I like hearing bones crunch. I like to pop things out of sockets, crack ribs, and pound on meat to make it flat. Before butchers became the new rock stars, after my stint in bakeries, and before I had kids, I fantasized about being a butcher, clad in blood-swiped whites, carrying a cleaver and getting intimate with a side of beef. There’s something carnal and pleasurable about getting to know the anatomy of your food. Which is why I like to spatchcock chickens.
Spatchcock is a funny word for taking the backbone out of a bird. You do this so the breast, legs, and thighs are of a somewhat even thickness, so theoretically all of the meat cooks at the same time with nothing overcooking while your waiting for other appendages catch up. You can take out the wishbone too—that’s like the collarbone in a chicken. Do this and the chicken breasts will be pretty much on par with the height of the legs.
During my first grill post Hurricane Irene, I picked up the grill bag only to have the bottom of the paper bag start to give—the paper was weakened what with all the moisture and rain. The charcoal started to spill out of the bottom, so I did what anyone would do—caught it in my arms. And then came the millipedes. All over the bottom of the bag and yes, now my hands. I flipped out, screamed, and sent charcoal flying halfway across Clinton Hill and into Bed-Stuy. My coal-heavy beer can chicken plans quickly changed into coal-lite spatchcock chicken.
To make a spatchcock chicken you need a hot side of the grill for searing the skin and a cool side to roast the bird. While the chicken is roasting on the low-heat side, take advantage of the hot side for cooking the rest of your meal. Grill up some corn (I like to peel away the tough outer husk, bend back the tender green husk, remove the silk, and then refold the tender husk back around the corn), asparagus (make a grill pan out of heavy duty foil folded up around the edges to make a rim), or a pizza. I’ve even been put cookie dough balls on a double sheet pan (two sheet pans to insulate the bottom of the cookies from too high of a temp) to bake up for dessert (you may need to either remove some coals or spread them out to do this so the heat under the pan is blazing hot).
Spatchcock and Spice Chicken
3- to 4-pound chicken rinsed and patted dry
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons neutral oil (canola/grapeseed/vegetable)
Heat one side of a charcoal or gas grill to medium (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill for 3 to 4 seconds) and the other to medium-low (you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill for 5 to 6 seconds). If using charcoal, bank most of the hot coals to one side and keep the other side relatively lean. Set the grill grate on grill and let it heat up, then use a grill brush to scrape away any bits attached to the grates.
Place the chicken on a cutting board. Turn it upside down so the legs point away from you and the neck opening faces you. Position poultry shears to the right of the backbone—that’s the knobby looking bit on top of the neck cavity. Slice all the way down to the tail, staying as close to the spine as possible. Do the same on the other side.
Turn the chicken over. If you are going to remove the wishbone, locate it at the top of the neck cavity. Feel for the arch shape and then run your finger down to locate the tip of the wishbone near the wing joint. Snip it out using the poultry shears (removing the wishbone is optional).
Staring at the top of the breast, run your fingers under the skin separating the skin and sticky membrane from the meat to create a pocket. Do the same where the thigh connects to the lower part of the breast-area, sliding your finger up and over the thigh and under the skin. I like to keep wiggling my fingers down the leg and jostle it a bit to loosen the skin around the drumstick too.
Spoon some of the spices in each pocket you just made—some spices under the skin of each breast, and some in the thigh/drumstick pocket. Use your fingers to rub the spice over the meat. Tuck the wings behind the breasts (so the chicken looks like its reclining with its hands behind its head for a nice rest).
Pour the oil into a ramekin or small bowl. Fold up a few sheets of paper towels and use tongs to dip the paper towels into the oil. Wipe the oil across the grill grates on both sides of the grill. Place the chicken skin-side down on the hot side of the grill and cook until the skin is golden brown and nicely marked, 3 to 5 minutes. Use tongs to flip the chicken over and place it bony-side down on the cool side of the grill. Cover (make sure the vents are open in the lid if using a charcoal grill) and grill until cooked through and the juices at the thigh joint run clear, 25 to 40 minutes depending on the heat of the grill and the size of the bird. Remove the chicken from the grill and rest it for 10 minutes before carving.