When turkey just won't do, this herbal, succulent chicken is a more delicious and less expensive alternative for Thanksgiving. You can brine it days in advance. And for faster roasting, you can butterfly it, a technique known as "spatchcock". Scented with sage and the most beautiful golden brown from adding black tea bags to the brine, this roast chicken puts dry, bland turkey to shame.
Thanksgiving is a day for gratitude, togetherness, and in my house, simplicity. A nice bottle of wine, a few choice side dishes to warm up, and no hustling over a hot stove (I do plenty of that every other day of the year). So this quick-cooking, absolutely delectable spatchcock chicken fits in nicely with a do-less, enjoy-more holiday approach.
After a sweet tea and sage marinade and a nice hot roast, the chicken takes on the most gorgeous color. And the skin crisps up like sweet tea-flavored cracklins.
It's downright delightful (if I do say so myself).
Butterflying or spatchcocking a whole chicken is fairly easy. And can be done with a sharp knife or kitchen shears. It allows for more even cooking and a feast that starts well before sunset.
The secret to a flavorful roast bird of any kind is a brine that's chockful of aromatic vegetables, fresh herbs, and in this case, black tea and honey (or sugar). If you plan ahead, you can brine the chicken overnight. If not, you can double-up on the brine ingredients for a faster infusion on Thanksgiving day.
- kosher salt (not table salt)
- black tea bags
- honey or granulated sugar
- fresh sage
- onion, garlic, and celery, or any aromatic vegetables you have on hand
- black peppercorns, optional
- bay leaves, optional
Spatchcock Roast Chicken
- fresh, whole chicken (brined or not)
- high-heat oil such as avocado or canola
- kosher salt
- black pepper, optional
- fresh sage
On buying chicken. For a fresh chicken that hasn't been pumped full of salt and preservatives, look for a local farm or an organic, actually natural, or pastured one. Many chickens labeled natural still contain added salts and preservatives (the word "natural" on food labels isn't highly regulated).
So read the fine print. Look for the phrase "No Retained Water" on the label. Or at least a chicken with a very small amount, say around 5% or less.
On the sugar content. Since this recipe is designed for indulging, the brine contains a fair amount of sugar. But it's not all absorbed by the meat and isn't necessary for a showstopper of a roast chicken. So cut the amount in half, or eliminate it altogether if you need to avoid refined sugar. A little bit of raw honey balances out the saltiness of the brine nicely.
The process can be boiled down to three steps: butterfly, brine, and roast. And the first two can be done as early as the weekend before Thanksgiving. The longer the brined chicken sits uncovered in the refrigerator after you brine it, the more the skin dries out and the crispier it roasts up.
How to Spatchcock Chicken
I like to spatchcock the chicken before brining it to get the dirty work out of the way. But you can butterfly the chicken at any point before roasting.
- Remove any innards and pat the chicken dry.
- Place it breast side-down on your cutting board.
- Find the spine of the chicken, and cut from the tail to the neck (or neck to tail) staying as close as possible to the backbone.
- Repeat on the other side of the spine to free it from the chicken. Flip the chicken over and press down on the breast to flatten it out (you'll hear a crack which is the breastbone breaking, and what you want). Keep the chicken cold until the brine is ready.
Gather your equipment and ingredients, and read through the process once before starting (no skimming!). You never need to wash or rinse your chicken. But always wash your hands after touching raw meat.
- Brine the chicken. Combine all of the brine ingredients and two quarts (eight cups) of water in a large pot. Ready your brining container and make sure it's large enough to hold a gallon of water with room for the chicken. Bring the brine ingredients to a boil and stir to dissolve the salt and honey. Then pour it into your container, and add another two quarts of cold water or ice. Once the brine is at room temperature (which happens nearly instantly if you add ice) you can add the chicken. Nestle the chicken in the brine with the breast fully submerged and brine it for up to twelve hours.
- Dry the chicken. Remove the chicken from the brine and discard the brine. Pat it dry with paper towels. Optional: Let the chicken sit uncovered on a plate or pan in the refrigerator for up to three days. The skin will begin to turn translucent, which means it will crisp up all the better in the oven.
