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Is ATK's roast chicken *really* better than Zuni's?! My conclusion...

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Cheryl H really got my attention when she proclaimed that the America's Test Kitchen roast chicken "beat the Zuni chicken by a mile." Further elaboration and ATK recipe can be found here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

So I knew I had to make this chicken pronto and see how it compared to my #1 Zuni chicken. I bought my usual 4 lb. bird. Ok, I must admit that I didn't follow the ATK recipe exactly (those who know me should not be surprised). I really do not like wet brines, so I dry-brined the night before a la Zuni, although I didn't add any herbs under the skin.

Everything after this mostly stayed true to the recipe though. I learned to butterfly a chicken for the first time. Not hard. I massaged that compound butter between the skin and flesh, even used the good Plugra. Sliced my Russet potatoes and placed into a 9 x 13 aluminum pan (my beat up one). They were layered about 3 slices deep so not every one touched the bottom. I decided against lining the bottom w/ foil because I feared this would inhibit caramelization and all the good crusty parts would end up sticking to the foil.

I placed a flat rack directly on top of the roasting pan so that the bird was raised above the lip of the pan. I was a little worried that it would make a mess that raised, but it wasn't a problem at all. The recipe is very accurate in saying that the drippings are absorbed by the potatoes underneath so there's no smoking (like the Zuni bird) at all even though the temp. is 500F.

I was a little worried that the butter would cause the skin to burn at such high heat, and while it got dark quickly, browning seemed to be slow and steady. I rotated the pan at 20 min. and then after another 15 min., its leg easily wiggled so I took it out. While the bird rested, I kept the potatoes in the oven at 500F to continue crisping since they did look fairly blonde like other posters have described. After another 10-15 min., I carved the chicken and removed potatoes and dinner was served! I was intent on having some green so I had a chilled salad of green beans, red onion, prosciutto shreds, and shaved manchego w/ a sherry vinaigrette.

So here's the photo of its good side (the skin started riding up on the other side): http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

The verdict? This chicken was quite good. The breast side was nicely bronzed and blistered; however, the underside, particularly the thigh region, was not so (a big disappointment). The flavor was very, very tasty. The compound butter injects it w/ rich flavor and the garlic and mustard stream through it in a savory, delicious way. Unfortunately, I also found the chicken to be too greasy for my liking. There was a pool of butter and juices that had collected at the valley between the breast and leg, and the potatoes were sopping w/ butter and chicken fat. While I usually have no objection to fat, this was overkill for me. I also could have let it roast for a few more min. like the recipe instructs (or tent while resting) since it was a little more pink at the bone than we usually like.

Cheryl H, I think this is a very good chicken and could maybe top Marcella's chicken w/ two lemons (although I need to make that again to confirm); however, Zuni still remains the champion chicken in the Carb Lover household. Husband said that ATK's was a distant second to Zuni's. I really like how the Zuni bird has no added fat and that all the chicken fat just melts away during high heat roasting. Allows me to taste the pure chicken and makes the skin ultra-crispy in a way that I've not experienced w/ any other recipe. The smoking and flipping is a little stressful, but well worth it IMO.

I will say that the potatoes were utterly enjoyable albeit sinful. While the bottom got nice and crispy, we liked how some parts were tender and creamy which made for textural and flavor contrast. I would have to choose the bread salad over the potatoes, but why choose when I can mix it up w/ all kinds of permutations?

Thanks for posting the recipe so that I could try this! I'm going to try the butterfly method again by attempting my first chicken under a brick...

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  1. fwiw, butterfly chicken is also the best way to grill whole chicken. mmmm. Good skill to have under your belt. Plus, either the ATK or the zuni is great grilled. It changes the method of cooking, but the prep works very well.

    Thanks for the report. One comment - you mentioned you didn't wet brine, instead dry brined the chicken, ala judy rogers style. While it likely would not have changed your result, it did make it a very different recipe... I find dry brines to have their own value, but I also find they are far less even than a wet brine - even when being diligent in spreading evenly and giving the proper time for distribution of the brine through the meat. All that said, the differences it would make probably would not have changed the outcome, since it wouldn't have changed the greasiness or the browning.

    Anyhow, thanks for the report.

    - Adam

    11 Replies
    1. re: adamclyde

      Thanks for your comments; sounds like you've made both recipes. Care to weigh in on your preferred method? :-)

      Do you find that wet brining inhibits skin crisping since the whole thing is immersed in water? Whereas one point of the dry brine method is to really dry out the skin...

      1. re: Carb Lover

        I always wet brine my chicken (although not whole, with the exception of my TG turkey) and prefer this method to the Zuni method, although I like the Zuni chicken quite a lot.

