“We can learn to be cooks but we must be born knowing how to roast.” -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as quoted in Jeffrey Steingarten’s “As the Spit Turns” in It Must Have Been Something I Ate (Knopf).
“Some people roast a chicken and then peel off and discard the skin. What is the point? If you can’t stand the skin, stay out of the chicken.” -Steingarten himself in “As the Spit Turns”
I shudder a bit when the oven in our backyard at the cottage is referred to as the “pizza oven”. I do it myself because “wood-fired oven” is cumbersome and “outdoor brick oven” even more so but I really don’t want it to be thought of as some one-trick pony. The oven’s on an island away from the tentacles of the homogenized orange pizza delivery empire but still it was a lot of work and uses a lot of wood to just make one dish, no matter how delicious. That’s why when the oven was being lead through the curing process (days of low, long fires to gently drive the moisture out of the masonry) I made a point to cook a variety of dishes. Pulled pork for tacos, steak grilled over coals, and probably best of all, roast chicken.
The guys at The Paupered Chef have written more than one post about roast chicken (my favourite of their methods is the recipe that calls for croutons under the chicken to catch the fatty drippings). I’m not as roast chicken obsessed as they are but it is a dish I think a lot about and I thought I might be able to use a rotisserie to roast a chicken in the brick oven.
In “As the Spit Turns” Steingarten offers hypotheses for why rotisserie cooking is so successful: it’s self-basting; the chance of scorching is reduced because as the meat spins each side is never close to the heat source for very long; cooking might be sped by inner juices being forced to circulate through the meat; and by spinning the meat through hot air the positive features of a convection oven are simulated, to some extent. I tend to agree with all of these (especially the first, second, and fourth theories) but think it’s necessary to note that Steingarten is specifically writing about cooking with an electric-powered rotisserie, possibly in a unit with a electric heat element. The positives are a good start but it seems just as important to take an accounting of the negative side of rotisserie’s ledger before we devise an ideal system. Namely:
- To work properly a rotisserie that is electric-powered needs the load to be almost perfectly balanced and symmetrical and this almost always means tying the meat to the spit. As Steingarten writes this is even more important with a counter-top rotisserie that has an electric element. On top of the fact that this is one of my least favourite kitchen activities there is a very good argument to be made (as Steingarten attributes to Barbara Kafka) that when the legs are tied tightly to the chicken’s body the breast is even more likely to be over-cooked by the time the thighs are done.
- This is the most accidentally unhygienic method of food preparation I can think of. The skewers that these rigs come with are often as long as three feet and by the time the whole piece of meat (often poultry) is properly centred and secured (not to mention seasoned and or marinated) only God knows how many spots have touched by chickeny goodness. Yes, obviously we all wipe work surfaces down after we cook but this is much easier in a professional kitchen that’s all stainless steel and colour-coded cutting boards or if a three-foot skewer isn’t involved.
- Most importantly rotisseries are often a pain in the ass because the mechanism fails work. If the load is not perfectly balanced the motion tends to stutter as the heavier side moves upward and then like a roller coaster it crests over the top jumps back into high speed and that only flings the heavier side further off balance. I have vague childhood memories of my dad breaking out the rotisserie at Easter to cook a leg of lamb. Especially when Easter is early we can have very marginal barbeque weather in this part of Canada so more than once a rain-basted lamb roast had to be brought inside for a change of rotisserie motor or re-balancing.
With my rotisserie rig from Bass Pro Shops set up inside the wood-fired oven I roasted a semi-premium grocery store chicken. The first concern I solved by accident. One leg of the chicken popped out of the grocery store supplied string and as current thinking would predict that thigh came out properly cooked while the other was under-done. I was cooking with a wood fire raked to both sides of the bird so this test was entirely scientific but I’m convinced.
The hygiene problem was dealt with by working outside Martin Picard style. This presents different challenges–flies, dogs, and marauding children to name three–but at least there aren’t as many “clean” surfaces for the chickeny skewer to accidentally poke.
Finally, the beauty of the Texsport rotisserie is that in true olde time style it’s hand powered. The chicken was cooked in about forty minutes and obviously I didn’t stand by the oven the whole time slowly rotating the skewer so it was probably moved ninety degrees about ten times. This almost totally negates the speculative benefits of constant motion (self-basting, movement of inner juices, and convecting through the hot air) but the results I achieved were still outstanding. Slightly smoky, very juicy meat with deliciously burnished (singed slightly in two spots, see picture at top of the post) and crispy skin.
My success with the mostly-stationary rotisserie makes me think that it’s the dry heat and wood fire that are the key elements. Working on the assumption that dry is better I also constructed two impromptu brick towers to rest the skewer on during the chicken’s fifteen minute, uncovered rest. More experimentation will be needed but this will have a definite effect on how I roast chickens, and that most important fall fowl, the turkey.
Also, I realise that it will become tiresome if the first (unstated) step of every recipe I offer is “1. Build a pizza oven” but, well, I don’t really care. First, I’ve built one and now I’m going to make sure I use and that means writing about it and there is a community online that has done the same and will appreciate the recipes, I hope. But also many of the advantages of a brick oven can be mimicked with a dozen firebricks and a conventional heat source (oven, propane grill, etc.). At under $2 a piece these are cheaper than most “gourmet” pizza stones and much more flexible.