Chicken Under a Brick with Pan-Roasted Red Onions

Chicken Under A Brick is a spatchcocked or butterflied bird (they mean the same thing) cooked under a weight so it remains flat and cooks evenly.  Part of the pleasure of spatchcocking is just saying it.  Repeat this sentence aloud: “Darling, we’re spatchcocking poussin tonight.”  Doesn’t that sound like heaps more fun than, “Sweetie, it’s butterflied chicken night,”?  I am not alone.   Spatchcock is one of those words that sets the hearts of etymologists aflutter, and propositions abound concerning its origins.  This much is certain: the English use spatchcock to indicate a chicken under six weeks old, the equivalent of a French poussin.  As a verb, on both sides of the Atlantic, it means to remove the backbone and  flatten the chicken, making it easier to grill or roast.  Its earliest appearance in print is in an 18th-century Irish cookbook, where it’s a recommended method of grilling poultry. But asking how the word came to be–who are its parents, aunts and uncles, distant relations–is to dive into a tangle of linguistic geneology.  One theory holds that spatchcock is a shortened form of “dispatch the cock,” with its multiple meanings of killing/prepping, and to happen quickly.   Another etymology sees it as a variation of “spitchcock,” an English technique for grilling eels on a spit (nobody can say where “spitchcock” comes from).  A particularly evocative Victorian version of the “dispatch the cock” school maintains that the word originated in the long sea voyages from England to India (posh passengers), when coops of chickens would be kept on board.  To relieve the tedium of the sea passages at sea and the monotony of a shipboard diet chickens would periodically be brought on deck and, to the amusement and anticipation of salivating passengers, partially deboned, flattened and quickly grilled.

Whatever its origins, spatchcocking chicken is simple and useful, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to cook.  All it requires is a pair of heavy-duty kitchen scissors or poultry sheers.  Follow along with the pictures in the collage below.

  • Position the bird so it rests on its breast.  Beginning at the large cavity end, use the sheers to snip along either side of the backbone.  Stay close to the bone so the “oysters,” those small delicious pockets of meat on either side of spine remains attached to the thighs.  Once you’ve snipped all the way up to the neck cavity, remove the spine.  Discard or use for stock.
  • Open the bird like a book.  Sometimes, especially on larger birds, there will be some throat structure (circled in one of the photos).  Snip that out.  Pick the chicken up and fold it “the wrong way”  until the breastbone snaps.  If necessary, give it a couple of thwacks with the sharp edge of a chef’s knife, then snap it.  If you use a knife take care not to hack all the way through the breast.  The chicken should  remain in a single piece, not be split in half.
  • Use a paring knife or your fingers to separate the cartilaginous sternum  from the muscles on either side, and pull the sternum out.  Flip the bird bird over and press flat.  Voila!  You now have a spatchcocked chicken.

At this point you can apply a rub or a marinade or just some oil and seasonings and head  outside to grill.   The fickle New England weather spoiled our plans with a series of thunderstorms and a flood alert, so we improvised inside, which is where the brick comes in.  If a butterflied chicken is skewered for a spit or rotisserie, it holds its shape, and it will do so in the uniform heat of an oven as well .  But if the heat is high, and coming from one direction, as the meat cooks unevenly (first one side, then the other) it has a tendency to warp.   With some chickens this is minor, with others they’ll pull right up off the grill and flip on one side.  The solution is to weight the chicken as it cooks.  The weight presses the meat down so more of the skin comes in contact with cooking surface, the entire chicken has a more uniform thickness and cooks more evenly.

Use your imagination for cooking weights.  In our last house (with a back yard and patio outside the kitchen door, sigh…) I had a set of patio bricks wrapped in foil I used as weights for the grill.  Once, at a  summer vacation rental, we pressed a set of antique clothing irons into service–they made fantastic weights, and seared a lovely ogival arch seared into the crispy skin.  These days we tend to just grab whatever cast-iron skillets are handy.  Use parchment between the chicken and the weight so they don’t stick, and use a fresh piece when you flip the chicken over (so you don’t cross-contaminate).  Whichever method you use you’ll get an unbelievably moist chicken with crispy skin cooked quickly.  We did all of our cooking on a stovetop griddle pan, but if you don’t like your skin as charred as we did ours, sear the chicken on both sides until very crisp, then throw the bird into a roasting pan and finish it in an oven preheated to 425°.