        The way to get around the soggy skin issue is to do a wet brine, then air dry (in the fridge) the same amount of time as you do the Zuni. THIS would be a true apple-to-apples comparison, would it not... : )

        1. re: Funwithfood

          That's a useful point. I always wet-brine chicken, then let it dry in the fridge as you point out. I've made the Zuni chicken twice but dry-brining doesn't make the chicken as juicy or tasty as a wet brine. JMO.

          BTW a cooler works very well for brining big items like turkey. We do a 20+ lbs turkey every TG or Christmas, putting the bird and brine in the cooler, wrapping it shut with a rope and putting it on the deck. The rope is to keep out any enterprising raccoons.

        2. re: Carb Lover

          I haven't done the zuni chicken, per se, but I've done a lot of dry and wet brining. As funwithfood mentions, if I have my act together, I always wet brine the day before, then the night before rinse and air dry in the fridge. I get great, crisp skin that way.

          I think my problem with dry brining stems mostly from the spottiness of the coverage I get. It's my fault, likely, as I'm not good at getting the salt evenly distributed beneath the skin. I find it works fabulously on pork, however. Much better, in my opinion, than wet brining pork.

          1. re: adamclyde

            I've never brined pork--can you describe your method (meas.), and what cuts of pork to you dry brine? (Sorry for the tangent Carb Lover!)

            1. re: Funwithfood

              I brine any lean cut of pork - usually pork chops or loin roasts.

              I find brining really helps bring out the flavor of pork, but also gives you that little tenderness and moisture help which can be tricky with these lean cuts. If I do a dry brine, I usually just do salt. I cheat up judy rogers amounts and do about a teaspoon kosher salt per pound of meat. At its most basic, you just apply the salt to the outside of the meat, cover, and put it back in the fridge. If it is just chops, I do it the night before I cook it. 12 hours is plenty of time for the salt to draw out the moisture, dissolve the salt, then reabsorb it. For a loin, I try and do it at least 24 hours in advance. That gives it enough time to draw that salt all the way into the meat.

              Some folks scoff at this, but I like to add a little bit of sugar to the brine when I do pork. To do that, I add about .5 parts sugar (by volume) to 1 part kosher salt. So, for one pound, I'd use 1 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 tsp sugar, applied the same way.

              A month or two ago, cooks illustrated did an article about picnic chicken, where they dry brined it a day in advance. The interesting thing in the article, though, was that they said you can basically add a lot of flavors to it in the same way. Essentially, anything that is water soluble will be carried into the center of the meat when it reabsorbs. But if it isn't water soluble (like capsicum) then it stays on the outside. Kind of cool, really...

            2. re: adamclyde

              Do you mean that you rub salt between the skin and flesh for dry brining a chicken? For dry brining a la Zuni, I just evenly sprinkle salt and pepper ON TOP of the skin. As the book suggests, I make sure to more heavily salt the meatier areas and I like to get the wings nice and salty.

              I rarely measure seasonings, esp. salt, but I always use a tsp. measure for the Zuni chicken. I follow their recommended ratio of 3/4 tsp. salt (I use kosher) per pound of chicken. If I do it by sight, I would likely undersalt. I usually only pre-season overnight since I can't wait to roast, but 2 days would be ideal. I find that the seasoning deeply penetrates the meat and that it's very even.

              I like all of your suggestions to dry out the skin post wet brining, and may try that (as FWF suggests, that would be a true test). However, another issue that I have w/ wet brines is that I find the meat to taste either water-logged, dilute, or mushy which recipes tend to describe as "juiciness". I'm such a skeptic, but I really should try wet brining again...thanks for the encouragement!

              1. re: Carb Lover

                Thanks adamclyde--might give that a try with some chops in the fridge. I can confirm that a wet brine offers the ability to flavor the interior of the meat--my 22 lb TG turkey has a delicate citrus flavor throughout.

                In contrast to your experience Carb Lover, my brined poultry never tastes mushy--different ratios or durations perhaps...

                1. re: Carb Lover

                  I didn't know zuni salted the exterior of the salt only. Interesting. When I've dry brined poultry, I've always done it under the skin - I guess I just didn't think salt would penetrate the skin too. Maybe that is why Judy rogers says to wait 2-3 days - because it takes longer to get through the meat. Very interesting - I'll have to try that next time.

                  Regarding the mushiness - I think a lot of it depends on the darn chicken itself. I've done two chickens side by side from the exact store, brand etc. One has been mushier than the other. Not sure why it is...

