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Eric Akis: How to get crispier roast chicken that's a cut above

A reader named Murray sent me a note saying he was having a hard time getting dark, crispy skin on his roast chicken. Some of the things he was doing to achieve that goal were helpful, such as patting the chicken dry before cooking it.
Drying, salting and high temperature all help to yield chicken with richly coloured, crispy skin. This photo was taking seconds after the bird was cooked.

A reader named Murray sent me a note saying he was having a hard time getting dark, crispy skin on his roast chicken.

Some of the things he was doing to achieve that goal were helpful, such as patting the chicken dry before cooking it. If the skin is wet, that moisture will have to steam away before the skin begins to crisp up and brown.

If you really want crispy skin, though, several sources say that after patting the chicken dry, you should set it on a rack over a pan, then put it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight or even longer.

Before putting it in the fridge, coat the bird with what some call dry brine. Sounds fancy, but all you’re doing is sprinkling and rubbing the bird with a fairly generous amount of kosher salt or a flaky kind of sea salt and, if you wish, other dry seasonings.

As the chicken sits for hours in the refrigerator, the skin becomes really dry and the salt tightens it, causing it to be crispier when cooked.

The action of dry brine is quite different from wet brine. The latter, in its most basic form, is a solution of salt dissolved in water, but other ingredients, such as flavourings, are often added. The chicken is then soaked in that brine.

The main purpose of wet brine is to infuse moisture into the flesh of the bird, not to ensure the skin will be crispy as can be, which is the goal of dry brine.

Another important step in achieving really crispy skin is to buy a good chicken. In our market, your best bet would be a Vancouver Island-raised bird, bought from a local farm, butcher shop or supermarket — a plump, firm-looking chicken with almost bright-looking skin that tightly adheres to the body.

My everyday, well-priced, always juicy and flavourful chicken comes from Island Farmhouse Poultry. In 2005, farmer Lyle Young and his family established the business as a way to support and promote small-scale local poultry farms, by giving them access to a fully government-compliant processing facility in Cowichan Bay.

Island Farmhouse Poultry lists the many places you can buy its chicken on its website. I bought my chicken in Victoria at Red Barn Market.

So you have a good chicken and you salted and dried the skin. The next step, if you want skin as crispy as possible, is to roast the bird in a very hot oven. Some sources suggest it should be as high as 500 F, but most advise 450 F, which is what I used.

Before roasting it, many crispy-skin chicken recipes ask you to set the bird on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. If you set it in a deep roasting pan, the sides of the bird won’t brown and crisp up as well. Also, during roasting, you don’t baste the bird, as that would moisten the skin you want to be as crispy as possible.

During my research, I did find other techniques you could try to further crisp up the skin. They included poking the chicken all over with tiny holes with the tip of a metal skewer. The theory is that those holes provide a place for fat to run out of the skin, making the skin crispier.

I tried it and the skin was not much crispier. But the meat was drier, with all those precious juices running out, which is why I didn’t use that technique in my recipe.

Crispy Juicy Roast Chicken

If you find your current way of roasting chicken does not yield skin crispy enough for you, try this recipe. It should yield a richly coloured bird with tight, crisp skin and juicy meat underneath. I like to serve the chicken with grainy mustard sauce (see recipe below), creamy mashed potatoes and a green vegetable, such as broccolini.

Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus hours of refrigerator drying time

Cooking time: 70 minutes

Makes: Four servings

  • 2 1/2 tsp kosher or flaked sea salt (do not use fine table salt)
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 (4 lb./1.8 kg) Vancouver Island chicken
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Grainy mustard sauce (see recipe below)

Combine salt, paprika and pepper in a small bowl. Remove and discard any strings the chicken was tied with.

Set a cooking rack over a shallow roasting pan or sided sheet pan. Set chicken, breast-side-up, on the cooking rack. Thoroughly pat chicken dry with paper towel. Fold and tuck wings under the bird’s body.

Working with about 1/2 tsp at a time, sprinkle and rub the salt mixture all over the chicken, ensuring thicker parts of the bird are more thickly coated. Gather any salt mixture that falls off the bird and into the pan, then sprinkle and rub it back on the chicken.

Set chicken, uncovered, in a part of your refrigerator where it won’t get bumped. Let chicken sit, chill and dry there 18 to 24 hours.

When ready to cook the chicken, let it sit out at room temperature 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450 F.

Roast chicken for 35 minutes, then quickly give the pan a 90-degree turn. Roast chicken for 35 minutes more, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the thigh reaches 180 F.

Transfer chicken to a large plate set near the stovetop and let it rest 10 minutes. (You don’t need to tent the chicken with foil, because, with the high cooking temperature, it will stay hot quite a while.)

Remove excess fat from the drippings in the pan, then pour in the chicken stock. Scrape the bottom of the pan to lift off the tasty brown bits stuck there. Add the stock in the pan to the grainy mustard sauce and mix to combine. Return the grainy mustard sauce to a simmer.

When chicken has rested, carve it into portions and serve it with the grainy mustard sauce.

Grainy Mustard Sauce

Here’s a simple, mustard-flavoured sauce that will nicely complement the taste of crispy-skinned chicken. If you like lots of sauce, double the recipe.

Preparation time: A few minutes

Cooking time: About 10 minutes

Makes: About two cups

  • 2 Tbsp (1/8 cup) butter
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock (divided)
  • 2 Tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place butter in a small pot set over medium heat. When butter is melted, mix in the flour. Cook and stir this roux until it turns a light brown colour, about four minutes.

Slowly mix in 1/2 cup of stock, constantly whisking. When the mixture is very thick and lump-free, slowly whisk in remaining stock.

Bring sauce to a simmer, and simmer two minutes, until lightly thickened. Whisk in the mustard. Taste and season sauce with salt and pepper, as needed, and it’s ready to use.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.