Heston’s favourite meal of the week is Sunday dinner. Here’s his recipe for the Perfect Roast Chicken. It’s about as far from perfect as it’s possible to get.
In our first review of Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental we described the food there as 21st Century Sunday lunches. And looking at much of his other output, from slow-roast pork belly to leg of lamb with anchovy, rosemary and garlic, it’s clear that Sunday lunch recipes are where Heston really shines.
Considering Heston describes his favourite Sunday lunch dish as roast chicken, AND considering this dish was the focus of a full half hour BBC show, you’d expect the 3-Michelin star chef’s version of the Perfect Sunday Roast Chicken recipe to be utterly flawless. You’d be dead wrong.
Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe is the second of Heston’s Perfection recipes that we’re testing out. And, unlike the stunning Heston Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe, this couldn’t have been more disappointing.
This was another dish made for the 10pm Supper Club. For dessert we picked the ultimate Sunday classic: Apple Crumble. In this instance Heston’s Apple & Sultana Crumble recipe.
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe
Special Equipment: Baster with needle attachment, digital probe thermometer, chicken-sized bowl
Special Ingredients: None
Time: 2 days
Serves: 3 – 4
There have been a few changes to Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe since the publication of the first In Search Of Perfection book in 2006. The roast chicken recipe in Heston at Home differs quite significantly. However, it’s Heston’s 2006 Perfection recipe we’re testing out here.
Good portions of the show and book are dedicated to finding the perfect roasting bird. For Heston that’s the Poulet de Bresse, with Label Anglais coming a close second. Both of these birds are quite difficult to source, so we’re simply using the best quality supermarket chicken we can get our hands on.
Step 1: Brining the Chicken
When does Heston want us to start his Sunday lunch? Saturday morning!
You have to make an 8% salt solution. The maths behind this baffled me at first, but basically just measure out your water and then add 8g of salt for every 100ml / 100g of water. We needed 2 litres of water, so 160g of salt.
You’ll also need a bowl or plastic box. One big enough to accept a full chicken and still fit inside your fridge. Our largest mixing bowl just about did the job. If you are brining your chicken then check first that whichever vessel you plan to use will definitely accommodate both bird and brine. If things look bleak you can always use the salad drawer.
The bird now needs to be left alone for 6 hours, after which we’ll be doing some very peculiar things to it. Be sure to remove the wings and wishbone first.
Step 2: Rinsing
Having used salt to help the bird’s flesh hold on to more moisture the aim now is to get excess salt out. Immerse the bird in as much clean water as you can and change this water frequently.
Heston’s instructions advise 4 changes of water (every 15 minutes) over an hour. We’ve tried this recipe before and still found this leaves the meat too salty. We say aim for 90 minutes to 2 hours of rinsing, changing the water every 10 minutes if possible.
Step 3: Blanching and Icing the Bird
Now this is very weird. There’s no precise information as to why you have to do this next bit in Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe, but our best guess would be “food hygiene”.
The entire bird is going to be “roasted” at a very mild 60 degrees centigrade. This is the borderline temperature for killing bacteria (15 minutes at 60° is sufficient to kill all pathogens). We’d guess this step sterilises the bird, removing any nasty bugs. The plunge into ice water then cools the bird down, preventing it from beginning to cook. That’s the theory, in practice it doesn’t work quite so well.
Not only does boiling a chicken for 20 seconds, then plunging it into iced water, look ridiculous, it’s also an incredibly awkward thing to do. Our bird was about 1.5kg – an awful lot of weight to hold on the end of a pair of kitchen tongs. Your chicken will probably slip off the tongs a couple of times and end up in the boiling water much longer than is good for it, while you struggle to fish it out with the aid of a spatula.
We blanched our bird three times rather than just 2, to be extra certain all the nasties were killed off. Don’t forget to tip water out of the cavity to aid cooling. Even so the bird ended up with some unsightly cooked spots. Also, since brining makes the skin quite fragile the tongs will put rips in it.
After this the bird is placed in the fridge overnight -with a jay cloth across its back. This is to help dry the skin, which ought to help it crisp up during the final stage of cooking on Sunday. Hope you enjoyed your rock n’ roll Saturday evening!
Step 4: Low Temperature Chicken
What time do you like to sit down to Sunday lunch? About 1pm? If so you’ll need to get started at 6am Sunday to get this to the table on time. That’s because Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe states that in a 60° oven the bird should take 4 – 6 hours to reach 60° itself. Oh, and this temperature needs to be held for 15 minutes to ensure food safety. So that 2 hour uncertainty seems a bit of a wide margin for you to plan an exact serving time.