                  All that said, I've never had a problem with mushy birds with a wet brine. maybe the level of salinity or time is an issue, as fwf said. The only time I've had truly mushy birds was when I cooked an enhanced bird. that was truly gross...

                  thanks for all the info - this is all helpful to see different experiences that work for different people. very cool.

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    I was surprised by the dry brining UNDER the skin as well. I always use the Cafe Rouge (Hoffman) chicken method of sprinkling liberally with salt and pepper and refrigerating for up to 2 days. I've never tried it under the skin.

                    The skin on my chickens is also very crisp and deelish using this method.

                    I actually made Zuni chicken last week using a chicken I'd dry brined and butterflied. Roasted in the oven ala Zuni. Turned out wonderfully well.

              2. re: adamclyde

                I just wanted to say that these discussions are wonderful to me. I love reading what everybody thinks (even if I think they're wrong) and see the ideas for variations people come up with. How lucky we are to have a place where weirdos like us can band together. ;+)

              3. Thanks for your report. I found the ATK chicken skin evenly browned and crispy just about all over the chicken. I didn't have butter/fat pooling on the chicken, though there was a lot on the potatoes. I find the Zuni method too fussy for me and I really don't like flipping the chicken twice in the face of the high heat and smoke coming from the oven. And I find the chicken breast meat too dry. I think I'll have to go to Zuni next time I'm in SF to see what I'm missing.

                Diversity in opinion is a good thing.

                2 Replies
                1. re: cheryl_h

                  Just goes to show you that cooking results (and tastes) can be variable. I wonder why mine didn't brown so much underneath...There was at least an inch of space between the potatoes and chicken. The rack that it was on was very thin-wired, so I wonder if a more hefty surface (like a broiling pan) would have helped. Unfortunately, I don't own a broiling pan so had to improvise.

                  It's funny because I don't find the Zuni chicken recipe fussy at all. Besides flipping the chicken twice, there's not alot to do w/ the chicken. I think the flipping is worth the evenly crispy and bronzed skin, and I find that it protects the breast meat from getting dry. I make the bread salad while the bird is roasting and have modified that w/ my own shortcuts, so it all feels relatively simple.

                  You might want to try Marcella's recipe since the bird is very juicy, even at the breast. Come to think of it, I prefer Marcella's bird over ATK's. Here's a link to my report and photo: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                  I may try to make a hybrid recipe using influences from all three recipes since there are characteristics that I like about each one. Who knew roast chicken could be so fun!

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    Thank you for the link to Marcella's chicken. I agree, more experiments await us (or at least me). I think we're probably doing something unique to each of us which gives the different recipes different results.

                    I'm still after the ATK roast chicken with Zuni bread salad, though the potatoes are delicious. Perhaps after I try Marcella's recipe I'll have found the holy grail of roast chicken and settle for that. Probably not though, what would be the fun in that?

                2. It's great to look at different recipes and play around-that's what cooking's about-but you shouldn't advertise this as ATK vs. Zuni, since you didn't make the ATK chicken. There's a big difference between wet and dry brines. You did a hybrid of both recipes.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: christy319

                    I guess you're right, not a pure ATK vs. Zuni battle. I just love those dry brining results so much that it's hard for me to refrain and try something new...Even if I had wet brined, I still think the excessive greasiness would have been an issue for me.

                    I promise I'll try a wet brine soon though!

                  2. Ok, so here's a new development in the ATK/CI family of recipes...I was at my local bookstore last night and happened to pick up Oct's issue of CI. I saw that one of their features this month is none other then making the perfect roast chicken w/ roast veggies.

                    I feverishly flip to the article and start reading their intro on what they don't like about roast chicken w/ veggies and what their recipe aims to achieve, etc. One major complaint was that they disagreed w/ the notion of roasting a chicken mingled w/ veggies because they thought that the veggies became too greasy and overcooked. They seemed to really eschew the idea of using all the fat from the chicken to cook the veggies! Maybe they don't consider potatoes in that category, but I don't see why not.

                    I thought to myself, don't they remember the above recipe and how genius they thought they were in adding butter and oil and roasting the bird above the potatoes to soak in all the fat/drippings? How could they be so hypocritical or schizophrenic and say the opposite now?! I know that there doesn't have to be just ONE way for ATK/CI to roast a chicken, but man, sometimes their attitude makes me more frustrated w/ and scrutinizing of them.

                    Anyhow, the "new" recipe has one roasting a 6-8 lb. bird (huge!) at 400F. Of course, they wet brine first. I found the roasting method interesting though...roast on one side w/ wing up, rotate so other side and wing are up, and then finish flat on back. Has anyone used this technique before or tried this recipe?

