Un-Roast Chicken

Sliced breast and ballotine

There’s no meal more perfect than a classic roast chicken for Sunday lunch with blah blah tradition family gravy blah.

The legal requirement of anyone writing about roast chicken to recollect food memories and discurse on the essence of tradition and family dinners. It is left to authorial prerogative to decide whether it was a mother or a grandmother accountable for roasting the bird, and we get to select your own unique method for getting the impeccably crispy skin or the most succulent meat – popular choices include basting and an internally applied lemon.
The cold hard truth is that the Arcadian ideal of roast chicken lingers large in the memory but lacks a little in reality.

Chicken jointed

Lets break it down.

Chicken, like every other animal, has a number of different cuts that are all cooked best in completely different ways. The largest cuts of chicken are the breast, which is a lean, tender cut that doesn’t need a lot of cooking, and the legs, which are tougher, fattier, and are best cooked for longer at a low temperature. This means that by the time the legs of your chicken have completed roasting, the breast is dry and overdone.

“Dry and overdone” is what everyone has been drilled to learn is the minimum standard that poultry should be cooked to, but this conventional wisdom is safe to discard. On health grounds, there is no scientific justification to treat poultry differently from any other meat. Perfectly cooked chicken (with an internal temperature around the 60-65C mark) should be illegal only because it is so delicious.

Breast vac packed

To get roast chicken right, some traditional methods are going to be replaced by modern technique and technology. The bird isn’t going to make it to the table in one piece – we’ll be disassembling it. And technically speaking, we’re not going to be “roasting” anything, but rather cooking it sous vide in a temperature controlled water bath. But if that mythic memory of the perfect roast chicken can ever be truly replicated, this is the closest I’ve come to it.

We’re keeping the stuffing though. Some traditions are sacred.

(Un)Roast Chicken Breast and Ballotine

Cross section breast and ballotine


For the brine: (Optional)

  • 1.5L water
  • 12g salt
  • 12g brown sugar
  • 5g coriander seed
  • 5g peppercorns
  • Bouquet garni (6 parsley stems, 3 sprigs of thyme and 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle)

If you want to brine the chicken, bring the water to the boil, take it off the heat, dissolve the sugar and salt and add all the other ingredients to infuse. Reserve the brine in the fridge to cool completely.

  • 1 whole chicken (get the best your budget allows. I got a 100 day old chicken from The Ginger Pig at Borough Market)

For the stuffing:

  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • Oil or butter, for frying
  • About 2 slices worth of coarse fresh breadcrumbs
  • A handful of fresh thyme, sage or rosemary
  • Salt and pepper

Joint the chicken into 2 whole legs, 1 double breast fillet (or 2 single breast fillets if you prefer) and 2 wings. Reserve the wings and carcass for another purpose (such as chicken stock). If you’re brining the chicken, add the breast and legs to the cold brine now and reserve in the fridge for 3-6 hours.

Meanwhile, to make the stuffing, fry the onion over a low heat until soft and tender but not coloured. Add the breadcrumbs and herbs and continue to cook over a low heat for 5 minutes. Season well, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Stuffing ballotine

Remove the chicken pieces from the brine, rinse in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Bone out both legs as one whole piece (see tips section below for how to do this). Lay the boned leg out flat on top of a sheet of clingfilm.  Arrange the stuffing as a line running the whole length of the leg (see the picture above). Use the clingfilm to help you wrap the meat to completely enclose the stuffing and to hold it in shape as firmly as possible. Tightly tie the clingfilm with string as close as possible to one end of the ballotine. Gently reshape the chicken into a cylinder shape as best as you can before tying off the other end. Seal in a sous vide bag.

Ballotine vac packed

Season the chicken breast with salt and pepper and arrange it so that as much of the skin is as flat and taut as possible. Seal in a sous vide bag with a knob of butter and a couple of leaves of your favourite herb (eg: thyme).

Cook the breast and ballotines in a water bath set to 64C for  2 hours

Once cooked, the chicken can be eaten immediately or reserved for 2 days in the fridge. If reserving, cool the bags down rapidly by immersing them in ice water until completely cold. Reheat in the water bath at 60C for about 30-40 minutes or until warmed all the way through.

Open both bags, remove the chicken and unwrap the clingfilm. Drain any juices (use these for gravy) and pat dry with paper towels. Using a heavy based saucepan and a high heat and turning constantly, sear the outside of the breast and ballotines all over until the skin is golden and crispy.

Slice and serve immediately.

Sliced breast and ballotine 2

Tips for Geeks

I’ve seen a couple of other modern recipes for roast chicken. In his book/BBC series “In Search of Perfection“, Heston Blumenthal roasts his chicken in the oven at 65C. I haven’t had a chance to try this because most ovens won’t reliably hold a temperature that low, but the principle of slow cooking to the exact temperature required is the same as the water bath method which I describe so I would expect it to work very well.

As far as more traditional advice goes, most “tricks” are generally either good or neutral advice. Common ones to make crispy skin include marinading in oil; rubbing all over with salt; air drying the skin in front of a fan or in the fridge; starting or finishing with a high temperature blast; and basting with hot oil. Tricks for keeping the meat moist tend to be things like brining or injecting with brine; stuffing a lemon inside; and roasting on a trivet of vegetables. None of these are going to make a roast chicken any worse, but they’re not going to save you from an overcooked bird either.

