A chicken and a pint of milk in every pot! I admit it sounds a little off, like trying to cook by Mad Libs, but we should consider making it our new rallying cry for 2015.
The pairing is the basis of a famously simple technique from Jamie Oliver: He cooks a whole chicken slowly in milk, which results in a messy, meaty, caramel pile of chicken that’s had the resistance simmered straight out of it. It will make you stop talking and tear in, however unpolished it may look. The Kitchn’s Executive Editor Faith Durand called it “the best chicken recipe of all time.” I’m inclined to agree.
To make it yourself, you do little more than brown a whole chicken in a pot and then dump in five other things: milk, sage, cinnamon, lemon zest, and garlic. You will dirty approximately one pot, one peeler, one measuring cup, and one pair of tongs. The first part takes some mildly awkward maneuvering with the tongs, and the skin may tear in the process, but just bear in mind how rustic this thing is going to be by the end and don’t stress.
Baste only when you remember as it cooks down in the oven for an hour and a half — it’s a good excuse to spy on what it’s doing and get better access to its uplifting smells. By the end, “the lemon zest will sort of split the milk, making a sauce which is absolutely fantastic,” as Oliver writes in the recipe — which is a charming way of saying the sauce will break, or curdle, without apology. This is good.
The word “curdled” is all mixed up in our heads — it’s what happens when milk goes off, yes, or when you’re meant to scald milk and it suddenly turns into a clotted mess. But intentional curdling is also what’s at work when you add lemon or vinegar to milk (or whey) to make fresh cheeses like ricotta or paneer. And it’s what happens here, on purpose, all around your chicken. (Oliver isn’t the least bit afraid of curds — you might recall how lemon juice, olive oil, and cottage cheese swirl together in his oddly beautiful dressing for beet salad.)
What this does for the chicken is one thing: Braising tends to make meat more tender, especially the sort with taut joints and connective tissues that will melt under low, sustained heat. And braising in milk does so in an especially gentle, almost caressing way. “The lactic acid present in milk tenderizes the meat, making it juicy and sweet,” Emiko Davies explained in her excellent article on the Emilia-Romagnan technique of braising pork in milk, made famous by Marcella Hazan.
But beyond this technical stroke of brilliance is one of artistry: Have you ever had sage, cinnamon, lemon zest, and garlic together in anything? (Google says: doubtful.) Is there any cuisine in the world where these flavors are routine, or just in the mind of Jamie Oliver? The cleansing brightness of lemon, the foresty thump of sage, the spicy heat of cinnamon and sharper edge of garlic are all dominating presences that, added carelessly, can take over. But here, defying their pushy natures, they keep each other in check and together make a sauce that seems to have a restorative, chakra-aligning sort of power.
Some of you will not want to listen, and will want the sauce to be smooth and refined. You can blend it, but frankly, scraping it all up to do so is a chore. Or, according to Cook’s Illustrated, you can add a few tablespoons of fat to keep the sauce from curdling: “The fat molecules … surround the casein clusters, preventing them from bonding,” they say (which is why cream doesn’t seize up the way milk does). But the added fat is unnecessary and, as most people will tell you, the curds are the best part, and the split sauce is actually the point.
Serve the chicken with a starch that can benefit from a flavorful sauce — mashed potatoes or grains or, simply, bread. A side of something green will straighten up your animal posture and brighten the plate. Spend a little time with this recipe and you’ll be looking for more sauces to split, more ways to make chicken fall to pieces — and you’re in luck, because I have another one coming for you in a few weeks.
Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk
Adapted slightly from “Happy Days with the Naked Chef” (Hachette Books, 2002)
One 3-lb. organic chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. (1 stick) butter or olive oil
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 good handful fresh sage, leaves picked
Zest of 2 lemons, peeled in thick strips with a peeler
6 garlic cloves, skins left on
1 pint milk
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and find a snug-fitting pot for the chicken. Season the chicken generously all over with salt and pepper and fry it in the butter or olive oil, turning the chicken to get an even color all over, until golden. Remove from the heat, put the chicken on a plate, and throw away the butter left in the pot (or save for another use). This will leave you with tasty sticky goodness at the bottom of the pan, which will give you a lovely caramel flavor later on.
Put your chicken back in the pot with the rest of the ingredients, then cook it in the preheated oven for 1 1/2 hours. Baste with the cooking juice when you remember. (Oliver leaves the pot uncovered, but you can leave it partially covered if you’d like it to retain more moisture and make more sauce.) The lemon zest will sort of split the milk, making a sauce, which is absolutely fantastic.
To serve, pull the meat off the bones and divide it on to your plates. Spoon over plenty of juice and the little curds. Serve with wilted spinach or greens and some mashed potato.
This article originally appeared on Food52.com: http://food52.com/blog/12101-jamie-oliver-s-chicken-in-milk
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