While a whole roast chicken typically packs enough flavor in the bones and skin to require minimal seasoning, boneless cuts such as the breast benefit from advance marinating. Since chicken’s flavor is fairly neutral, cooks can draw on a wide range of approaches to impart their own spin on the final dish.
Massaging a whole chicken or individual joint pieces and breast portions with a dry rub not only infuses the meat with flavor, but will also crisp up the skin. In all cases, freshly ground spices will significantly outperform store-bought mixes for aroma. Apart from kosher salt, which comes as standard in most rubs, one of the simplest seasonings is ground peppercorns with a dash of lemon juice. The citrus adds zest, while pepper excels at enhancing subtler flavors. For a spicy, smoky finish, try paprika with ground chili peppers and mustard seeds or a Moroccan-style rub of paprika, cumin, cinnamon and ground pepper. Add chipotle for a smokier Southwestern feel. Doro Wat, Ethiopia’s famous chicken stew, uses chili, paprika and cayenne. A dependable universal rub, however, which covers color, heat and sweetness, uses paprika, brown sugar, garlic powder, cumin, oregano, mustard powder and cayenne pepper.
Herbs and Breadcrumbs
Use dried herbs in a marinade or as a seasoning directly before cooking. Mixing herbs with lemon juice and olive oil makes a wet rub that is easier to work into the chicken and protects the herbs from burning. Thyme, rosemary, marjoram sage, tarragon and oregano are all appropriate, as is a herbes de provence blend. For a stronger flavor, rub the chicken with pesto for a heady dose of basil.
With fried chicken, a breadcrumb and herb mix is essential. Fast-food chicken chains use more than 10 herbs and spices, typically drawing on cayenne, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, black pepper, ginger, basil, oregano, sage and thyme. Marinate the chicken first overnight in buttermilk for tenderness, then coat in the herb and spice rub. For roasted chicken, try a wet rub of lemon juice with dried herbs on the skin and a bunch of herbs in the cavity.
Marinades and Brines
Marinating or brining a chicken overnight can have a dramatic effect on the quality of the final dish, locking in the moisture and infusing the meat with flavor. Brining chicken in a solution of ¼ cup kosher salt per quart of water is an important step before grilling, where the dry heat can quickly suck out the moisture in the meat, particularly for breast. A whole chicken can be brined in a resealable bag for 24 hours in the refrigerator, but boneless breasts need just a couple of hours. An all-purpose marinade combines oil, salt, seasoning and acid, typically in the form of vinegar, citrus or wine/wine vinegar. Adding garlic and mustard makes a basic marinade, but for an Asian-inspired marinate add soy sauce and ginger. However intense the flavors, never use a wet marinade to baste chicken on the grill because bacteria can still thrive in the liquid.
For a handful of chicken dishes, the seasoning defines them. To make Jamaican jerk chicken, prepare a spicy wet rub of thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander for aroma and ginger, cayenne and allspice for the distinctive kick. To go Cajun, mix cayenne, paprika and black pepper with oregano, thyme, garlic and onion powder. Re-creating the lurid hue of Tandoori chicken requires garam masala, turmeric and yogurt, with cilantro, ginger and paprika providing the finishing touches. Rub the mixture all over and leave to marinate overnight. Buffalo wings, on the other hand, need shimmer as well as bite. Bring hot sauce, cayenne pepper, salt, lemon juice and honey to a quick boil and then allow the sauce to reduce over a low heat. Dredging the wings in the glaze coats the skin with sweet, spicy and sour flavors, as well as color.
As always when working with raw chicken, certain safety concerns come into play. For a start, resist the temptation to wash chicken before seasoning, which will spread rather than kill bacteria. Wash hands, though, after rubbing any seasoning mix onto raw chicken and shake seasoning onto the hands rather than returning to the mix for another handful. All marinating should be in the refrigerator, with the chicken in a sealed bag or covered dish. Place it on the lowest shelf of the fridge to stop juices dripping on other items. Bear in mind that however potent the marinade, there is no chicken counterpart to ceviche. Chicken is not fit to eat until cooked through to a safe temperature.