After sitting in a bucket of brine for 24 hours, our roasting chicken found a place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet and sat thus for another 48 hours uncovered in the refrigerator. The instructions we are following for this Charcutepalooza project actually call for the chicken to rest uncovered for eight to 24 hours. But as things turned out, roasting the chicken wasn’t convenient for me after 24 hours so I just left the bird in the fridge for another day.
In case you hadn’t noticed, refrigerators, in addition to cooling, also act as dehumidifiers. They suck the moisture right out of foods. Leaving the chicken uncovered dries out the skin, which results in a much crispier skin when it is finally roasted in the oven. This is very much the technique applied to Peking duck, for instance, which is prized for its crispy skin. Some cooks (Marcella Hazan, for instance) actually recommend using a hair dryer on their foul to achieve this end.
The thin tacky layer that forms on the chicken’s skin when dried is referred to in the trade as the pellicle, a term also used in cell biology. But in reading the instructions given by Michael Ruhlman in his book Charcuterie, I found this line exceedingly odd: “The better the pellicle, the better the smoke will adhere to the skin.”
Who said anything about smoking this chicken? The reference seems to come out of nowhere, although pellicle is important in smoked meats. A website titled All About Smoke Fish offers this sentence: “The pellicle serves several functions: it provides an ideal surface for the smoke flavor to adhere, it helps seal in the remaining moisture through the smoking process, and it prevents the fats in the fish from rising to the surface and spoiling.”
But I digress. What I meant to address with this post is whether the chicken should be trussed before it is roasted. Except when I spit-roast chicken, I don’t truss it. I don’t want legs and wings flopping around when the bird is turning on the rotisserie. But when it lies stationary in the oven, I really don’t see the point in tying it up.
According to Ruhlman, “Trussing helps the bird to cook more evenly, and a bird that’s been trussed is much more elegant to look at and to serve.” In all the years I’ve been cooking chickens untrussed, I’ve never noticed they cooked unevenly. And I don’t go around the table presenting my chicken to guests. It gets carved on the kitchen counter and served on plates. What it looks like when it comes out of the oven hardly matters to me.
In fact, it seems to me that chicken cooks more quickly untrussed. So is trussing really necessary?
I consulted a number of the heavy hitters in my cookbook library–Julia Child, Madeleine Kamman, Alice Waters–and all recommend trussing, but don’t say why. There’s a terrific online video of Alton Brown demonstrating how to truss a turkey. Brown also claims a bird cooks “more evenly” when trussed, but he does not elaborate. I wonder if this is simply one of those practices that has been handed down from one cook to another without much thought or ever being put to a real test.
In illustrating how to truss a chicken for the classic Time-Life The Good Cookbook series, Richard Olney gave reasons other than even cooking for tying the bird up. ”Trussing not only gives any poultry a compact shape by holding the legs and wings close to the body,” Olney wrote, “it also simplifies turning the bird during roasting and prevents the skin from splitting at the joints.”
I turn our Thanksgiving turkey during roasting, but not chicken. Neither have I ever experienced a problem with the skin splitting at the joints. It occurred to me to check with yet another expert–Judy Rodgers, one of Alic Waters many acolytes who went on to establish her own restaurant in San Francisco–Zuni Cafe–where roasted chicken is the house specialty. In fact, Judy Rodgers may have roasted more chickens than any person alive. She famously likes to salt her chickens aggressively and allow them to dry-marinate up to three days before serving. But does she truss them?
I flipped open my copy of Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and read the following:
“We don’t bother trussing the chicken–I want as much skin as possible to blister and color.”
In other words, when you truss the chicken and pull the legs and wings close and tight against the carcass, the skin in those areas will not brown or crisp. I was hungry to hear more of Rodgers’ thoughts on trussing (or not trussing) and fired off an e-mail to her office on Friday. Unfortunately, I have not gotten a response. I would love to know if Rodger’s untrussed chickens somehow cook unevenly, if they suffer in appearance or if the skin splits at the joints. Apparently, untrussed birds can also be turned during roasting. Rodgers recommends turning the chicken once after about 30 minutes in the oven.
In any case, Rodgers confirms for me that chickens don’t need to be trussed for roasting. All I do is tuck the wing tips under the wings so they don’t burn. But I wonder what my readers think. Have you ever performed a side-by-side test of chickens roasting trussed and untrussed? Know anyone who has?
Two days after this post was published, I received the following e-mail from Judy Rodgers:
About trussing, and why we don’t:
As I wrote in the book, not trussing leaves more skin to brown and crisp up, which I like. (By extension, you DON”T get that slippery un-cooked skin than is trapped in the folds of a lovingly trussed chicken) As far as evenness of cooking—hmmm—sure, there is some risk that the ends of the drumsticks could burn, but you can monitor and pivot the bird if they start to get too dark. Related to that, the meat around those ankles is definitely done, perhaps more than if it were pressed against the breast meat, but I rather like that effect—especially as it is wrapped in crisp tasty skin. We do twist and tuck the wings back under themselves, so they don’t get burned As far as the breast meat– it cooks nicely, evenly in my experience. Apart from this—when talking even-ness you can’t NOT talk about resting: the bird (or almost any roast) will be more evenly cooked if it rests (and finiashes cooking) for appropriate time after it comes out of the oven before you cut it. How long is a function of how big the bird is—our scant 3# birds rest about 10 minutes in a warm spot.
Our practice of salting the chicken early plays a role too—it means the birds hang on to their moisture and during this resting phase the juices distribute themselves evenly throughout the flesh.
Does that answer it?