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What Ever Happened to Basting?

I've read a few hundred recipes for roast chicken and turkey here on CH. While I have nothing against high, hot, quick methods like the zuni chicken, I wonder what happened to older style recipes I grew up on. Specifically, why do I almost never see recommendations to baste a bird?

Is it because:
- methods like the Zuni or Keller chicken recipes are just so darn popular? If so, doesn't anyone roast a larger chicken anymore? I see a lot of 4+ pound birds in the grocery store - someone must be buying and cooking em.

- basting is a little more work and usually used along with a longer cooking time? That's true, but I've seen no shortage of work- or time-intensive recipes on CH.

- because Alton Brown told people not to? It's hard to say exactly how influential AB's advice has been. But early in the run of Good Eats, he told people that basting was bad; at the time, he seemed not to understand what basting was actually supposed to accomplish. He seemed to think it was to flavor the bird whereas it's actually to help crisp the skin of a bird that's not cooked on high heat - actually like frying the bird a little bit at a time. He also blamed a too-dry bird on lower cooking temp and longer cooking time, when really it has a lot more to do with higher final internal temperature (if you want to test this, cook a bird at 200 until the breast registers 150-155 - it will take a long time and wind up veerrrry tender and moist). I like AB, but he was dead wrong on this one.

Think I'm overstating his influence? Here is a link to another website - both the blogger and most of the many comments parrot his advice with no one questioning it, no one pointing out that old style recipes with basting seemed to achieve a crispy skin just fine.

- people confuse and conflate basting with stock and basting with melted fat and meat juices? Sort of a different effect

- some other factor that I don't understand?

That's probably enough to discuss for now. I'm just wondering what ever happened to all the poultry recipes that grandma used to make and why they seem to have fallen out of favor. IMO, the current mainstream advice is off.

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  1. cooking techniques come and go, especially with home cooks. not so long ago, nobody bothered brining birds, and now that seems de rigeur for most.

    i can't speak to alton brown, since i don't have a tv, but in over 20 years of working in restaurants, i have never seen a bird get basted. sauce spooned over a few times before plating, but basting? nope. for me it's too much of a hassle and i don't like opening the door every 15 /30 minutes.

    1 Reply
    1. re: hotoynoodle

      A whole, large, roasted chicken with crispy skin is less than ideal for most restaurants. They require long-ish cook times, but you can't really parcook em and get good results finishing last minute. Hard to get it crispy on the outside without overcooking parts of it (which is why I'm advocating basting, btw). And since very few restaurants can convince customers to order a whole roast bird and split it 4 ways, smaller birds which are better cooked on high heat without basting and easier to serve to one or two people make more sense.

      How many times have you roasted a 7 lb bird in a restaurant?

      IMO a basted, large roasted chicken is one of those homecooking classics that you just won't find in restaurants, and it would be a shame to lose those.

    2. I baste because that's what my mother did and I do it twice, give or take.

      2 Replies
        1. re: cowboyardee

          Great crisping and browning. I also give the bird a nice rub with butter and evoo before baking.

      1. My mom bastes her birds (and roasts on lower heat) to this day. Her roast chicken/turkey/cornish hens are awesome. I don't, mostly because I'm lazy, klutzy, and afraid of burning myself (well, that and I usually use my grill rather than my oven). That being said, my chicken skin always comes out crispier than hers.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Jen76

          if i have time, i let the bird "dry" in the fridge a day or two and the skin comes out super crisp.

        2. How about a change in chickens? We have fewer stewing or roasting birds, and more young birds with plenty of fat under the skin.

          2 Replies
          1. re: paulj

            Interesting suggestion. And plausible to an extent. Might be part of the reason that small birds are increasingly popular among foodies.

            But I still see basting as the best option when roasting a larger bird, and I've gotten fine results doing so in recent years.

