Seemingly straightforward and mundane culinary endeavors are often cited as the truest indicators of a cook's skills. For example, one's proficiency in simply cutting vegetables, albeit into a very fine and uniform dice, aka brunoise (pronounced "broo-NWAHZ," btw) or the ability to execute a proper omelet, which, despite consisting of just one ingredient, is quite tricky in practice. When it comes to a simple dish, there's just nowhere to hide if you screw up even a little.
Another commonly referenced benchmark is roasting chickens, which, while clearly a bit more involved than brunoise or omelet-making, still comes down to cooking a single thing. But this particular thing has become almost fetishized among home cooks and pros alike. For culinary types, it carries the same caveat that religion and politics do for normal people-if you bring it up in a bar, you're not going to have a good time, meaning you'll get kicked out because I'm being too loud, like it's my fault nobody in your stupid bar knows how to roast a goddamn chicken?!? Anyways.
Ultimately the goal is to achieve two conditions in the chicken: a) well-browned, crispy skin; and b) cooked yet juicy meat throughout the entire bird. It's the disparate cooking times of light meat, dark meat, and even the skin, combined with the complex geometry of a chicken that poses the challenge. Low-temperature cooking will yield juicer meat but flabby skin, and vice versa. So cooks will salt the chicken days in advance, air-dry the skin, roast the bird upside down, shove butter under the skin, even ice the breast before cooking to give the dark meat a head start toward doneness. And various combinations of these techniques will produce a succulent, burnished end product. But it does seem like a lot of work for something so basic, even primal. I mean, what did people do before hermetically-sealed, dual-heat source convection ovens, when all they had was an open fire and some sticks? Enter (finally), the titter-inducing practice known as spatchcocking.
Probably a concatenation of "dispatch" and "cock," it means simply that you've removed the bird's backbone in order to flatten it out, so that now the aforementioned geometry has been converted from a pain-in-the-ass protuberant ovoid to something closer to flat. The reduced overall thickness means shortened overall cooking time, and thus a smaller disparity (i.e. margin for error) between cooking times for dark and light sections. Moreover, whereas a whole chicken necessitates ambient heating (roast in an oven, for example), the flattened shape allows for direct-heat cooking methods, which is ideal for creating a nice, browned crust. Back in the day, you might imagine some very hungry folks not wanting to bother with actually butchering the bird, cutting and butterflying it out, skewering it with a couple of sticks, and cooking it right over an open fire. You could also imagine these folks picking a smaller bird so that it might cook even faster, and indeed in some parts of the world "spatchcock" is a noun referring to a smaller-sized chicken. The slightly more pervy among us might have noticed that a spatchcocked chicken, all splayed out as it is, could strike one as somewhat . . . suggestive. And indeed, I came across at least one instance in literature where someone gets "banged . . . spatchcock," which I can only assume means spread-eagled or something. Sheesh, and I was so trying to stay clear of this sort of cheap ribaldry. But seriously, heh heh. "Spatchcock."
Basic spatchcocked chicken in a cast-iron skillet Ingredients: A 3-4-pound roasting chicken, salt, pepper, butter
Directions: 1. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Remove the giblet packet from the chicken and place on your work surface breast-side down.
3. Using either sturdy kitchen shears or a serrated knife with fairly deep serrations, cut lengthwise on either side of the backbone, and remove it.
4. Flip the bird over and firmly press down on the breast to flatten it out. You may or may not hear a crack as you do this. Your bird is now spatchcocked.
5. Liberally salt and pepper both sides of the bird, and let stand for a few minutes.
6. Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium heat, and add 2 tablespoons of butter, swirl around to melt, and carefully place the chicken skin-side down in the skillet.
7. Cook for 4-5 minutes or until the skin is deep brown, then flip.
8. Place in oven or toaster oven and roast for 35 minutes, then begin to check for doneness either with a thermometer (you're looking for 165 degrees F at the thigh) or when the thigh wiggles loosely or when juices run clear from a pierced thigh joint.
9. Remove the chicken from the skillet and rest it for 10 minutes before serving. Use leftover juices for gravy, stock, or to season potatoes.