- Prepare to roast. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Set the chicken on the counter for at least an hour to allow it to come to room temperature. Place a spatchcock chicken skin-side up on your pan and tuck the wing tips behind the breasts. I recommend a rimmed baking pan lined with parchment paper or foil and a rack set inside. For a whole chicken, place it breast-side up, tuck the wing tips behind the breasts, and truss the legs, if you like. Drizzle or brush oil all over the skin and season it with salt.
- Roast. Roast the chicken until a thermometer reads just about 165° F in the center of the thickest part of the thigh and breast, around 45 minutes. After the first 15 minutes of cooking, you can cover the chicken loosely with foil to keep the skin from over-browning. Because of the tea in the brine, the skin will roast up extremely dark (and absolutely beautiful!).
- Rest and garnish. Let the roasted chicken rest for at least twenty minutes before carving and serving. Garnish with thinly-sliced sage leaves.
In total honestly, it all depends on your oven and the size of your chicken (I see this firsthand teaching cooking classes in my clients' own kitchens). A smaller four-pound bird can cook in under an hour. But a larger one can take up to 90 minutes, even if you've butterflied it. A meat thermometer is the one and only surefire way to know when chicken is done.
I like to take my meat out of the oven when it's a few degrees shy of the recommended temperature. Especially if you tent the chicken with foil, carryover cooking will raise its temperature a few more degrees as it rests.
- On the brine container. To brine a whole bird takes up room that many of us don't have in our refrigerators. So if you live in a northern climate where your garage is consistently less than 41° F when you plan to brine, you can place your container in the garage (make sure it's sealed airtight).
Another way is to use your sink. Fill your sink full of ice or fill a cooler with ice that fits in your sink. Then seal the brine and chicken in a brining bag, and place it inside the cooler or directly in the ice in the sink. Make sure ice completely surrounds the chicken the entire time to keep it at or below 41° F. You can use a digital meat thermometer to open the bag periodically and check the temperature of the liquid.
- To flash brine. If you are a card-carrying member of the Last Minute Club, you can still infuse your holiday bird with the flavors of the brine. Simply double-up on the herbs, vegetables, and black tea in the recipe, and add another half cup of kosher salt. Soak the chicken in the brine for up to five hours.
- Experiment with flavorings. I love sage for holiday dishes of all kinds, but most fresh herbs pair well with chicken. Tarragon, rosemary, thyme, chives, and Italian parsley all work well in the brine and for garnishing. With its addition of bergamot, Earl Grey tea would bring even more herbal, festive flavor to your Thanksgiving chicken.
Frequently Asked Questions
The black tea lends the chicken a stunning color and rich herbal flavor. It's more or less the star of the brine. But if you don't care for black tea or avoid caffeine, you can omit it, use decaffeinated tea, or opt for a traditional chicken brine recipe.
You can certainly brine a turkey with the same recipe. If you do, double the brine ingredients for a smaller turkey, and triple it for a larger one. For every gallon of water (128 ounces), you need 5 to 10 ounces or a half to one cup of kosher salt. A turkey will need to brine much longer, 18 hours on average.
I don't see why not! Substituting the water, tea, and honey with sweetened black tea is a convenient shortcut. The herbal flavor and deep color of the chicken won't be the same, but it will still be delicious.
This roast chicken, spatchcock or not, pairs well with both classic Thanksgiving side dishes and many sauces and seasonal relishes. My favorite presentation is to serve the chicken over roasted root vegetables and garnish it with tart cranberry relish.
It's truly been years since I roasted a turkey for Thanksgiving. The smaller footprint of a chicken is so much easier. And less expensive (inflation is no joke). Especially if you don't need to feed a crowd, it's just the right amount of meat for the average-size family.
And even if you end up roasting two chickens for a small gathering, you won't suffer leftover fatigue nearly as long. Or have to endure the whining that comes along with feeding your people turkey for a week straight.
Sweet Tea Brine
- 1 gallon or 4 quarts of water (or 2 quarts of water and 2 quarts of ice)
- 6½ ounces or about ⅔ cup of kosher salt
- 4 whole lemons
- 7 small or 5 large black tea bags
- 1 cup of honey or granulated sugar
- 4 sprigs of fresh sage
- 1 large onion, peeled and roughly cut into large chunks
- 5 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon of whole black peppercorns, optional
- 3 bay leaves, optional
Spatchcock Roast Chicken
- One 3 to 5-pound whole chicken (one without any retained water*)
- About 3 tablespoons of avocado, sunflower, or canola oil
- ½ teaspoon of kosher salt
- Ground black pepper, optional
- Fresh sage leaves, sliced thin or chopped for garnish
Before you begin, gather your ingredients and equipment, and read through the recipe well. Butterflying the chicken is optional.