                    Thanks for any info...I can talk about roast chicken til the cows come home...

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Carb Lover

                      Thanks for your post. In the TV episode which showed the chicken and potatoes, they showed the potatoes dripping in fats which they sponged off with paper towels. Perhaps it wasn't acceptable to their readers/viewers?

                      The "new" recipe sounds like it might be for a turkey. I haven't seen many 6-8 lb chickens recently. Is the bird butterflied or roasted whole? 400F is quite a bit lower than the chicken recipe. It sounds like a completely different approach.

                      1. re: cheryl_h

                        If I want to roast a 6-8 lb bird, I'd get a fresh capon hands down over a too-large roaster; capons fare much better than large chickens.

                        1. re: cheryl_h

                          No, they def. specified chicken and didn't even mention substitutions like turkey or capon that I noticed. They wanted a chicken that could feed a family/group, and smaller birds don't provide that luxury. They described the chicken as a specific roaster bird, but I forget exact name. Due to the large size, the brine is more concentrated and takes two hours to penetrate the flesh.

                          This one was not butterflied and was roasted 400F the entire time. Yes, this method is entirely different, which is fine since I like to have a repertoire of different methods, but their inconsistent and strong opinions can bug me.

                        2. re: Carb Lover

                          ....that roasting method is something I've been doing for about 40 years thanks to Elizabeth David....I've tried all kinds of alternatives but I think it works best. Start with the breast down, then one side, then the other each for about 20 minutes and finally the breast up. Rub the whole bird with olive oil first, and of course flavor, insert butter, herbs etc into bird or under skin as you wish..
                          David didn't brine in those days but I would.

                          1. re: bruce in oakton

                            I used to turn to the sides (for my turkey), but now just do breast side down, then turn it once to breast side up. This is fine especially if you have a convection oven.

                            With my Zunis, I did them breast side up the entire time and they came out great (photo below):
                            http://i38.photobucket.com/albums/e10...

                          2. re: Carb Lover

                            you hit on the big downfall of CI... each article tests and tests and comes up with THE absolute recipe. Problem is, another editor might come up with another absolute recipe a year later for something very similar. That said, there are usually some variances in what the desired outcome is, which can help explain why they seem a bit schizo at times. For example this one the goal was a one-dish roast chicken and veggies to fill a family. Perhaps if the outcome were slightly different (like, say, just the best roast chicken period) the application, method, etc, would be different. A month or two ago, they wanted oven-baked chicken you can take the next day for picnics. So they dry brined it. So, there is some reasoning why their methods vary. That said, it does come across as a little schizo, since when they develop the recipes, they sound so darn dogmatic about it.

                            The reason I love cooks, though, is because they explain the different results they attain from testing all different approaches, I find it very educational. So, while I may end up modifying their recipe, or not using at all, at the end, I've usually learned something new about the food they are preparing.

                            And, for what it is worth, 5,000 years from now, people will still be debating how to best roast chicken.

                            1. re: Carb Lover

                              CI does that all the time. It's very annoying. I have two carrot cake recipes by them that are completely opposite. Butter vs. oil, shape of cake, etc. They are totally different. And of course each recipe is all "and if you do it any other way, it'll be GROSS!" Whatever. I'll forgive them their quirks since their eggplant parmesan recipe is the best thing I've ever cooked.

                            2. I agree that using the 6-8 lb. "oven-stuffer" chicken is strange at best (just got my issue in the mail). My biggest complaint about CI, a magazine I do like, is that they so often use only ingredients that someone in East Podunck, North Dakota can be sure to get at their crappy local supermarket, even though, I would bet, most of us subscribers live in places with good supermarkets and specialty food stores. But here they call for this huge chicken, the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere in my well-stocked city.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: christy319

                                Yes, I'd be hard-pressed to find a chicken that large too. I'd rather roast two smaller birds anyway...

                                I think that those who live in Podunck even have access to good stuff these days, so I don't know why they insist on such oddball ingredients.

                                And to adamclyde: yes, it's their dogmatic attitude that bugs. In the latest article, they make it seem like it would be absolutely disgusting to enjoy vegetables cooked in a fair amount of chicken fat. Some people might like that and even they did at one point!

                                1. re: christy319

                                  They have oven stuffers in San Fran at some markets, and I was in NY last week and saw them there..they seem to be quite common.

                                2. Inspired in part by this thread and various Hazan discussions elsewhere, I decided to try a Zuni/Hazan chicken. Somewhere, I think someone mentioned doing a Zuni prep with Hazan cooking directions. Tonight I did the reverse. Sorta.

