Bruce Burton has an unusual CV. It includes stints as an airline pilot, management consultant and, most recently, chicken farmer.
For the last seven years, Bruce and his wife Roz have run Milking Yard Farms near Daylesford, where they grow pasture-raised heritage breed chickens known as Sommerlad.
There are two types of genetics in poultry says Bruce. One type is the fast-growing industrial breeds that reach a size of 2 and 2.2 kilograms in six weeks. The second is heritage breeds that derive from old-fashioned meat birds, which “grow three times as slowly, have a lot more fat, flavour, texture and are a darker coloured meat,” says Bruce. “Many people say that they taste like chicken used to taste.”
Roast chook is a much-loved meal in the Burton household. And it’s no surprise the poultry-loving couple have an abundance of experience preparing it. “We’ve been experimenting for years,” says Bruce, acknowledging that “everyone has their own opinion – there are about 16 different ways to do it.”
The challenge with roasting a chicken is “it’s made up of different types of meat with different thicknesses and fat content,” says Bruce. “And you’re trying to cook it without over- and under-cooking any one piece.”
After much research – and a spot of international travel – the Burtons found a solution to their roast chook quandary. “The technique we favour is a French technique called poaching and grill,” he says.
Parisian poultry secrets
The Burtons stumbled on the method in Paris at a specialty poultry restaurant. Known as Le Coq Rico, the approach sees the chefs poach the birds before browning them in a hot oven to serve. “The beauty of doing that is it cooks slowly and evenly,” says Bruce. “That’s the key technique here, low and slow, to preserve the fat and the flavour.”
Slow is the go
At Milking Yard Farms, Bruce begins by poaching or steaming the whole bird. “The idea is to do it for a long period of time at a really low temperature, effectively like a sous vide,” he says. “The benefit of doing that is that it cooks through evenly. We typically leave our birds in the poach for 2 to 3 hours at somewhere between 65 and 75 degrees. What that does is preserves all the fat in the meat, but gives it a lovely slow-cooked effect.”
A thermometer is useful at this point to accurately measure the chicken’s temperature as it cooks in the broth. “I love the idea of using a thermometer,” says Bruce. “If you cook a bird at 65 degrees, it will be a little bit pink. If you cook it at 75 degrees, it will be just past pink.”
Fridge makes crisp
Once poached, the chicken can then be dried off and stored in the fridge. “You can do that a couple of days ahead of time,” says Bruce, observing that this offers the advantage of freeing up valuable oven space when entertaining. “It dries the skin, so when you put it back in the oven, you get a nice crisp on it.”
Season to please
When it comes time to serve, remove the chicken from the fridge, season it – with salt and pepper, or, for an extra punch of flavour, a spice mix like F. Whitlock & Sons’ Smoky Manuka Style Rub – and cover it liberally in butter. Next, put the chicken into a 75-degree oven for an hour to bring it back up to temperature. “Then you blast it at 210 or 220 for 20 minutes,” says Bruce. “Just enough time to brown the skin.”
The result is a uniformly succulent roast chicken. “You’ll get a lot more moisture and flavour out of a breast done this way,” says Bruce. “We got sick of having dry and pasty breast meat. I used to favour legs or the Marylands (a cut of chicken containing both the drumstick and thigh) because the meat was moist. But if you use this technique, you’ll be amazed at how different the breast meat is. It’ll be juicy and tender, particularly on the industrial birds, which dry out because they don’t have as much fat as the heritage bird.”
To finish? Bruce’s go-to sides are smashed roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts done in the oven with bacon and all the trimmings, and roast pumpkin. “Not very inventive,” he concedes, “but they work so well.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with F. Whitlock & Sons. The F. Whitlock & Sons new Rubs range is available at Woolworths and Independent Grocers.