I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been holding onto this spatchcocked chicken recipe for like three months, which is ridiculous since it’s basically the only way I’ve cooked chicken since I came up with the recipe.
It’s everything I want in a weeknight dinner – quick to prepare, quick to cook, quick to clean up – with lots of easily remixable leftovers. That said, like most fast, easy meals, it relies pretty heavily on technique to come out well.
Let’s talk spatchcock
I learned about spatchcocking (also known as butterflying – but really, who’s going to call it that when spatchcock is an option) right around the time I turned 13. We’d just moved into the new house, and Dad was gearing up to cook the Thanksgiving turkey for the first time in the new oven.
He discovered pretty quickly that the original 1950-sized oven would not accept a 2005-sized turkey.
The solution was simple. He cut the backbone out of the bird so he could flatten it enough to fit under the heating element – and he’s been cooking our turkeys the same way since.
My current apartment has a normal-sized oven, but I still spatchcock most of the poultry I cook.
Well, first, and perhaps most notably, flattening out the chicken into one more-or-less even layer cuts the cooking time almost in half – spatchcocked chicken cooks in just about 40 minutes, while a whole bird in its natural, football-like shape will take about an hour and a half. Flattening the chicken also means all of the skin is facing up towards the heating element, which means you get crispy, rendered chicken skin over the whole surface, not just the breasts and tops of the wings.
Second, flattening the chicken before roasting makes it insanely easy to carve after it comes out of the oven. A clean slice down the center separates the breasts, and two more quick cuts will remove the leg quarters without any faffing about with getting your knife perfectly through joints.
And finally, spatchcocking gives you a ton more surface area to roast things underneath your chicken – which, when you love schmaltz-roasted veggies as much as I do, is just about all the argument you need.
Once your chicken is flat, you need to salt it thoroughly and let it sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight – or at least as long as you can manage before cooking.
“But Jessi,” you say, “I thought you said this was fast? Why do I need to salt the chicken in advance? Can’t I just salt it and throw it in the oven?”
You can, technically, just salt the chicken and throw it in the oven – but your chicken will in all likelihood turn out tasting bland and even a little dry.
Salt is just about the only flavor compound that exists that can work its way through the molecular structure of your chicken to reach the very center – and that takes time. You need to give the salt time to draw moisture from the meat to the surface, then you have to give the salt time to dissolve, and once it’s dissolved you have to give the now super-salty meat juices time to diffuse back into the chicken through osmosis.
And that super-salty solution getting back through to the center of the chicken is very important. Not only will your meat be well-seasoned all the way through, but, as we talked about when we made sausage, salt interacts with meat proteins in a number of extremely powerful ways. In this case, the salt is working to denature some of the proteins in the chicken meat, which unwind and swell, breaking some of the bonds that hold the bundles of muscle fibers together.
Once denatured, the proteins are free to attach themselves to the water already in the chicken – and as the meat cooks, these denatured proteins tangle together and trap more liquid, resulting in a juicer bird that is more resistant to drying out, even if it’s a little overcooked.
As an added bonus, as the salt draws liquid out of the chicken and diffuses back into the meat, it dries out the skin. And since the meat is better at hanging onto moisture as it cooks, the skin also stays drier, which is important, since the Maillard reactions responsible for browning and flavor occur most rapidly between 300-330°F – and the skin can only reach those temperatures after all the liquid has boiled off. The end result? Crisp, crackly chicken skin.
The vegetable foundation
I don’t even know how long ago I ran across this recipe for roasted tomato, fennel, and chickpeas by The Wednesday Chef, but it’s been floating around my inspiration bin for what feels like years now. Something about tomatoes slow-roasted in puddles of olive oil really spoke to me – and I think it was that idea that floated its way to the fore when I was trying to come up with what to put under the spatchcocked chicken to turn it into a whole meal.
So I halved a bunch of cherry tomatoes, sliced up some onions, and tossed them together with salt, pepper, and a puddle of olive oil. Something still seemed like it was missing, so stirred in a drained can of cannellini beans and tossed the chicken on top to roast.
When the chicken was done, I wilted some spinach into the veggies, and dinner was ready!
