The Best Way to Sear a Bird—Put a Brick on It
Cooking chicken with crisp skin and tender meat can seem almost impossible. High, dry heat makes for crackly skin but overcooked meat. However, using a brick can fix this dilemma.
When preparing chicken, crisp skin and tender meat can seem naturally at odds with one another. The high, dry heat necessary for that crackly skin can easily overcook the chicken, and gentler temperatures won’t bring the skin to a crisp. However, there is an ancient remedy to this dilemma.
Both the Tuscans and the Romans claim to have invented pollo al mattone, a method in which you weigh the chicken down with a brick, pressing its skin firmly against the pan or grill’s hot surface. There are even depictions of chicken being flattened by a stone in Etruscan frescoes.
As the ancients demonstrated, chicken under a “brick”—or “tile” as it directly translates—can be replicated with other broad, heavy items. For modern kitchens, a cast iron will do. If you want to be old-fashioned about it, you can wrap a brick in aluminum foil so that the chicken receives the brick’s weight and not its residue.
What’s important about this method—and why it has endured—is simple. It cooks the chicken evenly and makes the skin shatteringly crisp.
There’s even science behind it: According to Harold McGee, “The skin of birds and other animals is mainly water (about 50%), fat (40%), and connective-tissue collagen (3%).” For crisp skin, you need to convert that collagen into gelatin and vaporize the water out, which requires high heat..
Putting weight on the bird does two things to help this process. It presses the skin down so that the skin has more direct contact with the pan’s heat, creating a heavier sear, and prevents the skin from contracting and folding in on itself, so that every inch gets equal exposure to the pan, making for an even crisp. For best effects, put the brick or skillet on the chicken as soon as it hits the pan.
Then eat immediately. If you wait too long, that crispy skin will quickly reabsorb moisture on the plate, undoing your noble efforts.