How To: Cook Chicken Like a Pro

Whether it’s roasted, grilled or tossed in a hearty pasta dish, chicken is always a crowd-pleaser. 

As the summer months approach, life in Cayman begins to focus on beaches, boats and, of course, barbecues. And grilling over hot coals naturally leads to thoughts of… chicken.

While not every chicken dish needs to be broiled over flavored wood chips on someone’s back patio, the versatile meat does suit the warmer weather. Local chefs all have their signature ways to prepare and serve chicken at their restaurants, but are also happy to share their favorite styles of cooking.

At Ortanique in Camana Bay, the emphasis is on fresh, local produce. In the case of chicken, owner and chef Cindy Hutson always looks to buy local. “I like using local eggs and chicken when possible as they are so fresh,” she says. “It also is great to support the farmers. I do not use them exclusively as sometimes some of the recipes I create require plumper or a specific type of chicken; the eggs I can’t always get.”

One of her signature dishes is jerk chicken penne pasta, a delicious nod to the restaurant’s Caribbean home. Combining sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and a few other choice ingredients to complement the jerk, the recipe, which serves four to six people, is reprinted on page 39 for readers to cook at home.

Cindy is also happy to share how she personally likes to prepare chicken, which is easy to duplicate in any kitchen.

“One of my favorite ways to cook chicken is to semi de-bone the chicken, splitting it down the breast and opening it flat. Then, season it with herbs, garlic and let it sit in a lemon brine overnight.

“Next day, dry it with paper towels and season with olive oil and lemon pepper, and roast it. The skin becomes so crispy and delicious.”

Dylan Benoit, company chef with the Market Street Group (Duke’s Seafood and Rib Shack, Waterfront Urban Diner, Mizu Asian Bistro, Craft Food and Beverage Co, Fidel Murphy’s Public House) says that sticking to the dark meat ensures a tastier outcome.

“In my kitchens we use a lot of chicken, but I prefer to use thigh meat as opposed to breast meat whenever I can; I find it ends up being much more tender, juicy and flavorful than white meat,” he points out.

“It has a higher fat content (hence more flavor) which helps it from overcooking as fast as really lean breast meat and packs a whole lot more ‘chicken’ flavor.”

Dylan adds that this part of the chicken is a more economical choice. “It’s also less expensive as a rule and you can buy it at the store skinless and boneless for ease of cooking. If you have the time you can buy bone-in thighs, de-bone them yourself and save the bones to make delicious chicken stock.”

He points to one of the offerings at Craft as a great way to prepare the meat. “One of my favorite ways of cooking chicken right now is letting it marinate in a jerk rub for 24 hours, then slowly grilling and smoking it on my Big Green Egg. The charcoal flavor that comes off of that grill is amazing and lends itself really well to the jerk chicken alfredo pasta we serve at Craft Food & Beverage Co.”

Dylan suggests another simple but delicious method that is easy to do at home. He recommends mixing some Greek yogurt with Madras curry powder, and marinating the chicken overnight before grilling or roasting in the oven. “(This) has a great flavor for pitas and sandwiches or cut up on top of salads.”

Over at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, a wood-burning oven adds another dimension to their chicken dishes. Bradley Herron, executive chef for The Genuine Hospitality Group, describes the advantages of this type of cooking.

“The best way to cook chicken is in the wood-burning oven. You take out the bones in a half chicken – the breast, leg and thigh – with just the wing bone attached. A little bit of bone adds flavor,” he says.

The chicken cooks flat and it comes out crispy with plenty of flavor, he says, adding that it is easier to eat this way; you can use a knife and fork and don’t have to pick it up.

“Our favorite way to cook it is to use some olive oil and place it skin-side down in a black steel pan – it’s basically a rolled-out version of a cast-iron pan, but thinner.”

Bradley explains that the chicken is quick to cook in this way, especially without the bones; it only takes seven minutes in the restaurant’s super hot oven, which is set to 800-degrees.  Michael’s serves this roasted half chicken with a light salad of farro, roasted corn, red onions and cilantro.

While they don’t cook with local chicken (“The chicken we really love is Poulet Rouge from Joyce Farms in North Carolina; they have strict guidelines on raising the chickens”), the restaurant uses local eggs.

“The eggs on the island are great,” he adds, which they use for dishes at brunch and the like, but those are supplemented with store-bought eggs for baking.

For cooking at home, Bradley stresses you should always use good-quality free-range or organic chicken, which, like at Joyce Farms, is air-chilled instead of being submerged in water or brine; the water will stay in the meat and make it less crispy when cooked.

His favorite and easiest way to prepare the chicken is to spatchcock it – remove the backbone and spread it flat or butterfly it. Rub on good-quality olive oil, and add salt and pepper (he prefers Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper). Then, either grill it or cook it in a cast-iron pan (a flat, even surface is a must) in the oven, where it will come out crispy since there will be more contact with the heat source.