SORGHUM BUTTER ROAST CHICKEN is excerpted from SECRETS OF THE SOUTHERN TABLE © 2018 by Virginia Willis. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Sorghum is Appalachia’s version of maple syrup. It’s the evaporated cane juice of a grain called sorghum that is pressed and then cooked in a shallow pan until it cooks down to an amber brown syrup that’s a bit thicker than honey. Its flavor is vegetal, earthy, and sweet, with a hint of spice. It can be used in place of molasses, corn syrup, honey, or maple syrup on biscuits, pancakes, or sweet potatoes. The combination of sorghum, butter, and smoked paprika lacquers this bird into absolutely glowing, golden brown deliciousness.
Spatchcocking is the process of removing the backbone and opening the bird so that it is fairly flat—and therefore cooks quicker and more evenly. Brining the bird helps ensure a moist, tender dish. Make sure, however, not to buy a chicken that contains a “flavor solution” or “chicken broth,” which are both essentially salted solution. Also, avoid kosher birds for this recipe, as they are soaked in water and salted to remove all traces of blood. Brining either of these types of bird will result in an overly salty bird.
Serves 4 to 6
Sorghum Butter Roast Chicken
- 1 (4- to 4½-pound) chicken, giblets and excess fat removed
- ½ cup coarse kosher salt
- 4 quarts hot water
- 8 cups ice cubes, or as needed
- ¼ cup sorghum syrup or honey
- 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- Nonstick cooking spray
- Freshly ground black pepper
- To spatchcock the bird, place it on a clean work surface, breast-side down. Using poultry shears, cut lengthwise on both sides of the backbone from the neck to the tail. Remove the backbone and save it for stock or roast it along with the remainder of the bird for a cook’s treat. Open the bird like a book and then place it open-side down on a clean work surface. Press firmly with both hands to flatten the bird.
- Place the salt in a heatproof container large enough to hold the water and the bird. Add the hot water and stir to dissolve and then add the ice cubes and stir to cool. Add the chicken, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. (Do not brine any longer or the chicken will be too salty. If you can’t cook it right at the 2-hour mark, remove the chicken from the marinade and refrigerate until ready to continue.) Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse well, and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels.
- Combine the sorghum syrup, butter, and paprika in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat just until the butter has melted and the sorghum syrup is fluid. Stir to combine. Set aside and keep warm.
- Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a double layer of aluminum foil. (Yes, double-lined. The sorghum will char as it drips and make a mess on the bottom of the pan. You will thank me.) Place a rack over the foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
- Season both sides of the brined and dried chicken with pepper. For the best presentation and even cooking, tuck the wing tips under the bottom of the bird and arrange the drumsticks so that they are not askew. Brush the bottom of the chicken with the sorghum butter. Place on the rack, skin-side up. Roast for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and baste all over with the sorghum butter, taking extra care to brush all the nooks and crannies. Continue roasting, basting occasionally, until an instant-read thermometer reads 155°F when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. Let rest for about 5 minutes before carving and serving. Bring any remaining sorghum butter to a boil and then serve it drizzled over the top or on the side.
Brining is a helpful technique when cooking white meats like chicken, turkey, pork, and even shrimp. (Red meat like beef and lamb do not respond well to brining.) Brine is simply a saltwater solution; although many types of brine also contain other ingredients such as sugar, herbs, and spices to add flavor, the science is all about the salt. How’s it work? Think back to junior high science class. Remember osmosis? That’s when water moves from an area of higher concentration (the brine) to an area of lower concentration (the meat). The salt in the brine causes the meat proteins to become denatured and unwind. The unwound protein coils form a mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb liquid during the brining period. Essentially, the process adds moisture to the meat. I like to think of brining as a cup filled “over the rim.” Then, when the meat cooks, the bonds break and the protein molecules unwind, and the heat shrinks the muscle fibers both in diameter and in length as water is squeezed out. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but because the meat is juicier at the start of cooking, it ends up juicier at the end.