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.
Start with a small, fresh chicken
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.
I like to marinate the prepared chicken overnight, or for at least four hours. I use really flavorful olive oil, fresh thyme and rosemary, and crushed garlic cloves—a traditional Tuscan preparation for marinating split chicken. You can skip this step if you like, but for the best flavor, I wouldn’t.
Get out your largest, heaviest sauté pan. Part of the rustic appeal of cooking chicken under a brick is using an old-fashioned cast-iron pan. You’ll get the best crust with one, although a heavy enameled Le Creuset skillet works well, too. But in a pinch, you can use your heaviest stainless-steel pan as long as it isn’t nonstick. Before you start cooking, wrap your bricks well in a couple of layers of aluminum foil.
Now all you have to do is follow the recipe to cook this delicious chicken (and fill your house with incredible aromas). I use a common restaurant technique to cook the chicken—starting it on the stove (with the skin side down to render fat and create a crisp crust), and finishing it in the oven (to cook the chicken through). Just remember to put the brick on top of the chicken as soon as it hits the pan, before the skin has time to contract from the heat.
When the chicken is done, it will be a deep golden brown, the skin will be almost cracker-like in its crispness, and the meat will be moist and fragrant.