Friends, it was perfect. The chicken was crisp-skinned and juicy, and the veggies melted together into a silky, tomato-y pile that tasted way better than it had any right to, especially scooped up with slices of warm, fresh bread.
And I didn’t even have to do the dishes – we just wrapped the whole thing up when we were finished and chucked the pan in the fridge for later.
- “Spatchcock, Spatchcock, Spatchcock.” Principia Gastronomica, https://principiagastronomica.com/post/33.
- Marx, Sasha. “Dry-Brining Is the Best Way to Brine Meat, Poultry, and More.” Serious Eats, https://www.seriouseats.com/how-to-dry-brine.
- “Food Facts Highlights: Brine Meat before Gilling for Moistness and Flavor.” Food Safety and Health, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, https://foodsafety.wisc.edu/assets/pdf_Files/FFH_Brining.pdf
Spatchcocked chicken with tomatoes and white beans
Yield: 4-6 servings Time: approximately 1 hour, excluding salting time Source: The Eighth Street Mess
If you don’t have time to salt the spatchcocked chicken overnight (or you forget the night before), give it as long as you have. Even if you salt it an hour or two in advance, it will make a difference.
Please don’t freak out about the amount of olive oil that goes into the veggies – I promise the end result won’t come out greasy. You need that amount of fat because we’re essentially making a lazy man’s confit – and the result is a silky, luxurious, vegetable-studded sauce you’re going to want to put on absolutely everything.
If you happen to have leftovers, allow me to recommend cutting the chicken into cubes before tossing it with warm pasta, the leftover vegetables and sauce, and a healthy grating of Parmesan cheese. Perhaps I’m biased towards noodles, but I almost like it better than the original dish!
- 1 small whole chicken (3-4 pounds)
- 1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed.
- 2 dry pints cherry tomatoes
- 1 medium onion, sliced thin parallel to the root end
- 1/2 cup (100 milliliters) olive oil
- 5 sprigs thyme
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake
- Salt and pepper
- 5 oz (142 grams) baby spinach, stems removed if large
Using sharp kitchen shears, cut up one side of the chicken’s spine, starting at the tail. Once you have one side free, you can cut back down the other side of the spine – I usually start from the neck for the second cut, since the chicken is already facing that direction. Once the spine is out, flip the chicken over so the skin side is touching your cutting board.
You now have two options for how to make your bird flat.
The first (and arguably easiest) is to use your knife to nick the keel bone (the bit in the middle of the chicken where the breast meat connects), then flip the whole thing over and press on the center of the breast to finish cracking that bone so the whole chicken lies flat.
The second option works exactly the same as the first, except after you’ve flattened your chicken, you flip it back over and remove the keel, the piece of cartilage and bone that runs down the center of the bird between the breasts. This is my preferred method, since it makes your chicken incredibly easy to carve after it’s been cooked. At this point, I also remove the wings and save them for stock since we don’t usually eat them, but that’s totally up to you.
Congratulations! You’ve spatchcocked a chicken!
Sprinkle both sides of the chicken liberally with salt. I find the best way to do this is to take a liberal three-finger pinch and let the salt fall from about 10 inches above the bird – this will give you a nice, even coverage pretty quickly. Place your chicken on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet, and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight.
When you’re ready to eat, preheat your oven to 450°F
Toss the tomatoes, beans, onion, garlic, and red pepper flake with the olive oil and a healthy sprinkle of salt and pepper in a 9×13 baking dish. Arrange your thyme sprigs over the vegetables, then place the chicken on top, skin side up.
Roast until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 160°F, about 40 minutes.
Remove the baking dish from the oven. Take the chicken off the vegetables, set it on a plate or cutting board, and tent it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.
Stir the spinach into the vegetables and beans and return to the oven for 10 minutes, until the spinach has wilted, the tomatoes have slumped, and the onions are lightly golden.
Carve your chicken, then place it over a bed of the vegetables and devour.
You can keep any leftover spatchcocked chicken for about four days in the refrigerator, or up to two months in the freezer. I wouldn’t recommend freezing the vegetables.