Grilled spring chicken: The case for brining and poaching
Some people have grilling in the blood, but I had to learn by a slow process of trial and error, said chef Erin French in The Lost Kitchen (Clarkson Potter). Grilling over wood or charcoal is “a lot like sailing”— “you have to constantly adjust.” But I’ve developed a fairly failproof method for grilled chicken, which I share below.
I start with small spring chickens, brine them overnight, then poach them in the brine. As a result, “the bird spends just enough time over the fire to crisp up and soak in that smoky flavor—and not dry out.” When I’m gathering branches on my Maine property for the fire, I have a simple rule: “If it’s a tree that yields something edible—like maple, cherry, or apple—then chances are its wood is going to create something for the greater good of your stomach.” I especially like to use apple, for its sweetness.
Recipe of the week
Applewood-grilled spring chicken
2 whole spring chickens (2. to 3 lbs each) Basic brine (recipe below)
½ cup maple syrup
1 stick unsalted butter
Truss birds with string, or use my “no strings attached” method: First, take wing tips and tuck them behind body. Next, go to bottom of breastbone, where you’ll find an extra flap of skin. Make a tiny slit, about ¼-inch long, and pull each drumstick through.
Submerge birds in cool brine; refrigerate overnight. In a large pot over medium heat, bring chicken and brine to slow boil. Reduce heat and simmer until just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Immediately remove chicken from brine; let cool to room temperature.
Prepare grill using applewood branches or chips. Once fire tames and the wood ashes over, rake hot embers to one side of grill. In a small saucepan, heat maple syrup and butter; stir until butter is melted and well incorporated. Put birds breast side down on the cooler side of the grill. Cover grill, keeping air vents half open. Adjust if needed, closing vents more if fire gets too hot; you’re aiming for 325 to 375. Once breast side is browned, about 8 minutes, turn chickens. Using pastry brush, baste with butter mixture frequently, covering grill in between bastings.
Continue to rotate and baste birds until golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Watch chickens closely; the fire can’t be allowed to get too hot. Arrange finished chickens on a platter, garnished with apple blossoms, if desired. Serves 6.
(Makes 4 cups; increase as needed)
1⁄3 cup kosher salt
1⁄3 cup sugar
½ cup juniper berries
2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
Combine 4 cups water, salt, sugar, juniper berries, peppercorns, and bay leaves in pot; bring to boil. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve, then remove from heat and allow to cool completely before using.