Many years ago, when I was in cooking school, our French chef teachers taught us a technique for preparing poultry called “à la crapaudine.” This translates as “in the manner of a toad.” It involves cutting a bird either straight through the breast bone or removing its backbone and then opening it up and flattening it out. It’s a method that could easily have been invented by hungry hunters eager to cook a fresh-killed pigeon over a fire and is meant for high heat situations, such as grilling, or roasting in a very hot oven.
In English, this method is called “spatchcocking,” a word that sounds great but is a failure as a metaphor. I like à la crapaudine better, because with a little imagination the cooked bird does look a bit like a toad. The tail is meant to resemble the frog’s triangular head, and once upon a time chefs thought it was hilarious to place olives there to look like eyes. That said, it’s easier to write about spatchcocking – no need to hunt around the computer for the accent mark file – so spatchcocking it is.
Because a bird cooks quickly when spatchcocked, it’s important to use only young poultry – chickens labeled as fryers, broilers or roasters – or you will wind up with tough meat. Especially if your bird is free-range, which means well-developed muscles, make sure it is young.
One of the benefits of spatchcocking is that it is a fast way to get a meal on the table, especially if you pick a smallish bird; about three pounds is ideal. If you are feeding a crowd, buy two chickens and spatchcock both, rather than going for a giant roaster.
In general, I think the best way to spatchcock a bird is to use a pair of kitchen shears to cut down either side of the bird’s spine, and to remove the whole backbone (which can be used to make stock). That way, the legs, which take longer to cook than the breast, are exposed to more heat, and the breasts, which are prone to drying out, are not cut apart in a way that might make them lose moisture.
High heat cooking is meant for cuts of meat that are tender to begin with. Older animals, and the parts of animals that are full of connective tissue and strong muscles, require long, low temperature cooking to coax the meat into tenderness.
The problem is – long, slow cooking – at temperatures as low as 250 degrees, doesn’t create the delicious, crisp exterior that we all long for on a roast. When I was in cooking school, we were taught to avoid this problem by searing the exterior of a roast in a hot pan, and then placing it in the oven. The chefs believed this technique had the added benefit of “sealing in the juices.”
As it turns out, modern kitchen science has shown that this technique does not seal in the juices – only resting meat for a good 15 minutes or so after it is removed from the oven will keep the juices from running out of it when it is sliced.
Furthermore, caramelizing the exterior of a piece of meat is done much more quickly, and with less danger of toughening the meat at the end of the roasting process, when the interior of the roast is already at the ideal temperature. Because the meat is hot, its exterior sears and crisps almost instantly when placed in a smoking-hot, oiled skillet. Pork roasts with a nice layer of exterior fat are ideal for slow-cooking/final searing preparation.
Both the high heat and low heat methods lend themselves to cooking vegetable side dishes along with the meat. In the case of the spatchcocked chicken, try cutting up vegetables – potatoes, carrots, turnips, brussels sprouts, etc. – into chunks. Toss them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and arrange them by vegetable on a sheet tray (that way, if one kind of vegetable cooks faster than the others, you can scoop it off the tray before it burns). Cook them along with the chicken in the hot oven, and they should be ready to serve when the bird is.
For the pork roast, I have found that whole sweet potatoes, depending on size, take just about the same amount of time as the pork to finish cooking at a super-low temperature. I have also baked chunks of green tomatoes, apples, pears and chestnuts next to the pork, then tossed them into the pan along with the juices left behind by the searing roast along with a little port and some salt and pepper to season. Absolutely delicious.
one 3 to 3-½ pound chicken
salt and pepper
a sheet tray
a wire rack
an instant read thermometer
If possible, the night before cooking the chicken, sprinkle it lightly all over and inside its cavity with salt. Place it on a rack over a pan (to catch the drips) and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. This will help the skin to crisp up in the oven the next day.
When ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit (discard any juice that has dripped into the pan). Line a sheet tray with tinfoil. Place a wire rack on the foil and set the pan aside.
Use a pair of kitchen shears to cut the backbone out of the chicken (reserve it for stock or another use). Open the chicken up so that it lies flat. Press down hard on the breast to flatten the breast bone – it may crack; don’t worry, that’s fine.
Use a paper towel to dry the chicken off, both skin side and inside. Arrange the chicken on the rack (shown in the lower image). Rub it all over with a little oil, then lightly salt and pepper it (go light on the salt, if you salted it the night before).
Place the chicken in the preheated oven. Cook for about a half hour, turning the pan, if necessary, so that it browns evenly.
The chicken is done when the thickest part of the breast meat near the bone registers 145 degrees. The place where the thigh meets the body should be around 160 degrees at this point.
Remove the chicken from the oven and tent it loosely with tinfoil. Let it rest for at least 10 minutes before carving and serving.
Slow Roasted Pork
one loin pork roast with a nice layer of fat on top, about 3 to 4 pounds
salt and pepper
a sheet tray
a wire rack
an instant read thermometer
a cast iron or nonstick skillet
If possible, the night before, sprinkle the roast light with salt all over, then place it, uncovered, on a rack over a pan to catch drips, in the refrigerator. This will help the roast become crisp when cooked.
The next day, when ready to cook, take the roast out of the refrigerator, discard the juices that have dripped from it, dry it off with a paper towel and let it warm up at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Line a sheet tray with tinfoil then place the wire rack on the foil.
Lightly salt and pepper the pork roast (go light on the salt if you salted it the night before). Place it on the rack, fat side up, then place it in the oven.
Cook the roast until the interior of the pork reads 145 degrees on an instant read thermometer (the USDA says 145 degrees is a safe temperature for pork, but if you prefer it more well done, you may cook it to 155 degrees; it will be less juicy). This will take as much as three or more hours depending on the size of the roast. Begin testing with the instant read thermometer after two hours to ensure it does not overcook. Turn the pan occasionally so the roast cooks evenly.
When the pork has reached close to 145 degrees, begin heating the skillet over high heat. When the pork has reached 145 degrees, add about a tablespoon of oil to the skillet and swirl it to coat the whole surface of the pan. Place the roast in the pan, fat side down, and sear it until the fat has browned. Turn the roast and brown it on another side. Continue turning the roast until is brown and crisp on all sides.
Place the roast on the rack over the sheet tray and tent loosely with tinfoil. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes or so before slicing.