I had a revelation recently, and you might not agree with me. After all, everyone knows not to overcook chicken. No one wants to fight over the bottle of barbecue sauce just so they can choke down a dry, chewy piece of meat. But bear with me here: I’m not actually talking about boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Those lean (but boring) cuts might be the popular poster child for every eat-healthy movement, but you’re basically asking for a stringy, rubbery experience.
What I’m talking about is chicken – the whole chicken. The kind that has its bones intact and the skin still hanging around. Between the skin’s protective fat layer and the heat-conducting bone, your meat won’t dry out and shrink when it’s exposed to all that oppressive heat. A properly cooked, bone-in, skin-on chicken is juicy, plump, and flavorful. There is a slight problem, though. A whole chicken is kind of gross. All those bones are connected by sinews and tendons (aka, the flappy things), which (if undercooked) you’ll have to navigate as you eat it. That gives you an overly realistic view of what a live chicken looks like, an experience which you may blissfully (albeit, naïvely) avoid as you eat a shredded chicken breast.
And yet, despite that, I love dark meat chicken! I have only the fondest memories of old-school KFC, available to me only at potluck get-togethers (because I’m pretty sure my mother would never let that greasy stuff into the house). I would dig through the bucket, looking for the prized piece: the drumstick. It had the perfect breading-to-meat ratio, with more of that super-crispy skin than any of the other pieces. And then there was the meat itself – so juicy that you needed a whole roll of paper towels nearby.
I’m not sure how they did it, but there was no such thing as a dry piece of chicken from KFC back in the day. Maybe it’s the memberberries tugging at my nostalgic heartstrings, or maybe it really is true that deep-frying makes everything better. Either way, I’ve never been able to make a drumstick I like as much as the Colonel’s. He had to have some kind of secret, and I was determined to find out what it was.
I tried all the tricks – soak the chicken in egg and buttermilk for 24-hours (which, indeed makes it super tender and juicy). Let the chicken come to room temperature before cooking (yup, tempering the chicken = less cook time = juicier meat). Double-dredge the chicken so it steams inside the coating (okay, that actually might be KFC’s secret, but it only works if you want to make fried chicken for the rest of your life). Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
Then I remembered an old cookbook I have (like, 1900s old) that instructs you to roast your chicken “until it is done.” When exactly is that? When the joint of the chicken moves easily from the meat. Which got me thinking – we’re so focused today on food safety that we forgot about how to really cook a chicken. Experts will tell you to cook poultry until an instant read thermometer registers 175°F in the thickest part of the thigh, but is that really the right temperature for tender meat? I mean, a pork chop is safe to eat at 135°F, but that doesn’t mean I’m cooking a tough pork shoulder to the same temp (which is shreddable between 190°F and 200°F). And you can safely eat high-quality beef raw as tartare, but there’s no way I’m subjecting my jaw to a piece of undercooked brisket!
Back in this cookbook’s time, they didn’t care about food safe temperatures. They were mostly concerned about making their food palatable. They cooked with their senses: by tasting, smelling, and assessing how much the meat bounced back when they poked it. They noticed how golden brown the skin was and adjusted the heat, or listened to whether the pan was sizzling in just the right way. These tried and true techniques were passed down as one simple instruction: pay attention and cook your food until it’s done.
So, I threw away the thermometer and cooked a bird the old-fashioned way. I tried it spatchcocked, beer-canned, trussed, and broken down into the good old 8-piece chicken. In every occasion, I ended up overcooking the shit outta that bird. And you know what? I’ll be damned if those pesky drumstick tendons had disappeared, and all the meat was perfectly juicy (even that bone-in, skin-on chicken breast).
If you disagree, no worries. Keep on using a thermometer, invite me over for dinner, and I’ll be totally stoked – I’m pretty sure I’ll eat every bite! But, then, come over to my house and let me cook you the best bird of your life. It’ll be overcooked, but trust me: it’ll also be phenomenal.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].