            1. re: cowboyardee

              In general there might be less roasting of whole chickens with the changing role of chicken in the typical American diet. Once the roast was the center piece of a Sunday dinner. Now chicken is so cheap that parts appear in difference guises through out the week - hot wings, grilled breast, stewed thighs, etc. Plus Sunday dinner has lost it's place as the high point of the week's meals.

              Whole roasted turkey has remained the king of Thanksgiving. So we might ask whether basting is still common in that preparation.

          2. I have long been a baster when it comes to roast chickens.
            If they're in the hot oven, then I'm in the kitchen
            keeping up with them.

            A lab science friend came for cooking some years ago,
            and caught scent of the beauty of basting.
            In less than a week there arrived on my desk
            the gift of a Pyrex glass tube baster.

            When one's been anointed by friendship with such a fine tool
            How can we refuse to squirt all further chickens?

            1. Thomas Keller thinks that basting, even with butter, will add steam to the oven and prevent a good browning (check out Bouchon if you want all the details). I've done it this way and had great results, although I wouldn't hesitate to try basting on a larger bird.

              8 Replies
              1. re: schoenfelderp

                Nathan Myrvold et al disagrees. The point is... stop taking people's word for it and try it. It's just one chicken. Didn't anyone else grow up eating basted birds with crispy skin?

                Also, Thomas Keller's recipes are for small birds cooked on high heat. I've already noted several times that small birds are better cooked this way without basting.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  <<Didn't anyone else grow up eating basted birds with crispy skin?>>

                  Yes, and they were always overcooked. Not saying basting = overcooked, just that roast chicken isn't everyone's favorite culinary memory.

                  1. re: Jay F

                    Fair enough, at least in terms of whether said memories were fond.

                    But can you think of any reason why you couldn't baste AND take the chicken out at the proper temperature? Seems like an easy little leap to make.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      I'm sure I *could* do both. But like a lot of people, I imagine, I don't see the need.

                      I roast chicken on a bed of vegetables, stuff the cavity with garlic, lemon and herbs, and smear butter and salt on the skin. The skin crisps up sufficiently. But you know what? I don't eat it anyway. I've never loved it, somehow. Usually what I do is eat the white meat, leaving the skin on my plate, then use the rest of the chicken to make stock.

                      That's my main reason for making chicken, really, to have stock.

                      1. re: Jay F

                        To each his own. But if you don't really care for whole roast chicken, what's the point of arguing about how to cook it?

                        Also, you'll get better stock if you just remove the breasts and cook them individually, then use the rest of the bird raw. There's no particularly good reason to roast a whole chicken if you just want to eat skinless white meat and make stock.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          <<But if you don't really care for whole roast chicken, what's the point of arguing about how to cook it?>>

                          Indeed. I didn't even think about responding until you asked "Didn't anyone else grow up eating basted birds with crispy skin?" I was answering that question, and one question led to another, and then another.

                          I shall bow out now. Thanks for the tip on white meat and stock.

                    2. re: Jay F

                      Another approach to minimizing over-done breast meat is to start the bird with the breast side down, and invert it part way through. However this does increase the chance that the breast skin will stick and tear.

                    3. re: cowboyardee

                      Nope. I grew up eating basted birds with flabby skin. My mother wasn't interested in crisping the skin, though, I don't think, since she's not a fan of it. But in any case, basting with anything other than pure fat is going to reintroduce moisture to the skin and make it less crispy than it would be if it were basted with pure fat or not basted at all. If you find that you get sufficiently crispy results that way, that's great. I never have, plus I don't like having to open the oven every 15 mins - so I don't baste. Chacun a son gout.

                  2. I roast a large Oven-stuffer Roaster surrounded by slices of Potatoes, Carrots and whatever I feel like adding, in a Roemertopf. The necessary presoak of the clay pot halves with water provides a lot of moisture ( the water gets discarded before loading the claypot with everything). The Roemertopf is placed into a cold oven and heated to and kept at ca 425 - 450 F. During the ca. 2 hours in the oven, one never opens the pot, the Chicken is never basted and comes out moist and tender with nicely browned skin. It is an excellent alternative to the old traditional roasting/basting.

