“I think we’re going to starve.”
He barely got the words out, voice shaking, trying to hide his anxious, red face. We had been given a whole, raw chicken to cook over open fire for dinner and I was paired with this doubtful younger scout. I was a doe-eyed, chubby 12-year old with a fresh crew cut, excited and nervously determined to prove my partner wrong. This was my first Boy Scout Survival camping trip in the sandy woods of North Florida. The idea was for us to test our pre-teen knowledge of survival training, with limited supplies of course. In addition to our comically large backpacks, the adults had given us 6 feet of twine, 3 strike-anywhere matches, a fishhook, and this raw chicken to survive the weekend. We scoured our area of the woods for materials to build a shabby lean-to and fire pit, and we precisely measured the proper height to hang our backpacks, just out of the reach of a foraging raccoon. Now the scary part: how the heck do we cook a chicken?!
The sun began to disappear as we stared at this slimy, cold, raw bird. Our scoutmaster had driven on to the next group of eager young campers just as my brain flooded with questions. If I cooked this chicken incorrectly, would we DIE? Am I old enough to be doing this? Was this some cruel joke or did I miss the chicken-cooking merit badge? Until now, the chicken I was accustomed to seeing came pre-fried with eleven herbs and spices, served in a paper bucket. What the hell are we supposed to do? The panic began to disappear as our stomachs reminded us how long it had been since our last meal. The devised plan was simple. Paying homage to the original survivor show Gilligan’s Island, we searched the sandy forest for the ever-plentiful palm fronds. We grabbed their spiky, saw-like edges and cut them with our bright red pocket knives. I gathered Spanish moss and fallen limbs and began to assemble a fire. Together, we clumsily built a wonky suspension system where we hung our chicken over a freshly-lit open flame. For what felt like two hours, we watched our meat project bubble and singe, dangling from its wooden crane. Once it seemed pleasantly charred, we cut the smoking bird loose and let it cool on a small pile of palm leaves. I had done it! I cooked my first meal on a campfire. We sat proudly, eating crunchy, burnt chicken with plastic plates and dirty fingers by our crackling fire, and I knew I would never see food the same way again.
I have grown a lot since my days as a Boy Scout trying to roast my first chicken. Working in respected restaurant kitchens and fine dining restaurants from Florida, Atlanta and Hawaii to Europe and the Middle East, I eventually fell in love with the art of whole animal butchery and charcuterie. What I learned about myself through this journey is the joy I find in educating others, whether it be teaching how to make sausage or charcuterie, why humanely raised meat and sustainable farming matters, or to help reduce the anxiety associated with handling raw meat. So back to the Boy Scout’s chicken…
A lot of people fear raw chicken, but common sense food safety practices coupled with fresh, high quality chicken does not require a hazmat suit to prepare. First thing is first, start with high quality meat. Chickens raised in low stress environments produce better tasting and more tender meat. Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat, avoid cross-contamination by not using tongs on cooked products that have been in contact with raw meat without being washed, take a deep breath, and let’s cook some delicious healthy chicken!
Most importantly, perfectly cooked chicken should have golden, crispy thin skin and soft velvety meat. Beautifully grilled or roasted chicken can easily be the star of any home cooked meal and wow your guests. Following a few simple rules will insure that cooking your bird is a fun experience and delicious.
Chicken Cooking Tips:
· Chicken always cooks better skin-on and bone-in. The skin protects the meat to prevent burning and drying out. The bone adds flavor as the chicken cooks and helps to maintain the natural shape.
· Brining chicken helps solve the problem of dry, overcooked meat and is a great way to add a rich depth of flavor to the bird’s natural juices.
· Allow the chicken to come to room temperature before roasting. This allows for even cooking throughout the meat.
· Use a probe thermometer and test the thickest part of the chicken for the most accurate reading. The recommended temperature for poultry is 165°F.
· Adding a sauce or glaze to your chicken? I recommend adding it once the chicken reaches 155°F to avoid scorching the sauce as you finish cooking it.
Whole Roasted Chicken
1 whole Chicken, approximately 3 pounds, gizzard, heart, and liver removed
½ gallon Hog Wash Brine, room temperature or colder
· Brine the chicken for 4 hours under refrigeration.
· Preheat oven to 350°F.
· Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with a paper towel. Discard the brine. Lay the chicken flat on a cutting board, breast-side up. Twist the wings and pin behind the top of the back of the bird. This allows the wings to serve as a kind of roasting rack, supporting the bird as it cooks.
· Place the chicken on a roasting pan and cook until the thick part of the breast reads an internal temperature of 165°F, about an hour.
· Remove the chicken from the roasting pan and transfer to a platter with a lip to catch the juices. Allow the chicken to rest for 15 minutes before serving making sure to spoon the juices on the cut pieces.
Put away the hazmat suit and just cook some damn chicken!