Skinless, boneless chicken breast, sold in packets at the supermarket, is the most popular way for people buy chicken. It’s not impossible to make something nice out of it, but it pales in comparison to thigh meat and wings, and the crispy crunchy flaky fatty salty skin might be the best part of all, so to peel that off just feels like a crime.

A really cool meal that I’ve done a couple of times is to cook not just the breast and legs separately, but serve every piece of the chicken cooked in the best possible way – oven roasted wings, liver pate, confit heart and gizzard salad and the carcass used to make a consomme.

Ballotine whole

The official UK guidelines for cooking poultry is that it be cooked to an internal temperature of 70C for 2 minutes or 75C for 30 seconds in order to pasteurise it. Bacteria start dying off at temperatures as low as 45C-50C however, and die exponentially more rapidly as the temperature climbs. For this reason, it is possible to cook poultry to a lower internal temperature (60-65C in this recipe) and have exactly the same or greater degree of safety, providing you increase the length of time that it remains at this temperature.

Because of the official guidelines, most chicken you will ever have tasted has been cooked to at least 70C, but more commonly 80C+. The result is dry, overcooked chicken.

For more information on these issues, you can read Modernist Cuisine vol 1 p180.
Ballotine cross section
Stuffing is one of my favourite parts of a roast chicken dinner, but it has the unfortunate effect of exacerbating the overcooking problem. To properly cook the stuffing (especially something like a pork sausagemeat stuffing) you need to roast the chicken for longer than you’d cook an unstuffed chicken, which risks taking the breast meat even further into overcooked territory. I don’t believe in cooking stuffing outside of the bird (you can do it, but you have to call it something else), so I really like the stuffed ballotine alternative.

Brining chicken is something I’m still experimenting with. Heston recommends an 8% salt brine (80g of salt per litre of water) for 6 hours. David Chang uses a 7% salt and 10% sugar brine for 1-6 hours. I’ve split the difference and gone for 8% salt and 8% sugar for six hours

The idea with brining is that the salt, sugar and the aromatic flavours of the herbs and spices in the brine are transferred deep into the chicken by process of osmosis. The salt also works on the protein in the meat in such a way as to cause it to hold on to water better.
100 day old chicken
If you don’t know how to joint a chicken, there’s a good video with instructions here. For this recipe however, you DON’T want to cut the leg into thigh and drumstick – leave it whole.

There are a couple of different methods for boning out a chicken leg. This video is the same way that I do it.

Jointing or deboning a chicken is not hard, just take your time and work carefully. It’ll take ages the first time, but you’ll get faster. If you’re not up for doing it yourself, just ask your butcher to cut it up for you.

With both the breast and the ballotine, try to get the skin as flat and taut as possible when you put it in the bag, so that when you sear it it goes really crispy.

The flavour of the herbs is intensified by vacuum sealing them in the bag with the breast. Be sparing.

Sealed, uncooked vac packs are great for freezing. You can do a batch of them in advance, and drop them straight in the water bath from frozen (you’ll need to increase the cooking time)

When cooking in a water bath, the temperature of the water is usually set to the final temperature that you want the meat to be at for serving. This means that it’s not really possible to overcook food by leaving it in for too long. As such, the 2 hour cooking time is a bit arbitrary – if you leave it in for 4 or even 6 hours , the chicken will be largely the same. I say 2 hours in the recipe a little conservatively – I think probably 70 minutes would be enough – but I want to make sure that the chicken has plenty of time not just to cook but also to pasteurise, as per my earlier note on low-temperature cooking.

Because the meat is so moist, gravy is not quite as essential with this dish as with conventional roasts. Which is handy, because you get a little bit of meat juice for making it with. However, if you cut up the chicken yourself, you should have some wings and a carcass that can be roasted up and simmered down with the vegetable water to make a delicious sauce.

It’s crucial before searing that the outside of the chicken should be dry. Water on the surface of the meat will prevent you from getting the gorgeous crispy golden quality to the chicken skin.

Breast side by side

6 thoughts on “Un-Roast Chicken

  1. StefanGourmet

    Great post on cooking chicken! Only thing I do differently is that I cook the chicken breast sous-vide at a lower temperature than the chicken legs. You can actually go as low as 57C for the breast, as long as you cook it long enough to pasteurize (3 hours or so). The legs do need the 2 hours at 64C to be cooked — it takes some time for the heat to get to the center.

    • smokeandthyme

      Ah, interesting. I’d tried doing the legs at a lower temperature before, but preferred them a little more done. I then took that as my guide for cooking the breast, so I might try it again a little lower.

      RE: heat getting to the centre of the legs – I don’t know if you’ve checked this directly, but my guess is that if you probed them, there’s wouldn’t be a huge difference in terms of heat penetration based on cut. If anything, breast should take longer because it’s thicker. But it makes sense that the legs would want either a longer time or a higher temperature to break down connective tissues or different proteins in the dark meat.

      • StefanGourmet

        You are correct that there isn’t a huge difference in terms of heat penetration based on cut (although bone-in or bone-out will make some difference). What I meant is that since legs (like breast) have some thickness, it will take about an hour or so for the heat to reach the center, and only then the connective tisssue in the dark meat in the center will start to break down at a quick enough pace. This is why legs need at least 2 hours to become tender. Breast is already tender, so you just need to cook it long enough to pasteurize. I have a more involved explanation on my blog if you are interested.

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