Monday, July 14, 2014

Brining and Slow Smoking Chicken, like a Boss!

What is "Brining?"  You hear that term around the cooking world today, "Brining."  Actually, "brining" isn't even a word, but then "Googling" isn't a word either, yet it's rapidly climbing the list of "most used words that aren't words" chart.  Simply stated, a "Brine" is a solution of water and salt.  Making the decision to immerse whole chickens into a brine solution, leaving them overnight in your garage, and then to cook it and serve it to your family is, well, "Courageous!"  But it will yield the juiciest and most flavorful bird you've ever sunk your teeth into, I promise!

You Will Need:

For the Brine:
  • 1.5 Gallons of clean cold water
  • 2 Quarts of Boiling water
  • 2 Cups "Pickling" Salt (There is nothing special about pickling salt, but it's "finer" so it dissolves more easily in liquid)
  • 2 Cups of Sugar
  • 2 small commercial bags of ice (5lbs each)

For the Chicken:
  • 2 or 3 Whole chickens

For the Rub:
  • 1 big shaker full of equal parts of:
    • Brown Sugar
    • Kosher Salt
    • Ground Pepper
    • Chili Powder
    • Smoked Paprika
Ok, after you cook your chicken, you'll be so convinced that "brining" is the way to go, that you'll want to brine pretty much everything in site, like turkeys, more chickens, cornish hens, ducks, your children, etc.  I recommend buying a 5-gallon bucket that you dedicate to bringing turkey.  It's helpful to buy one with a spout on the bottom, but not necessary.  I labeled it and thus, my "Turkey Bucket" was born!  Nobody uses this bucket to mop floors, clean toilets, weed gardens, or whatever, it is exclusively used to brine birds.  Dump in your cold water, and then mix your salt and sugar into the boiling water and stir it until it dissolves.  Now poor the dissolved salt/sugar water into the bucket with the rest of your water and park it somewhere cool like a fridge, or your basement, or in a bathroom next to an A/C vent.  Presto... You now have 2 gallons of brine.  Now, prepare your birds!

Wash, rinse, and pat your birds dry.  Cut the spines out with some kitchen shears, and cut the birds in half, from top to bottom.  When your brine water is completely cool (or at least room temperature), drop all of your bird parts into the water.  I know, I know... "Gross!"  Not really, though.  Consider that the salt will go a long way toward the removal of any nasty bacteria.  Also, we plan to further complicate the lives of the single-celled bad guys by making it very cold.

Dump one of the bags of ice on top of the birds, and then rest the second bag of ice, unopened, on top of the ice that you dumped into the bucket.  Snap on the lid to the bucket, and walk away.  Be sure it's in a 68 degree environment, or cooler.  We want the chicken to swim around in salt water that is 36 degrees (or colder) to be safe.  Leave the chicken alone in the brine for 12 hours.  If you're brining a 20lb turkey, leave it in for 24!  Either way, the ice should keep things way cold enough for the duration.
So, what's going on in there?  A lot of chemistry, that's what!  The increased salinity of the fluid around the meat cells causes the cells to absorb more water from the brine via osmosis. The salt introduced into the cells also changes the protein inside.  The denatured protein forms a matrix that traps water, holding onto it during the cooking process.  Result?  A super juicy bird! (Thank you Wikipedia!)
When 12 hours is over, open the tap in the bottom of your bucket and drain the brine into the sink.  Hopefully, you have some chunks of ice left floating in there.  This tells you that you've been successful in your attempt to quell the invading hoards of ruthless bacteria by freezing them to death.  Pull the bird halves out of the brine, drain them over the bucket, and lay them out for preparation.
Rub them all down with some olive oil and sprinkle on your dry rub.  Remember to lift the wing and rub the armpits!  The wing flapper covers 1/2 the breast, so don't forget this step!
Once they're all seasoned, bring your smoker's temperature up to 250 degrees and line your birds up for their final march.  Close the lid and leave them in there, at 250, for at least 4 hours.  Then take their temperature.  The breasts should be 160 and the thighs 175.  Move or adjust your birds around the grill, relative to the heat source, as necessary for proper cooking/heating.  When they're done, take them off and cover them to rest for 20 minutes.

