Are You Cooking Your Chicken Upside-Down?
Some kitchen habits aren’t corrected until someone calls you on it. I vividly recall the first roommate who watched me dump French press grounds down the kitchen sink drain with horror. Then there were the post-sear pans I’d throw in the sink without deglazing (and making an awesome, three-minute sauce).
Same goes with roast chickens. My first ones were less than ideal. I’d throw them in the oven still wet from the sink where I’d rinsed them. (I no longer rinse, and know that drying well is key to a crisp-skinned bird.) After a few haphazard cooking years, I fell for my first cookbook—Appetite, by Brit chef Nigel Slater—which cleared up most of my poultry problems. I could make an herb butter and stuff it between the skin and the breast? Awesome. I could make a bed of potatoes and onions and have an instant side dish? Even better.
Eventually I picked up other roast chicken tricks, like Melissa Clark’s tip to salt the bird hours in advance to “cure” it in the fridge, uncovered, for a crisp-skinned, evenly salted chicken. I love Thomas Keller’s recipe for cooking chicken fast and hot, with plenty of salt.
And these days I rarely end up with a dry chicken breast; I never cook past the USDA-specified 165 degrees, since I have a meat thermometer, and in fact I’ll usually pull it from the oven a few minutes early, letting it come to temperature as it rests.
Some of my birds are perfect—all glossy and golden. Some are fine, with skin that’s not as burnished as I might like. But these days, few of my chickens turn out dry. So I was intrigued that some cooks swear by flipping the bird—so to speak—to cook it breast-down in the pan. The theory goes that the fat chicken butt and legs will drain into and over the breast, keeping it moist.
I had to test it for myself, using my favorite combination of roast chicken techniques: salted bird, dried in fridge, brought to room temperature, trussed and cooked with plenty of salt in a 450-degree oven. Though it felt wrong, in the name of scientific inquiry I placed it on its bed of potatoes, garlic and onion breast-side down.
If you’re not sure, know that an “upside-down” chicken with the breast facing down looks like a lineman tucked into a football huddle. (See this photo of my bird.) It is round, with the wing tips pointing up towards you. A breast-side up chicken, on the other hand, sort of looks like a heart, with the tips of the drumsticks visible.
I was curious to see if the breast was noticeably moister, if the rest of the chicken texture was good, and if the flavor was the identical. I also wanted to see if I could live without the crisp chicken breast skin.
My verdict? I cannot. Yes, the breast was slightly moister than usual, but its skin was pale as my Irish complexion is on a day in late March. The texture of the dark meat was strangely altered, too; almost gummy. I don’t have a scientific reason, but pawing through recipes by some of our famous poultry chefs—Julia Child and Jonathan Waxman among them—I was hard-pressed to find one who employs this method. The one recipe I found that I’ll try another time called for roasting the bird breast-side down for 30 minutes, then inverting it. I would try that (although I fear doing so would break the skin over the breast, which ideally stays intact).
When I posted my photo on Instagram, in fact, chefs quickly began to clamor that this was a sad sight. I’m officially not the only one who thinks breast-side up is better. So double-check your bird before roasting—or report back on Facebook if you think I have it all wrong.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.