Bad news for all you optimists: on the two occasions we’ve tried this recipe it has always taken the full 6 hours to get a reading of 60° from the thickest part of the breast. 7 hours on the first attempt.
And that’s if your oven can hold a steady 60°. Ours is analogue control and fan-only, meaning all sorts of temperatures in different parts of the oven. For our second attempt we ended up having to turn the oven up to 180° to get to the right internal temperature. We had 4 hungry people waiting to be served.
Don’t forget, there’s at least 40 minutes of extra “resting time” once the bird is out of the oven. 80 minutes in our case, as that’s how long the potatoes took.
Still, 6 hours gives you plenty time to get cracking on the spuds and the veg.
Step 5: Boiling the Potatoes
Peel your potatoes (specifically, Maris Piper potatoes) and reserve the skins. These skins should be tied up in muslin ready to be boiled with the potatoes.
Next you’re told to quarter the potatoes then rinse them under cold water for 5 minutes to remove surface starch. In practice we’ve found the water runs clear after just a couple of minutes.
Salt is as much an ingredient in Heston’s Sunday lunch Roast Chicken recipe as anything else, especially in the case of the potatoes. In the In Search of Perfection Roast Chicken episode Heston dedicates a few minutes to testing whether salted or unsalted water gives the best results. Salting wins, so get your scales out again and add 10g of salt for every litre of water you use in the pan.
Muslin is expensive but makes removing the potato skins after cooking loads easier. Those skins, as Heston discovers in the show, contain a lot of the potato’s flavour. This method means some of that flavour will infuse into spuds.
The boiling itself is the part that demands the most attention. Heston’s Perfect Chicken recipe (or Heston’s Perfect Roast Potato recipe, in this case) says that once the potatoes come to a boil 20 minutes of gentle simmering will be enough to get the spuds to the right level.
Our experience with wildly varied supermarket potatoes is that anywhere between 15 and 40 minutes is required. We’d suggest having a colander and slotted spoon handy. Fish each potato out of the pan when it looks ready – i.e. on the verge of falling to pieces.
Taking the potatoes to the brink of disintegration takes a fair bit of nerve. As you can see we bottled it on this occasion. At least we were able to rough the surface of the potatoes up by tossing them in the colander. For best results the potatoes should be allowed to cool completely before roasting, another 20 minutes or so.
Factoring in all these elements you should allow at least an hour before even thinking about going near a roasting tray.
Step 6: Roasting the Potatoes
We only have the one oven, so this step had to wait until the full 6-and-a-bit hours of chicken roasting had been completed.
Your boiled and roughed up potatoes are put into a roasting tin filled with olive oil. You want them to be quite well submerged, once all the potatoes are in it should be about a centimetre deep. Note: the tray full of oil needs to go in about 5 minutes before the potatoes do, you want very hot oil.
After that just turn them every 20 minutes, and 20 minutes before they come out add rosemary sprigs and a few bashed garlic cloves. This may depend on how your oven performs, but we found this step took about 80 minutes.
Step 7: Carrots
In his Perfect Roast Chicken recipe Heston is very specific about how the carrots should be cut. So: peeled, quartered lengthways then cut on the diagonal.
They are then cooked very gently in a pan for around an hour in a lot of butter with a dash of water. The pan needs to be large enough to cook all the carrots in a single layer. Your largest casserole should do the job (we held back the frying pan for the chicken skin stage). Turn them once or twice to ensure even cooking.
This is quite easy to do while the potatoes are roasting in a not-too-frantic final hour.
Step 8: Broccoli
Broccoli is a two-stage process. First, boil the broccoli for 3 minutes, before draining and plunging into iced water to col them down and halt the cooking process.
Just before serving time the broccoli gets seasoned then reheated in a pan of melted butter.
Step 9: Crispy Skin
While steps 6 to 8 were going on your chicken will have been resting under some loose foil. As you can see here the juices do not run “clear”. This caused a bit of worry amongst the assembled (impatient) diners.
I you’ve followed the recipe correctly the chicken skin will look very limp and flaccid at this point. And, above all, still raw. Heston’s “perfect” roast chicken needs crispy skin, and in this recipe that means pan frying an entire bird.
The astute ones amongst you will already have spotted that whole roast chicken is an irregular-shaped thing of many nooks and crannies. Not a smooth uniform shape that you could easily and evenly fry in a pan (although in the show Heston’s Poulet de Bresse is closer to this). We’ve also discussed how handling 1.5kg of chicken on the end of a pair of tongs is not the easiest proposition.