                    1. Because I don't think basting does anything. It doesn't keep meat moist, which is a function of temperature. And it is cumbersome. I don't think it crisps skin.

                      This basting might be an American thing? I imagine French people have been doing it for an hour in hot ovens for a long time.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: jaykayen

                        "Because I don't think basting does anything. It doesn't keep meat moist, which is a function of temperature. And it is cumbersome. I don't think it crisps skin."
                        I guess that's what I'm disputing. It introduces hot fat to the surface of the meat. This fat coats the skin and temporarily halts evaporation on much of the surface of the skin, and along with that, evaporative cooling. Meaning that the skin is effectively cooking at a significantly higher temperature for a time. The effect is to get a crispier skin without resorting to very high oven temperature (which does work, but can lead to uneven doneness, and also prevents people from seasoning the bird with seasonings prone to burning, or from cooking it along with foods that are prone to scorching).

                        I'm not saying it's always the best way to go, or talking smack on the alternatives. Just saying people nowadays seem to avoid it like the plague for no good reason.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          Unfortunately, most of the time basting does NOT introduce hot fat to the surface of the meat. People who baste generally do so with either melted butter (which contains water and is generally not "hot" when applied) or pan juices (which also contain water and are generally only at around 212 degrees when applied). If you were actually basting with pure fat, at a high temperature, then I would agree that it might aid in crisping.

                          1. re: biondanonima

                            It has not been my experience that the basting liquid has to be 100% fat for basting to be effective. Many people brush butter on chicken skin and note that the skin gets nice and crispy - I don't think that should be a revelation. For pan juices, I think you're best off drawing from the top so you baste mostly with fat. But a little bit of water content doesn't seem to ruin the effect.

                            Honestly, I guess I was expecting more people to agree with me or note from personal experience that basting can result in a nice crisp skin.

                            That's pretty much not happening. So a test is in order. I'm thinking i'll cook a bird basting one half in pure hot fat, the other half in pan juices and butter. Next day, i'll roast another chicken of the same size at the same temperature to the same doneness without basting. I'll try to be good about doing it soon and posting the results, but you can expect some delay for laziness.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              In my experience, if you really want to crisp the chicken by basting, you have to wait for the water to have evaporated from the liquid in the pan (or be more careful than I can to be in spoon out mostly fat). Too much water in that liquid results in less crispy skin. Basting with more watery fluid may still assist enhancing the color, but not actually the crispness, of the skin.

                              The other thing is that, if you brine (wet or "dry" via rub), you may not want to baste.

                              1. re: Karl S

                                "The other thing is that, if you brine (wet or "dry" via rub), you may not want to baste."
                                Why's that?

                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                  It might make it change the desired salt level in the end result.

                      2. I wonder if you are using the right term why you talking about using hot fat to crisp the skin.

                        The Larousse Gastronomique (1st English edition) defines it as 'to pour roasting or braising stock over a joint in order to keep it moist during cooking."

                        I've seen cooks like Morimoto spoon hot oil over a bird or fish, but that is not in the oven, but over a wok. It is hot and dangerous work; spectacular but not something I want to do at home.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: paulj

                          I'm using the term as I believe it is commonly understood: to pour pan juices over the skin of a roasting piece of meat - usually poultry. Those juices are generally not 100% fat, but mostly so. It is good technique IMO to baste from the top layer of the accumulated pan juices so as to use as much as fat as possible.

                          1. re: cowboyardee

                            Pan juices are mostly water and non-lipid "juices" until well into the cooking process.

                            1. re: Karl S

                              I usually give the bird a generous coating of fat/oil before starting cooking. Extra goes into the roasting pan, and drippings from that initial coating help provide fat for basting early in the process.

                              You're right that the subcutaneous fat doesn't usually render until it's been cooking for a while.

