The Secrets of Seder-Worthy Chicken
With planning and savvy, you can serve fabulous chicken dishes at your family’s Passover gathering.
By Jayne Cohen
Making great chicken for Seder offers unique challenges. You want a recipe that doesn't call for much last-minute work, so you can be at the table for the Seder service, and a dish that will remain juicy since it has to be prepared in advance and then wait in the kitchen before serving. Add to that the fact that many familiar ingredients are proscribed during Passover: no panko crumbs for breading, of course, and for many Jews, especially those of Ashkenazi background, flavor enhancing ingredients like soy sauce and mustard may be off-limits too. Orthodox Ashkenazim often refrain from eating roasted chicken and other meats at the Seder because they resemble the ancient burnt Passover sacrifice, forbidden after the Temple was destroyed.
With those thoughts in mind, here are some suggestions for making Seder-worthy chicken from purchasing to presentation.
You don't need to be a chicken farmer to get a really good bird. But there is a discernible difference in taste and texture between factory-farmed supermarket staples and better-quality alternatives. For Seder, it's worthwhile searching out the best chicken you can afford. Look for chicken raised using responsible production methods, free of antibiotics and minimally processed. It should be air-chilled: water-chilled chicken usually results in washed-out flavor, soggy texture and unwanted watery juices in the pan. And it should taste chicken-y, without bland, metallic or off-flavors.
There is a reason that kosher chickens consistently score high in taste tests and that brining is touted as the best thing to happen to a bird since barbecue.It's the salt. Tests confirm that salt actually helps meat cells hold onto their moisture—not release it during cooking—yielding chicken that is juicier and more succulent. Salt also concentrates the meaty flavor and imparts an appealing, lightly seasoned and balanced flavor to chicken.
Whole chickens and breast parts in particular benefit from the extra moistness that comes with pre-salting. So if you are not using a kosher chicken, consider salting it (figure about 3/4 teaspoon per pound) at least 40 minutes before cooking; it's not effective with less time.
I suspect that cooked-to-death chicken is to blame for many defectors to the brisket camp; it's caused generations to believe the bird is supposed to taste stringy, dry, tough or all three. There's no rocket science here: just use a meat thermometer, inserting it deep into the flesh, not touching bone. Chicken is fully cooked when its internal temperature reaches 160-165 degrees.
Marinating heightens flavor and contributes moisture, so it’s especially helpful for Seders or other holiday gatherings when you’re cooking large-scale and in advance. For best results, chicken marinades should be mildly acidic (a long, overly acidic bath can denature the chicken’s proteins, harming its texture), boldly seasoned and include a generous amount of good oil, preferably olive oil. Brown sugar, honey or other sweeteners will add complexity, balance the acid and help in browning the chicken. Marinate the chicken in a large resealable plastic bag, so you can simply shake the bag or turn it over occasionally to redistribute the marinade. Before pouring the marinade over the chicken, set some of it aside to drizzle on the bird after it is cooked. (Never reuse marinade that has been in contact with raw chicken.)
Dry rubs and flavor pastes also pack a lot of punch - particularly if massaged ahead, including under the chicken skin. Gently loosen the skin, sliding your fingers underneath it to separate it from the body. You can also insert fresh herbs under the chicken skin: tarragon, rosemary, sage and thyme all work well.
Keep it Juicy
Chicken breasts become dry and tough all too easily, so play it safer for Seders with thighs, which are far more forgiving. If you want to include breasts—or keep any parts extra moist—gently braise them with some well-flavored liquid or serve with juicy aromatics, above or below: showered with caramelized onions seasoned Israeli-style, with sumac, perhaps, or atop a purée of garlicky mushrooms. A Balkan Jewish recipe layers the chicken between chunks of tender sautéed eggplant and tomatoes. Or take a page from the Sephardi playbook, and serve your chicken as saucy meatballs.
Go for Crisp and Bright
To prevent crispy-skinned chicken from becoming soggy, serve sauce or gravy around the chicken, not on top of it. Or just pass the gravy boat separately.
Remember to finish with a topnote of bright flavor, especially if you've cooked the recipe ahead of time. This could be as simple as a spritz of lemon or a sprinkle of gremolata (lemon, minced garlic and parsley), a fresh dusting of the herbs you've been cooking with, or that drop of marinade you set aside.
Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), was named a 2009 finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award.