Ah, the joys of photography.  We purchased two free-range chickens from Stillman’s Farm, spatchcocked and seasoned one, per the directions, letting it rest overnight.  The second, we spatchcocked the next day, when there was sun enough to photograph some things without a flash.  Some of you will notice that from time to time it appears that one of our chickens has lost a wing.  Indeed, it arrived missing one wing.  So our ordinarily seamless visual narrative may, from time to time, seem underwinged.  Both chickens were delicious, with unbelievable firm (not tough) texture to the meat, as though a chicken and a half had been packed into a single chicken body.  In any event, we definitely preferred the chicken that had marinated overnight.  The seasoning didn’t stop at the skin.

Enjoy.  Ken

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Chicken Under A Brick with Pan-Roasted Red Onions

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 4-pound free range chicken
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 3-4 medium red onions, peeled and cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • ¼ cup mint leaves

Directions:

  1. Mix the paprika and cumin with 2 tablespoons salt.
  2. Place the chicken, breast side down, on a work surface.  Using kitchen shears and starting at the thigh end, cut along each side of the backbone, taking care to stay as close to the backbone as possible.  As you round the the thigh, trying to leave the “oyster” attached to the thigh bone.  Discard the backbone or save for stock. Using the heal of a chefs knife, whack the top of the breast bone to help flatten the bird.  Remove the cartilaginous sternum.  Flip chicken, and open it like a book. Press firmly on the breastbone to flatten.  Tuck the wing tips under so they don’t burn.
  3. Sprinkle the chicken all over with a heavy coating of the spice mixture.  Set on a rack in a roasting pan to collect any juices, skin side up, and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight.
  4. I like to use a cast iron griddle or heavy-bottomed sauté pan large enough to hold the chicken.  When ready to cook, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a pan or griddle over medium heat.  Add the chicken to the pan, skin side up.  Cover with parchment, then weight with bricks or cast-iron pans.  Reduce the heat to medium-low.  Cook halfway through, about 15 minutes.  You may need to reduce the heat further to keep the bird from getting too dark. Flip, replace the paper and weights, and cook until the chicken is done and the skin is really crispy, about another 15 minutes.   A thermometer should read 165ºF when inserted at the juncture of the thigh bone and drum stick.   Alternately, if you pierce the thigh at the thickest point with the tip of a knife.  The juices run clear yellow, rather than pink.  Transfer to a rack to rest, skin side up.
  5. While the chicken is cooking, cook the onions.  Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large sauté over medium-high heat.  Add the onion slices to fit in a single layer with at least ¼inch between each slice, season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium and cook on each side until golden brown and tender, about 4 minutes per side.  You may have to cook the onions in 2 batches.
  6. While the onions are cooking, cut the chicken into 8 pieces.  Cut the chicken into two halves.  Separate the leg-thigh piece from each (half) breast.  Cut each breast crosswise into two pieces; one piece will have a wing attached.  Separate the legs and thighs.   Arrange the pieces a on platter.
  7. Transfer the onions from the pan to the platter.  Add the garlic to the sauté pan and cook until aromatic, just a couple of minutes.  Add the vinegar and ¼ cup water to the pan.  As soon as  it comes to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter and thyme.  Pour the sauce over the  onions.  Garnish everything with mint leaves.

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Jody Notes:  

Hey all, I recommend serving this with a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt.  We were a little discombobulated by a change of cooking venue.  We were going to do this recipe on our outdoor grill but our very wet New England spring once again sent us inside.  In the confusion, I forgot to put the yogurt on the mis en place tray and Ken is such a stickler, he wouldn’t let me add it to the final dish.  Since this is a take on Chicken Paprikash, the creamy stuff does make sense.  

This is a great way to cook a bird so both thigh-leg quarters and breast-wing quarters cook evenly.  Since there is such intense heat against the skin, a dry rub without anything sweet works best (sugar will burn).  Although it’s not imperative to marinate the chicken overnight,  the time does allow the the chicken to develop a deeper richer flavor.  