This part of Heston’s Perfect roast chicken recipe can best be described as “awkward and unsuccessful”. Plus, subjecting your chicken to the ferocious temperature of a frying pan seems to defeat the object of the previous 7 hours where we tried desperately to keep the meat from going anywhere north of 60°.
You’ll probably find, like we did, that the parts easiest to crisp in the frying pan are the sides of the thighs and the breasts. Oh, and the underside of the chicken that few people eat and that nobody even sees. The rest of the skin will remain stubbornly pallid.
The amount of splatter that this process creates is nothing short of spectacular – burst of hot oil exploding across the stovetop like miniature fireworks. So, awkward and unsuccessful and messy.
Step 10: Chicken-Infused Butter
Ah, butter. Where would any Heston Blumenthal recipe be without it.
In Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe there’s no gravy, his argument being that the bird will be “so succulent and moist you won’t need it”. Presumably that’s because in its place we have loads of melted butter oozing out of the bird. That’s after we’ve injected it into the chicken.
Chicken-infused butter, to be exact. To make this simply dump the chopped chicken wings (and wishbone, if you removed that too) into a pan full of butter and heat until the butter stops sizzling.
Then you’ll need one of these disturbing looking contraptions. A baster with needle attachment. Forget the ones you find on the supermarket shelf for under a fiver. To get one with a needle, which you absolutely need here, will set you back about £9 on Amazon.
The (frighteningly hot) chicken butter now needs to be injected at as many points around the bird as you can manage, until liquid butter is literally oozing out of every pore. We’d made the full amount specified by the recipe but used less than half of it.
Now, with roast potatoes, carrots and broccoli all ready to serve, you can take your chicken to the dinner table and serve.
Heston’s “Perfect” Roast Chicken recipe has so many failings that it’d be easier to just list them all:
- At 60° the legs and thighs are undercooked – half the meat on the bird is inedible.
- Complete lack of gravy – this is such an essential part of our Sunday Lunch, yet it’s missing from this “perfect” recipe.
- Unevenly crispy skin – the shape of the bird means pan-frying only crisps a few small patches of skin, the rest is unpleasantly flabby due to the brining and low-temperature roasting.
- Pan-fry overcooking – where we could pan-fry the skin the bird was in the pan so long that we suspect the meat underneath became overcooked.
- No stuffing – as kids we always had Paxo with our Sunday roast chicken. We’d have expected a gourmet version of this. It’s as bad as having beef without Yorkshires.
Saying that the legs and thighs were undercooked isn’t just an exaggeration – there’s actually confirmation from the man himself that these parts of the bird need to be taken to 75°C in Heston’s Coq Au Vin recipe.
It’s no wonder that Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe has changed so much since this book / TV show. The carrots and the potatoes both work brilliantly, indeed these are the best roast spuds we’ve ever cooked and this is now our preferred method.
The broccoli less so. In Heston at Home there’s a chapter on side dishes and vegetables, in which Heston actually confirms that the flavour molecules in broccoli are fat-soluble. Put simply: the flavour compounds will leave the veg and go into the fat. From our point of view it’d be simpler and more effective to just boil or steam this veg for the best result.
Personal preferences mean gravy and stuffing are sorely missed. The absurd rigmarole of preparing the bird: brining, blanching, frying and injecting are all far too much hassle to ever bother repeating, especially when the results are so completely underwhelming.
There’s no denying the breasts of the chicken were wonderfully succulent and tender. If you’ve never tried brining or low-temperature cooking before then these will be a revelation. Otherwise every other aspect of the bird-cooking process is a complete failure.
On the plus side: Two down, only fourteen more to go. And our dessert, Heston’s Apple and Sultana Crumble recipe, was pretty good.
We’d add thyme and lemon, but this recipe looks like it’d give just as good a result, but cut the cooking time in half. And injecting brine directly into the chicken portions would be a lot more practical. Provided you can forgo the tableside carving.
Alongside the caramelised onions the remaining bird carcass could be separately roasted underneath with the potatoes, then used as the basis for a decent, if conventional, gravy. Stuffing could be supplied by omitting the festive ingredients from Heston’s Cranberry and Caraway stuffing recipe.
BigSpud – Gary is one of the best authorities on Heston you will find (and has met the man twice!). This is an must-read write up on Heston’s Perfect roast chicken recipe, with some sage observations about pink meat and gravy absence.
In Search of Good Enough – A blogger after our own heart is attempting to crack all the Perfection recipes. This is a brilliant account of Heston’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe, with an excellent account of the problem with the thigh meat.
Do you think a traditional Sunday roast chicken recipe is worth this much effort, or do you have some handy tricks and tips to improve the standard recipe yourself? Have you tried making this recipe? Please tell us in the comments section.