Martha Stewart calls it “perfect,” and the great recipe alchemist Kenji Lopez-Alt swears by it.
“It” is a medieval-sounding word called “spatchcocking,” a method of preparing any fowl you might be thinking of roasting this season. Just like Kenji and Martha, I swear by spatchcocking, which involves splitting and flattening your bird, instead of cooking it whole. This exposes more skin to direct heat and yields a crispy crust.
What’s more, it saves huge amounts of time. I first spatchcocked because I was late for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was the one bringing the turkey. It was about 3 p.m., and I was beginning to panic. Luckily, the bird had already been purchased and defrosted. It was simply up to me to do the actual (cooking) deed. I arrived at my host’s house bearing ample wine (so as to relax nervous guests, and chef, and set a festive tone). I brought with me the one kitchen tool you really must have for spatchcocking a turkey: a pair of poultry shears (America’s Test Kitchen recommends a pair by Henckels, which I’ve happily used for years).
Kitchen shears are strong enough to work on chickens and game hens, but poultry shears, with their greater ability to cut through bone, are necessary for spatchcocking a turkey. When I say spatchcock — which sounds dangerous, slightly sinister, foreign or high-tech (take your pick) — I actually mean splitting open or butterflying the bird. The term, according to Alan Davidson, author of the “Oxford Companion to Food,” comes from “cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and revived towards the end of the 20th century, is said to be of Irish origin. They theory is that the word is an abbreviation of ‘dispatch the cock,’ a phrase used to indicate a summary way of grilling a bird after splitting it open down the back and spreading the two halves out.”
With due respect to Davidson, he makes it sound more complicated than it is. To spatchcock any bird, simply place it breast down on a work surface of your choice and use your shears to cut along one side of the backbone, and then the other. Remove the backbone, and save it for stock. You’re almost done! Flip the bird over and press on both sides of the breast to flatten it.
Season both sides with salt, pepper and the spices of your choice (I’m partial to the Montreal Chicken seasoning from McCormick Grill Mates).
Then roast your bird, on a sheet pan in the oven, or on the grill.
“Some people want the perfect golden brown centerpiece in the middle of the table” on Thanksgiving Day, Lopez-Alt has written. Others want exotic flavors. Still others care only about moist, succulent meat.
“This particular method is for folks who don’t give a damn about whether or not the whole, barely adulterated bird makes an appearance at the table, but want the fastest, quickest, easiest route to juicy meat, and ultra-crisp skin. Basically, it’s a method for lazy folks with great taste.”
For these people, Lopez-Alt, and I, have but one recommendation: “spatchcock the sucker.” A spatchcocked turkey cooks in about half the time of one you’d roast whole; indeed, “you can blast it at 450 degrees” (which is pretty much what I did) and it will cook through “in less than 80 minutes without burning the skin” (which is exactly how the bird I prepared turned out).
Spatchcocked game hens cook in no time on the grill; they look so pretty and delicate with their tiny legs akimbo. Butterfly your monster-sized fowl on the Big Day and, trust me, you’ll never go back. I have never roasted a bird whole, of any size, ever since.