                                  I had a Kosher chicken, just under four pounds. The last couple of times I Zuni-brined a Kosher chicken I thought it way too salty. So, not really a la Hazan, I brined for maybe four or five hours. I did slip sprigs of rosemary under the breast and thighs. (Figured it couldn't hurt, right?) And unlike previous attempts at either, I did tie up the bird with needle and thread. Had to or the second lemon wouldn't stay in.

                                  Roasted in a cast-iron skillet following Zuni directions to a tee. The only thing I did differently was that each time I took the bird out of the oven to turn it, I poured off the fat from the pan. It really helped to keep the smoking to a dull roar. There was still some smoke, but nowhere near as bad as I'd experienced before.

                                  I thought the results were simply outstanding. Gorgeous crisp skin all over. Moist and juicy, both white and dark. Good flavor of salt, but not overpowering. And that lovely, subtle, lemony flavor that's what the Hazan recipe is all about. Haven't tried the ATK. Maybe next. But until then, this is gonna be my new go-to. I'll probably do the Zuni as written when I want the bread salad since I don't think I'd like the lemon in both the chicken and the salad. But with other sides, this one's it, at least for a while.

                                  Oh, by the way. It did puff up a bit, but then collapsed when I turned it over. Also, when the lemons expanded, they blew open the sewed up cavity anyway. I'm not very good at food photography, but you'll see the yellow lemon sticking out in the upper right. Looked kinda funny, but I assure you it tasted just great.

                                  Picture:
                                  http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v73...

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: JoanN

                                    Oh dear, that looks so succulent and sounds delicious! I did the Zuni prep/Marcella cooking technique before, but I like how you reversed it to see what would happen. Thanks for the tip on pouring out the fat; I'll have to try that and see if it helps.

                                    Hmmm...I have a blank slate of a whole chicken sitting in my fridge as I type this...what shall I do...hmmmm...

                                    :: wiggles fingers with glee ::

                                    1. re: Carb Lover

                                      Hey girl, glad to see your post... been missing your pics. however (I know, I'm probably addicted to food porn.!)
                                      Keep 'um coming!!!

                                      1. re: Carb Lover

                                        That is a great tip, much thanks. I've been wanting to try again, as the last time I tried, the smoke detector went nuts and I had to turn the oven down.

                                      2. re: JoanN

                                        So in addition to the kosher bird you Zuni brined it, but just for 4 or 5 hours is that right? Did you leave it to air dry as well to get an even crispier crust?
                                        Thanks

                                        1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                          Yes, that's exactly right. Zuni brined for four or five hours and placed uncovered on a plate in the fridge. I might have used less salt (Kosher salt, by the way) than the actual Zuni recipe calls for. I just eyed it. Also, the Zuni recipe calls for you to "wipe the chicken dry" before putting it in the overn. My chicken was already dry. I just sort of brushed off some of the excess salt.

                                          1. re: JoanN

                                            Thanks Joan...sounds right on for a really crisp skin!

                                      3. I am wet brining a chicken now and appreciate the suggestion to air dry it before roasting. I checked the Zuni Cafe Cookbook out of the library yesterday and will probably make it tomorrow instead of tonight so it can have time to air dry.

                                        I made the recent CI magazine recipe and was disappointed. It could have been the chicken I used (a very lean organic chicken from a local farm), but I didn't think it was all that tasty. I was reading through the recipe and was astonished to find that they recommend cooking the bird first and then roasting the veggies. (Wouldn't the chicken be almost cold by the time you were finished? Sometimes I wonder what parallel universe they live in -- clearly they are not thinking of putting dinner on the table in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of fuss!)

                                        So far (and this is not having tried the Zuni Cafe recipe yet, mind you), my own favorite roast chicken recipe is mine, which I've refined over time. I always get rave reviews:

                                        Make a rub of salt, pepper, lemon peel, garlic, and rosemary (ground with a mortar and pestle). Mix this with enough olive oil to form a paste and rub it under the skin everywhere you can reach. Roast the bird on a bed of cut root veggies (new potatoes, little carrots, parsnips) at 400 degrees for about an hour, depending on the size of the chicken (I do use a thermometer to check the temp.) I baste everything a couple of times late in the cooking process (to make sure the veggies get some fat on them while roasting and to color the skin with the pan juices).

                                        1. I love the Zuni method but if you don't wipe off the dry brine, it's not hard to understand why the bird will be very salty!! I wipe it dry, let it sit uncovered to air dry while it comes to room temp, then add just a sprinkle of salt before cooking...hmmm, time to make it again soon!!