've been using recently seems to work fairly well - although it does leave the meat itself a little drier - that problem, has not been so bad as to be a deal breaker, so I believe fixing it will just be a matter of tweaking the cooking times and temperatures a little more. The solution is fairly simple- before I put the chicken in the oven, I put a nice hard sear on as much of the surface as I can, then I finish the chicken in the oven - uncovered, to finish the job. The searing cooks the skin enough that the heat from the oven is enough to transform it into a crispy, crunchy treat. Searing also has another advantage- the chicken skin will develop more depth of flavor from the two-stage cooking process- enough that I've found that I really only need minimal seasoning to have a great tasting piece of chicken.

This routine seems to work best for dark meat sections (skin on of course!) - in my examples, I am using drumsticks, which turned out pretty good. The previous batch I did as a test run used thighs, and they turned out even better- that is probably due to the fact that it's easier to sear the thighs more completely- more of their surface area actually touches the pan/grill without performing a balancing act, and due to the slightly thicker skin on the thighs.

Start off by heating up your pan or flat-top grill - you'll want the pan fairly hot- medium to high heat, but not "screaming hot" or you'll risk burning the skin outright. As I mentioned earlier, it doesn't take much in the way of seasoning to get a good flavorful piece of chicken, so I restricted myself to salt and pepper only- if you need a different flavor, I'd probably only want to add one type of herb/spice at this stage. Make sure your chicken pieces are thawed- you have a little bit of leeway- if the surface is thawed but the center is still cold, you still won't have problems- the middle will be thawed by the time you finish your searing. Give your chicken pieces a good coating of salt and pepper, and grease your pan/grill with a little oil, butter, or cooking spray (I used olive oil).

Chicken legs, ready for the grill

When ready, start loading the chicken onto your grill or pan - use the first one as a test- if you hear a good sizzle when the chicken touches down, you're in good shape- if not take the chicken off and let the pan heat a little longer. Sear the chicken for a few minutes on each side- your goal here is to put a hard, golden-brown sear on as much of the skin as you can. The meat should only be cooked part of the way through at this point.

Chicken leg with a hard sear - try to do this to as much of the surface as possible.
After searing the chicken, load the pieces into a baking dish. I had a little extra chicken stock left over from my chicken gravy demonstration, so I put a little in the bottom to help keep the chicken from drying out (just enough to keep the bottom of the dish wet- not even 1/4 cup). Bake the chicken uncovered at 350 degrees until done (usually about 45 minutes to an hour- possibly less if you have a convection oven).

The parts that are fully seared are already crispy, and the gaps between the seared areas will have enough of a head start that the oven will bring them up to crispy. Since we've already partially cooked our chicken, it should be cooked through by the time the skin has a nice even color, and has become crispy. The cooking times I've cited are approximate- they will vary quite a bit from oven to oven- so use your judgment, and an instant read meat thermometer if you have doubts.

The chicken will end up with a nice crunch to the skin, and a deep golden-brown color that looks great on a plate. I served mine up with green and yellow string beans, couscous cooked in chicken stock, and placed the chicken on a puddle of my simple chicken gravy.

Crispy skinned chicken looks great on the plate
The drumsticks turned out to be good, but you'll probably find, like I did, that this process works even better with thighs. The key is to get a good hard sear on as much of the skin as possible- which can be difficult with an odd-shaped piece like a leg, but much easier with a broader, flatter thigh piece. The skin has a good solid crunch, with a salty bite almost like breaded-fried chicken, but much lighter. The chicken, surprisingly packs a good amount of flavor even though I only seasoned it with salt and pepper, thanks to the complex chemistry of the browning process (known to chemists and food scientists as the Maillard Reaction). The gravy brings in even more flavor and contrasting texture- and helps compensate if your chicken came out a little drier than you'd like.

This idea of searing a meat then finishing it in the oven is a common restaurant technique. It produces a crusty outside with it's distinct flavors, combined with the flavor and texture of the roasted interior. It generally makes it much easier to get your meat to the level of done-ness desired since you're trading time in the oven with time on the stovetop where you have more direct control over the cooking. It's a concept that applies equally well to any thick-cut meat- beef, pork, and even fish.

No comments:

Post a Comment