Our son Oliver, home from Brooklyn for a couple of days, and considerably more capable with Photoshop than I am, helped me with the guides and instructions on the photos.  I owe him another New York meal.  Click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

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49 thoughts

    • Thanks for the link, Henry. Very amusing piece. You know, when I first heard the term “spatchcock” I thought it ought to mean (I know it doesn’t) “to crudely patch holes in plaster wall with plaster or sheetrock compound.” Just sound like it OUGHT to mean that. Slapdash, spackle and spatchcock all sound to my ear like they ought to be part of the plasterer’s terms of art. Ken

  1. This looks like the Portuguese chicken we were slightly addicted to during the final year of university, when a group of friends lived near some Portuguese restaurants and pastry shops.

    Spatchcocked (and bricked – we love in an apartment with no balcony) is now on my list of things to attempt, and inflict on dinner guests.

    • You know, among the many interesting alternative to Thanksgiving turkey I’ve eaten, one of the most delicious was one that was spatchcocked and roasted. It cooked hours faster, and much more evenly than a traditional gobbler, and it included that paradoxical combination one almost never experiences–juicy legs and a juicy breast. Go for it. Ken

      P.S. If you’re going to do it on a griddle, make sure your vent is in good operating orde, at least if you do it with the paprika mix. :)

  2. I’ve been prohibited from roasting a whole chicken because I always worry about whether or not I’ve cooked it long enough (despite stabbing it so many times with a thermometer that the juices have leaked out). This looks great (and is almost as easy as just chucking the whole bird in the oven). Can you believe we don’t have a grill? Thanks for the photo technique: I will have to study them well before I try it though so I don’t get raw chicken juice all over my ipad.

  3. Beautiful post! I have never dared spatchcock a chicken myself, but the pictures are quite helpful in understanding how to do it, I might just try it out some day after all! And I love the paprika rub as well! Délicieux

    • Never??!! Darya, you shock me. You project such an air of culinary confidence I would have expected you to bone a chicken with a hand tied behind your back. You should try it–it really is easy if you have the poultry shears. Isn’t a spatchcocked chicken a “poulet en crapaudine” in French–a froggy chicken? It does look rather frog-like. Thanks for the kind words. Let me know how it goes when you try it. Ken

      • Oh dear. I am certainly NOT a confident cook; but I am daring (which is NOT the same thing).
        And yes, a spatchcocked chicken is “crapaudine” in French, but a “crapaud” is a toad, not a frog. Toady chicken doesn’t sound as nice, but it is certainly what it looks like !
        There is also an heirloon variety of beet called crapaudine, in reference to its rough and wrinkled skin. It is delicious!

  4. All that flesh cutting made me a bit woozy. I’d say that’s a sign the chef and photographer are capturing the prep and baking process as realistically as possible. :)

    Love the historical context for “spatchcock,” too.

    • You know, I thought about throwing in our do-it-yourself appendectomy, but I thought that might be overload. What do you think? As a minor cultural observation, when I was coming up as a cook people were really excited to learn how to do these techniques (this isn’t a criticism, by the way, just an observation), which at the time seemed so exotic and “European.” They were certainly hands-on. I’m a big believer in the dictum that if you’re going to eat animals then you ought to take it on–you ought to acknowledge how the lived and how they’re handled, and you ought not to hand things off to someone else. It’s why we buy free-range chickens and beef. It may be a bit hard to get so involved in flesh, but it is real, and makes the animal real. End of soapbox. Today there is much more concern about animal welfare (a good thing), healthy eating (another good thing), and a distance from animal processing (a VERY bad thing). Sigh… I need to get out more. Ken

      • Ha! I’m glad you skipped the appendectomy. ;)

        I very much appreciate your cooking approaches, and I agree that if we’re going to eat animals, we should be involved in the slaughter and preparation of its body. It was a living creature at some point and recognizing that seems a preferable way to respect it over picking up prepped meat from the poultry section.

        I eat seafood, so it’s not like I’m a purist when it comes to animal eating. Last week Cameron and I purchased whole trout for a dinner. When he pulled out the meat cleaver, the energy in our tiny kitchen had a bit more gravity, and rightfully so.

        By the way, thanks for always responding to my comments, Ken!