To Spatchcock (Butterfly) the Chicken
- Remove any (innards and pat the chicken dry. Then place it breast side-down on your cutting board.
- Find the spine of the chicken at the neck or tail end, and using sharp kitchen shears or a chef's knife cut on one side from end to end. Stay as close as possible to the backbone.
- Repeat on the other side to free the spine from the chicken. Flip the chicken over and press down on the breasts to crack the breastbone. You'll hear a pop or crack (how you know you've succeeded).
- Keep the chicken cold until the brine is ready. You can butterfly the chicken a couple of days ahead of brining and/or cooking.
For the Brine
- Ready your brining container. A large stainless steel bowl or a clean cooler that fits in your refrigerator work best. A brining bag is helpful but not necessary.
- Measure two quarts (eight cups) of water into a large pot. Add all the remaining brine ingredients.
- Bring the brine just to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the salt and honey or sugar. Pour the contents of the pot into your brining container, and add two more quarts of cold water or ice.
- Cool the brine to at least room temperature, or refrigerate it if making ahead. Once the brine is cool, add the chicken with the breast-side down to fully submerge most of the meat.
- Brine the chicken in the refrigerator overnight, for up to 12 hours.
- Remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Place it on a clean plate or pan.
- Optional: Refrigerate the brined chicken uncovered for up to three days. This will dry out the skin which will crisp beautifully in the oven and lock in the meat's juices.
To Roast the Chicken
- Preheat your oven to 400° F. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you roast it (room temperature chicken cooks faster and more evenly).
- Place the chicken skin-side up on your preferred baking pan. I like to set a rack inside the pan, as it allows heat to reach all sides of the chicken.
- Oil the chicken well and season it evenly with about half a teaspoon of kosher salt. Place fresh sage sprigs around the chicken, if you like.
- Roast the chicken until the skin is deeply colored, and a thermometer reads almost 165° F in the center of the thickest part of the thigh and breast. This takes about 45 minutes for a four-pound spatchcocked chicken. Longer if you're roasting a whole chicken, or a larger, butterflied one. Cooking time truly depends on your oven and the size of the chicken. Temperature, not time, is the best way to know when the chicken is cooked properly.
- Let the roasted chicken rest for at least twenty minutes before carving and serving. Garnish with more fresh chopped sage.
On the Salt
This recipe specifically calls for kosher salt because that is the type of salt I use. Different varieties of salt are different in strength. So one cup of finer ground salt like table salt will make the brine much saltier than one cup of kosher. For best results, use kosher or a flake sea salt in the brine.
On Buying Chicken
During processing, many fresh or frozen whole chickens are injected with a saline solution. It's one of the negatives of mass-produced meat. So if you plan to brine any piece of meat, you'll want to find one that doesn't contain any additional ingredients. Check the label carefully. Just because it reads "Natural" doesn't mean it's free from additives or wasn't injected with a saline solution.
On Adding Sugar or Honey
Since this recipe is designed for indulging, the brine contains a fair amount of sugar. But it's not necessary for a showstopper of a roast chicken. You can cut the amount in half. Or eliminate it altogether if you need to avoid refined sugar. If you don't mind honey, you can add a few tablespoons.
On the Nutrition Information
The amounts below don't include any of the brine ingredients, since it's a bit tricky to know how much of each the chicken meat absorbs. The brine will add some additional sugar and salt to the amounts below, but not an excessive amount.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 1 hour
- Category: Thanksgiving
- Method: Brining & Roasting
- Cuisine: American
- Diet: Gluten Free
- Serving Size: 1 Quarter Roast Chicken
- Calories: 360
- Sugar: 0 g
- Sodium: 334 mg
- Fat: 17 g
- Carbohydrates: 0.5 g
- Protein: 48.6 g
- Cholesterol: 155 mg
Keywords: Thanksgiving chicken, spatchcock chicken, butterflied chicken, sweet tea brine
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