Baked in a Salt Crust. That’s quite a phrase to me. It appeals to the eater in me, who also happens to be the cook at my house. I like it because it’s such a simple cooking method. But the results will amaze you. The flavor of whatever you cook in a salt crust gets amplified. The crust keeps things moist, but surprisingly not at all “salty” or at least not too salty because everything is so well seasoned. I cannot say exactly why this is, because salt often draws all the moisture outâ€“ at least in the short run. So I am going to guess our old friend osmosis is at work here. Maybe the juices are drawn out by the salt during cooking and then sucked back in (nicely seasoned) by Mr. Osmosis in the resting phase… maybe.
Anyway, salt crusts work. You have seen it done with fish, I do it regularly with fingerling potatoes, but the Italians have a classic version with a whole chicken baked in a salt crust. I have come across many recipes for chicken cooked this way. They all seem to have lots of the the traditional flavor accompaniments you might expect: Herbs, Spices, Citrus. But my version is very pared down. In fact I have removed all the herbs and other seasoning except thyme, a little pepper and of course the salt.
Done well, a salt crusted chicken is pure chicken-y chicken-ness that tastes so darn much like chicken. I have a pet peeve when it comes to baked or roasted chicken. People tend to tart it up. Some of the recipes I have seen have ingredient lists as long as your arm, and the method of cooking is just as convoluted. Too much everything!
I think the more is more attitude in regards to chicken has come about as a reaction to commercial over-bred, over-processed grocery store birds. It seems they are losing their chicken-i-ness. Somehow convenience and uniformity of size have become the traits breeders prize. True chicken flavor has been left at the back door. Oh well. This is another good reason to buy only the best birds. So for this recipe please seek out a smallish bird of impeccable quality. I think small birds cook better. And by better I mean quicker without drying out. I am not typically an organic pimp, but in this case organic, free-range, or kosher makes a difference. These birds still retain some of that true chicken flavor which has actually become rare in all that chicken we consume.
I am serving mine with homemade mustard. Homemade mustard is easy to make and it allows the cook to tweek the flavor in whatever direction he likes. Or she likes… or it likes… How about whatever direction WE like?
- 1 ounce yellow mustard seeds
- 1/4 dry white wine
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon minced shallot
- 1/2-teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2-teaspoon ground horseradish
- 1/2-teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4-teaspoon white pepper
In a non-reactive bowl combine all the ingredients and refrigerate overnight. The next day transfer the mixture to a mortar and pestle and work the mixture to the desired consistency. More vinegar may be necessary. If you prefer a perfectly smooth texture the job goes quicker in a blender or mini food processor.
- 1 (3-4 pound) whole chicken
- 2 bn fresh thyme
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 large egg whites
- 2 t water
- 8 c all-purpose flour
- 6 c coarse salt
- 1 T vegetable oil
- very good dijon mustard for serving
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash and thoroughly dry the chicken inside and out. Place 1 bunch of thyme loosely strewn inside the cavity.
Mix the egg whites and water in a small bowl until very well combined. Finely chop the second bunch of thyme, leaves, stems and all, placing it into a large bowl followed by the flour, coarse salt, and egg whites. Thoroughly mix this all together, take your time it should not be clumpy. Try to get the mixture to move as freely as possible as you stir the bowl. Though small lumps are inevitable.
Oil the sides and bottom of a cast iron Dutch oven with lid. It should be large enough to hold the whole chicken with plenty of room at the top and sides. Oval shaped pots work nicely. Place the whole chicken inside and and cover it with the thyme infused salt. It’s okay if bits of the chicken peek out, or if you have to mound the mixture around the bird. Put the lid on the pot and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes. You may use an instant read thermometer to assist you in the timing. 160 degrees is often indicated as properly cooked. But use your judgment.
Let the chicken rest in the pot uncovered at least 10 minutes. To serve, break the crust, remove the chicken and peel off the skin. Cut the chicken into serving size pieces an place on a platter. Serve the homemade mustard on the side.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD