Our customers laugh when they hear the name of one of our restaurant's most popular dishes—Chicken Under a Brick. But once they taste it, they all want to know how they can get the same results at home—that crisp, crackling, golden brown skin and moist, juicy breast and thigh meat. Fortunately, this technique of searing a split chicken under a heavy weight (ideally a foil-wrapped brick) is easy to adapt to a home kitchen. In fact, Italian families, especially in Tuscany, have been cooking what they call pollo al mattone for centuries.
There really are only two secrets to cooking chicken under a brick. The first is preparing the chicken so that it lies flat; the second is simply weighting the chicken so that the skin makes contact with the hot pan and the chicken cooks evenly.
At the restaurant Oscar's in New York City's Waldorf-Astoria, we use young chicken for this dish. I like young chicken for its taste and tenderness, and also for its size. But young chicken, called poussin, is hard to find at the grocery store, so at home I use a small, fresh (not previously frozen), whole chicken (a 3-pound fryer, rather than a larger roaster) with great results. I always look for a free-range chicken, as I think they're more flavorful. You can also use this technique with Cornish game hens.
Choosing the chicken is the easy part; the next step, partially boning the bird, is a little trickier. But don't worry: with a little patience, a big cutting board, and a couple of sharp knives, you'll be successful. The process ensures that the bird flattens easily when the brick is set on top of it. And flattening the chicken is key for two reasons: it exposes the maximum surface area of the chicken skin to the heat of the pan, which ultimately creates the crackling, crisp exterior; and it makes the meat an even thickness so it cooks more evenly—the breast and thigh cook at the same rate and stay juicy, too.
By following the directions in the Photo-essay, you'll wind up with two chicken halves, which I think make very manageable portions (each fits nicely under one brick). But if you decide to cook baby chickens or Cornish game hens under a brick, butterfly them and remove the other bones as described below, but don't split them completely in half. What you'll have is a "spatchcocked" bird (you may have seen this term used in old recipes for small game birds) that's neat enough to cook in one small package.
Step-by-Step: How to split and partially bone a chicken
Set the rinsed and dried chicken on a cutting board that's large enough to accommodate the whole bird after it's split. Put a damp towel under the cutting board to prevent slippage.
1. Cut off the first two wing joints on each wing with a chef's knife or a cleaver.
2. Turn the chicken breast side down on the cutting board and remove the backbone with poultry shears or a sharp chef's knife. Cut along one side of the backbone and then back down along the other. You'll cut through the rib cage at one end and the thigh joint at the other.
3. Remove the keel bone. Cut a short incision in the middle of the top of the keel bone (this has cartilage on the top end) and flatten the chicken. The keel bone should partially pop out. Trim the rest of it away with a paring or boning knife. Now cut the bird completely in half.
4. Hack off the knuckle from each drumstick with a cleaver or with the heel of a chef's knife.
5. Slide a sharp paring or boning knife under the ribs on both chicken halves and carefully cut them out.
6. The partially boned chicken can now lie flat in a pan and will cook evenly.