When you're ready to serve, a simple quick slice of the knife will separate the breast/wing "white meat" half from the thigh/leg "dark meat" half.  Then, I like to use my kitchen shears to cut the breasts in half, if they're fairly large.  Also, the shears work miracles in separating the leg from the thigh, if you want to go that route.

You'll find your chicken to be insanely juicy, but the real payoff is later, when you reheat the leftovers.  This chicken is just as juicy the second time around as it is the first!  It also makes incredible chicken salad, chicken quesadillas, burritos, or grilled chicken and cheese sandwiches!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Red Velvet Cake; It's All About the Frosting!

Since I was a young boy, my Aunt Edna would make me a 4 layer Red Velvet cake on my birthday.  It was exquisite and awesome, and I blame dear Edna for introducing me to "high class" desserts long before I should have been.  I rarely ever saw Red Velvet Cake during my teen and adult years because it wasn't exactly "in fashion" and as Edna would tell you, "It ain't easy to make, kid!"  Today, you can't walk down the street without tripping over a Red Velvet cake, cupcake, ice cream bar, or even an M&M!

This makes me incredibly sad.  Why sad?  Because the popular "take" on RVC is miles away from the original.  The first RVC in America was created by the head pastry chef at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC.  Recipes for the cake differ widely in ingredients (some even call for "Beet Juice" to color the cake, first introduced when food was rationed during WWII), but the frosting is what makes this cake extra special.

This is where I take issue!  The "Convenient" way to make anything "Red Velvet" today is to dump a bunch of Cream Cheese frosting on it.  WRONG!  Worse, they use CHEAP Cream Cheese frosting, loaded with high-fructose corn syrup or other ridiculous 5 syllable ingredients....NO!


Personally, I don't care how you build your Red Velvet Cake.  Buy it in a box, google it, whatever.  What I care about, and I care about it deeply, is the frosting.  I care deeply enough to reject a RVC that you might bring me on my birthday if not done correctly (sorry).

Edna was kind enough to give me the faded blue index card that had her RVC recipe on it and you can pry it away from me when I'm dead and gone.  Edna is gone now (bless her heart and soul) and I would not dishonor her by giving you all her cake recipe (it's stupendous and I plan to win a gold medal at the fair someday with it).  I will, however, give you the frosting recipe, since it's all that is right and good and pure and righteous when it comes to RVC.

Do *NOT* make substitutions with this recipe.  Do it right, or don't do it at all:

You Will Need:
  • 3 Tbsp All Purpose Flour
  • 1 Cup whole milk
  • 1 Cup sugar
  • 1 Tsp good vanilla
  • 1 Cup butter, softened (must be butter)
Add the milk to the flour slowly, using a whisk.  It's helpful to have a 2nd helper to sprinkle the flour in while you do the whisking.  This will avoid lumps.  You're making a French Bechemel sauce, which is a base to most French sauces and is used in everything from cheese fondue, to... well, cake frosting.  

Cook the flour/milk mixture slowly over medium heat until very thick, stirring constantly.  You'll be tempted to put the whisk down and to walk away.  Don't do it!  That's when it will grab the bottom of the pan, burn, and crawl up and over the sides.  Use a double-boiler if you have one.

When it's good and thick, take it off the heat and allow it to cool completely, to room temperature.

Meanwhile, cream the sugar, butter and vanilla together with an electric mixer until it's fluffy.  Then, slowly add it to the cooked mixture with a rubber spatula.  Now, put the whole mix back under the electric mixer and kick it into high gear until it's all fluffy and ready to frost a cake.

Keep any leftover frosting (yeah, right... like there's gonna be leftovers.  Please.). in the refrigerator.  Also, keep the RVC in the fridge after you frost it!!  The frosting is little more than a sweetened "sauce" and it will break down on you at room temperature.  In fact, you may want to cool it down significantly before you frost the cake!