  5. I thought I was spatchcocking our chickens – I’ve only just started doing it this winter. But I missed the part about snapping the breastbone and pulling out the sternum. Much better. I love the little ‘oysters’ too, thought I was the only one that enjoyed them or called them that. But I cut them out with the backbone, make small bit of plain broth with the backbone/oysters and the wing tips while the chicken cooks and we eat dinner. Nibble the oysters and bits of meat off the backbone for ‘dessert’ and refrigerate or freeze the broth for a vegetable soup later in the week. Thanks so much, Ken and Jody, for refining my technique. I love the finish on this dish and I’m looking forward to adding it to the routine. The diagrams on the photos add a lot.

    • Ooh, using the oysters for stock, are we? What’s nice about roasting them is the way all the fat drips through them before exiting the bird. Glad you got the missing pieces about spatchcocking–it will now lie flatter for you. Keep us posted on how it goes. Thanks for commenting. Ken

    • Okay, Michelle, you win the award for the most humorous, recondite remark. Took me a second–what is she talking about? Wait! Missing one wing – the one-armed man! You’re tipping us into a very obscure demographic niche, Michelle. :-) Very good. Ken

      P.S. No, you’re not dating yourself. Some things are timeless. Ken

  6. Just tried to make the dish….DELICIOUS….especially the onions such a simple preparation but a wonderful accompaniment! Thanks! What do you suggest as a side to the dish? Thanks again!

  7. Wow. To all of it… This is incredibly helpful. I’ve often wondered what spatchcock means (and we like our spatchcock chickens in England – they come already flattened). I love the background information on why that name came about (and how barbaric we are as a species). I’ve been reading lavender is nice to add as a marinade with chicken, with flaky salt and thyme possibly. Not sure your views on this. Thanks for the brilliant post as always. Sophie

    • Hi, Sophie–I still don’t know where spatchcock really comes from, but it’s a fun word to say, and probably better left a mystery. I’m afraid if I peer too closely I’ll discover it has its origins in some horrific pre-Ligurian initiation rite or that it’s something Angles and Jutes used to do to prisoners. Best not to turn that rock. Your marinade sounds like it could have been lifted straight from the Vaucluse. Lavender’s a funny thing. Jody doesn’t like it in food at all. But in Provence I really enjoy it in ice cream, in a sauce for fish, and as part of marinade for grilled chicken. Mariage Frères in Paris has a wonderful lavender tarte tatin. The common denominator is it’s subtlety, almost on the level of: What is that thing I’m tasting way in the background? The few times I’ve tried using lavender it seems to come out overpoweringly strong. Clearly a lighter touch is required, but I’ve been so put off I haven’t wanted to experiment further titrating myself down. But in the ever-absent quest for something new to put on the blog, perhaps… Now I’m thinking. Ken

      • Thanks, Ken. Yes, I too am grappling with it. I’m not a fan of the twee lavender cookie avenue, and I’m not sure it really works – feels like the Emperor’s new clothes. And the modern use of it in trendy dishes feels unnecessarily show-offy. I too have got my thinking cap on. Sophie

      • Sophie–I had a really delicious appetizer in restaurant in Provence some years ago–very thin slices of raw scallop dressed with an olive oil with an almost imperceptible amount of lavender. Emphasis on the almost imperceptible. Ken

  8. Terrific post. I love the language lesson and that you used plenty of red onion along side the bird. Your photos are amazing. What do you use to take them and what blogging tool do you use to edit them so beautifully?

    • Hi, Tammy. My gear is listed in the section ABOUT THE PHOTOS. Most of my editing is done in Adobe Lightroom 5. Once in awhile I’ll tweak a photo in Photoshop CS6, but not often and not much, except to combine several photos into a single image, or to write on photos. Whenever I open Photoshop I make sure that I’ve stuffed my ears with wax and that Jody has lashed me to the mast. Our blog is on WordPress, but I don’t edit any of the photos on it (I don’t even think you can, can you?) Ken

  9. Yum! Yum! This recipe seems perfect for my dinner party on the weekend, will be trying it! Phenomenal photo’s too, so appetizing! Thanks!

  10. Pingback: My Front Burner » Salad of Bitter Greens, Fennel, Almonds & Blue Cheese with Quince Dressing

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