Foodstuff: Heston's chicken

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic

Sausages made using water steeped in white bread toast, for “toastie” flavour without the bread. Blow torched rib of beef cooked in an oven for 24 hours to achieve “chariness” but avoid moisture loss. Ice cream straight from the udder (with a little help from liquid nitrogen).

Just about the most interesting thing I've seen on TV this year – save, maybe, for Shameless, The Sopranos and the occasional RocKwiz – was Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. One man’s quest to reinterpret a series of British favourites, perfectly, via the B Road, not the freeway.

Okay, the series wet to air in the UK a while ago; my clever television downloading buddy Peter gave me episodes of Perfection on disc to watch on the computer a year ago. But there is something less fiddly about simply watching them on the box as they’re broadcast, or from the hard drive where you’ve recorded them to, and getting your money’s worth out of that increasingly burdensome pay TV subscription.

Heston’s shows nailed even my short attention span.

Blumenthal, who made his name at a restaurant called The Fat Duck, in Bray just outside London, has been called a molecular gastronomist. A “mad scientist.” As he says in the introduction to Perfection: “I prefer to think of it as good old fashioned cooking with a bit of science thrown in for good measure.”

I watched his version of steak and potatoes; Black Forest cake; fish and chips; and I still have pizza waiting for me when I get home late one night and can view in peace. But I suppose I responded most to his vision of roast chicken. Like millions of us around the world, Blumenthal describes the roast chook as his young family’s most convivial, enjoyable round-table experience. Something of a ritual; a meal with trans-generational appeal.

“I wanted to keep the essence of what roast chicken signified,” says the chef,  “social interaction around a table, but I also wanted to get the most out of a chicken.”

And, like millions around the world, my roast chook usually goes something like this: pat dry, massage with olive oil, season liberally, bung a few things in the cavity like herbs, garlic and lemon, chuck into a flat out oven for 15 minutes to brown and then knock the temperature back for the remaining 45. Eat.

Not Heston. Of course not. His dilemma is, like us all, is how to achieve the twin objectives of crisp skin and moist meat. My method, he would contend, achieves the former, but not the latter. Yet slow roasting alone leaves the skin pallid and elastic.

I decided to try it his way.

Obviously, you select the best chicken you can; he went French (a chook from Bresse, home of reputedly the world’s best); I bought local, Glenloth, which at about $26 is at the upper end of chook pricing.

The bird then spends 6 hours immersed in an eight per cent brine solution. From there, it must spend an hour rinsing in a bath of plain H2O, changing the water every 15 minutes. They don’t have a drought in England, and besides, I forgot that bit, which might explain a slight saltiness at the end.

Remove and pat dry. Then, as the Chinese do for duck, the bird is plunged into boiling water for 30 seconds and then into a very icy slurry to arrest any cooking beyond the skin. Repeat.

Pat dry again, cover in a breathable cloth and put the thing in the fridge overnight, which really dries the skin out.

Attempt sleep, despite the excitement.

Five hours before you want to eat, set the oven to 60 degrees Celsius and whack the chicken in for 4.5 hours. He says an oven thermometer is “very” important; I don’t have one and went on the oven’s thermostat, which, again, may explain why the bird seemed undercooked at the end.

And undercooked chicken, I believe, can be a bit of a problem, health wise. So if you attempt this, caveat emptor and other Latin sentiments that mean “you’re a grown up, take responsibility for your own actions.”  

Once this strange-looking, pale creature emerges from the oven, the final act is to heat a pan with peanut oil very high and turn the bird in it quickly, which browns the skin rapidly. Et voila.

The result?

Well, the paper-thin, crisp skin was delightful. The bird was very moist with none of that fibrous muscle you easily get from overcooking. But I would have liked Heston on hand for a second opinion. It wasn’t exactly pink, but you wouldn’t have called it white, either. I bunged it back in the oven at “100” for another 40 minutes and, although the skin had lost some of its allure, felt far more confident about the meat second time round. Moist, tasty, relaxed…

I can sense the potential with a few more tries (and an oven thermometer).

But what a lot of palaver for a roast chook, really. The search for perfection and the lateral thinking involved in the exercise makes fascinating television, particularly in the hands of one of the world’s most interesting chefs. The pursuit of extremes always will.

But round here, we’re settling for less-than-perfect several times a month. And very happy. Pass the spuds, please.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia





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April 15th, 2009
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