                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                  That's one shift in dominant technique. Today's birds have more subcutaneous fat (the opposite problem from pork, by contrast); in the past, one added fat because old fashioned birds were so lean - not needed today, and recipes emphasize instead the promises of the enhanced Maillard reaction that comes from having a very well dried surface (another example is the emphasis that, if you add fat, you add it UNDER the skin).

                                  My own experiences indicate the shifts in technique hold more true to their promises than the older ways, and I suspect it's because the birds have changed.

                                  1. re: Karl S

                                    I think you may have hit the nail on the head.

                                    My mother used to have to request chicken fat from her butcher when she wanted to make schmaltz (a yearly affair), there just wasn't a lot to glean from the weekly chickens she prepared.

                                    If she were still cooking she would have no problem collecting enough fat throughout the year.

                                    For the record, she always basted with the rendered pan liquid and her roast chicken was succulent with wonderfully crispy skin!

                          2. Supermarket chickens are regularly over 4 pounds, and even 6 pounds; I can only get 2.5-3# chickens at an ethnic store. If you do that at a moderate temperature (350) it can take 2 hours to cook it. I've found that a long time in a moderate-heat oven can drive a lot of water out of the exterior and it's plausible that would create a crispy skin without high heat or basting.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jaykayen

                              Seems you are pretty much right. See below.

                            2. So I tried a little test, hoping to demonstrate the exact effects of basting. 2 chickens, 2 nights.

                              The basted bird:

                              - 5.13 pounds

                              - Oven preheated to 375. Same temp throughout the cooking process. Electric oven, no convection.

                              - I dried the skin well, but didn’t bring it to room temperature (not enough time after buying it).

                              - I seasoned the chicken (salt, powdered thyme), then made a mixture of melted butter, garlic, and lemon juice (4 T/ 2 crushed cloves/ ½ lemon) and coated the bird entirely with that mixture. Excess butter mixture went into the pan under the chicken.

                              - Stuffed the chicken with a lemon cut in half and a sprig of rosemary. Under the chicken, I roasted some halved finglerling potatoes in the pan.

                              - I basted the chicken every 20 minutes. On one half of the bird, I basted with pan drippings. On the other half of the bird, I basted with pure oil that I kept heated on the stovetop. (I didn’t measure the oil temperature but I’d guess that it was between 275 and 325 degrees).

                              - I also didn’t keep track of exactly how long it took. Somewhere around an hour and 45 minutes. I removed the bird from the oven when the temperature at the deepest part of the thigh registered 156 F.

                              Below are pictures of the result. The side basted with oil only is on the right in the first pic and then the top; the side basted with pan juices is on the left then the bottom.

                              1. The un-basted bird:
                                All factors were the same, except for the following –

                                - 5.23 pounds

                                - I did not baste at all.

                                - I coated only one half of the chicken with the butter/garlic/lemon mixture before cooking. The other half got dry seasoning only.

                                - I kept the door of the oven shut as much as possible. I did however start checking the temperature at the one hour 5 minute mark.

                                - The total cook time was closer to an hour and a half. I removed the chicken to rest when the temperature at the deepest part of the thigh was 153 F.

                                Below are pictures. The side that was initially coated with the butter mixture is on the right. The side that was left dry is on the left.

                                1. Results discussion:

                                  Right off the bat, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

                                  Both birds developed crispy browned skins. The underside of both was a little flabby, which isn’t surprising since I took no steps to ensure otherwise.

                                  The basted bird was more evenly browned and crisped on the side that was basted by hot oil only. The difference was slight, but you can see it on the skin of the leg. I can’t say whether this was the result of water-based liquid in the pan juices or the semi-related factor that the oil from the stovetop was just hotter. Both sides were edible and crispy and delicious enough. The breast meat in this bird was slightly overdone, though not bad near the bone. I’m fairly confident this had more to do with the internal temperature at which I took the bird out of the oven (~165 in the breast before resting) than with the basting process, but I couldn’t say for certain.

