the life of brine*

moist roast chicken with yoghurt & crispy sage

There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you guys for a while and now that we have Christmas rapidly sneaking up on us and for our American friends, Thanksgiving just around the corner, it seems that there’s no time like the present to share a new technique that I’ve been discovering.

My first foray into the world of brining was almost two years ago. I was cooking Christmas lunch for my family and was wanting to try out something other than the dry old turkey that I’d dished out the year before. My Mum, however was pretty keen on the old tradition and at that stage I was working for a company that gave each employee a frozen turkey for Christmas so it seemed that turkey we would have.

Luckily I stumbled across a Gourmet Traveller recipe for brined turkey which extolled the virtues of soaking your bird in a salt and sugar solution prior to baking. With the promise of moist and well seasoned turkey flesh, I quickly decided that really I didn’t have anything to loose. And how happy was I when said bird was served for Christmas lunch with praise that was previously only associated with the stuffing and the luscious glazed ham.

Of course it took until over a year later for me to realize that if brining could make turkey breast succulent, then surely it could benefit other types of meat and poultry. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I was dabbling with Heston Blumenthal’s perfect roast chicken that I gave brining another go. And while Heston’s brine which is based solely on salt had the same finger licking effect on the moistness of the meat, it did make for a seriously salty eat.

Since then I’ve experimented with a rack of pork, jumbo quail, and spatchcock as pictured above and while I don’t mean to be blowing my own horn, all have been a success. It does take a lot more effort and planning, but trust me, the rewards far outweigh the pain and if you’re contemplating tackling a turkey any time soon I highly recommend giving your bird a pre baking soak. If, however , you aren’t quite up to such a big bird, you could always take baby steps with a humble old chicken given a bit of dressing up in the form of yoghurt and sage….all good things.

moist roast chicken with yoghurt & crispy sage
serves 4

Inspired by Sam & Sam Clarke in the Moro Cookbook.

Sam & Sam use the traditional labneh, which is a delicious yoghurt cheese popular in the middle east. It’s simple to make, just take yoghurt and drain it in a muslin lined colendar in the fridge for a few days but the problem is that it does really take a few days. You can buy commercial labneh but I found mixing yoghurt with cream cheese gave an instant result with the right flavour and consistency.

I have made this dish without brining first and if you are short of time it is still a tasty chicken, you’ll just be missing out on the beautifully seasoned super moist flesh but trust me, you’ll still love this chook.

for the brine:**
4L water
350g salt
250g sugar
large bunch thyme
10 peppercorns
for the chook:
1 medium free range chicken (1.4 – 1.6kg)
1 large red onion, peeled & sliced into 5mm thick rings
125g Philidelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
125g natural yoghurt
1 clove garlic, peeled & finely chopped
1 large bunch sage
1 lemon

Bring 2L of the water to the boil in a very large stockpot and add salt, sugar, thyme & peppercorns and stir until sugar and salt have dissolved. Remove from heat and stir through the remaining 2L water (preferably chilled to speed up the cooling process). Allow to cool and refrigerate until chilled. Wash chicken and add to the brine using a plate to keep it submerged. Return to the refrigerator for 3-5 hours. Drain chicken, rinse well and pat dry.

Remove the chicken from the fridge at least an hour prior to when you want to start cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 220C (non fan forced). Place onion on the base of a roasting pan and place chicken on top breast side down. Cook for 15mins to start getting the bottom browned.

Meanwhile, whisk together softened cream cheese and yoghurt until smooth. Stir through garlic and finely chop half the sage leaves and stir through as well. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn upright. Being careful not to burn yourself (the chicken won’t be too hot but the pan might) use your fingers to separate the chicken skin from the breast. Using a teaspoon, stuff the yoghurt mixture under the skin working it down to the legs as well if possible. Don’t worry if you tear the skin, just patch it up with the yoghurt mixture and it will keep all the juices in. Cut lemon into halves cross wise and stuff into the chicken cavity. Scatter over remaining whole sage leaves and season well. Drizzle with olive oil and return to the oven with the chicken breast side up and cook for an additional 1 – 1½ hours or until chicken is well browned and cooked through. Allow to rest for at least 15mins but up to a couple of hours.

To serve, remove lemon halves and reserve. Chop chicken in half lengthwise and then crosswise to give 4 pieces in total. Divide chicken and onion rings between warmed plates and drizzle over cooked lemon juice and pan juices and enjoy with a simple salad.

*Credit for the title for this week’s post has to go to a certain quick witted Irishman. Always look on the bright side of life.

**Note. If you are planning to cook a turkey or other size bird you’ll need to adjust the soaking time accordingly. For a turkey you’ll need at least 24hours and up to 36 and remember to leave enough time for the turkey to come up to room temperature between brining and roasting. Of course for a smaller bird, like jumbo quail you’d only need 2-3 hours.

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