                                  The unbasted bird was just as browned and crispy – if anything crispier. The browning was more even on this bird – it wasn’t quite as dark on the very top, but more of the skin on the thigh was browned and crisped. I’d say both sides (the one that got the butter mixture and the one that didn’t) were equally crispy, but the completely dry side was more even. The breast meat wasn’t particularly overcooked on this bird (see my comment above).

                                  Frankly, after all that spouting off…. this is embarrassing.

                                  Of course, one trial isn’t definitive, but it would seem that basting doesn’t much help with browning or crisping. It doesn’t hurt to any significant degree either, but I was hoping to show more than that. The apparent take home would be this – if you get the fundamentals basically right (dry the bird before cooking, keep it elevated enough that it’s not steaming) getting a brown crispy skin just isn’t that difficult. Basting isn’t necessary, or at least not for the reasons I stated. It doesn’t make for a crispier bird, and it doesn’t keep the meat moist (not that I claimed it did).

                                  There is one silver lining for fans of basting though: the side of the first bird that was basted with pan drippings was the most flavorful of them all. The meat drippings mixed with lemon juice and spices left some of its flavor behind on the skin. It had a nice and very noticeable lemony tang and a more developed savory flavor from the deeply flavored pan drippings. So at least our collective Grandma wasn’t totally off Her rocker.

                                  If people would like to join in a rousing chorus of ‘I told ya so’s, I've earned it.

                                  Have at it in 3… 2… 1…

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    This should be submitted to Cooks Illustrated (Americas Test Kitchen) or some other publication (like Chow.com). I don't know what you would get for your effort, but still, good for you.

                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      Are you taking requests for future Chicken tests?

                                      If so, here is mine: Please test "roasting" Chickens (or smaller Turkeys or Ducks or Geese) at lowere temps like 200-250 F. Cook's Illustrated, I believe, once alluded to cooking a bird at 200 for something like 4 hours and said that it was very tender and tasty, but that they did not print the whole recipe because it took too long (and, therefore, their readers were not as likely to beinterested in it).

                                      I would test it myself, but I simply do not have the time, and, more importantly, enough people to eat all of that chicken.

                                      I have seen some recipes online for birds cooked at that low temp, but they are somewhat few and far between with proper details lacking.

                                      1. re: DougRisk

                                        I like the thought of continued chicken tests.

                                        I will give this a try at some point and post the results. Interestingly, I also wonder if the type of basting I tried out here where I kept a pot of oil heated on the stove might prove more beneficial when applied to this type of low, slow 'roasting.'

                                        The thing I'm tripping over is the safety aspect. I'm certain that at 250, you can just roast a bird until done. No problem. At 200 - I'm starting to worry a bit about whether the chickens surface and cavity would be so slow to reach a safe temp that I might face a microbial problem. I'm sure that if there is a danger, i could avert it by exposing the chicken briefly to very high heat over its entire surface a la Heston Blumenthal. But that would involve either briefly deep frying in a huge vat of oil (dangerous) or submerging in a large pot of boiling water (possible leaching of flavor?) But it may not even really be an issue - truth is I don't know.

                                        I've found a few online precedents:



                                        But if you have more please let me know.

                                      2. re: cowboyardee

                                        I can't believe that you have not gotten any more responses to this...this is exactly the kind of thing I look for at Chowhound (I wish we could get more CookingForEngineers type stuff here).

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          This is fascinating, and thanks for doing this.


                                          "There are no experimental failures. There's only more data."

                                          1. This is a great post!
                                            As far as basting goes. I do baste. But you know, I don't just baste birds. I also baste lamb and pork roasts. I don't baste beef, b/c when I roast beef, I melt a ton of chopped onion and butter in the roasting pan, then I add the beef. I cook all my roasts on a low temp because my mom did that and she could cook a roast like nobody's business! To this day, she is the best roast cooker in the world. Now, as far as the bird thing. When I cook a whole chicken I stuff the inside with quartered oranges and lemons, I also make a seasoned butter and slide it under the skin. I baste a couple of times while cooking and it comes out really nice. When I do Cornish Hen, I butterfly them and baste. Works for me!