The first time I read the name ‘spatchcock’ in a recipe book (perhaps in Ms. Beeton) I had to chuckle. Not because of the other meaning of ‘cock’ but probably because I thought I had read ‘splashcock’.
I am not dyslectic but study at university and work as a real-time news agency journalist means I am always reading fast and need to restrain my reading speed when at home.
In a way, splashcock is very appropriate because the chicken is flattened, or spread-eagled.
Wikipedia claims the name comes from old French, but I do not buy that argument. The ‘cock’ bit perhaps, as we are not speaking of a rooster, or coq in French, here but about a spring chicken of which the male is called coquelet (cockerel) and the female poulet.
Before that they are both chicks, or poussins in French.
For spatchcock you can use a large chicken but it works better with smaller birds. You could also use quail or pigeon.
I cannot verify that the term ‘to spatchcock’ comes from 18th century Ireland, as some websites claim, saying “to ‘spatch a chicken” means “to dispatch a chicken”. It is well-known, however that poultry farmers rather keep the egg-laying females than the males, so more young cocks get dispatched than young hens.
But that does not explain why these Irish farmers flattened the birds.
For a spatchcock, you remove the backbone and flatten the bird around the breastbone.
In France, however, they cut the breastbone and flatten the bird around the back – as in Le Coquelet Papillon (Butterflied cockerel).
When you cut the bird in the back, the two legs will be on the inside, overlapping a part of the breast filet but the bone mass of the back bone is gone which makes for easier eating and less risk of sharp bone parts.
When you cut the beast bone, the legs point out, do not overlap with the breast filet and that makes for more evenly cooking.
In either of these two methods, you put the chicken between two carving boards to flatten it, or you hit hard with the flat side of a meat cleaver (as in Chinese cooking). I even read about someone using a brick tile.
The idea is that you flatten the bird so that it holds even on the grill, either held together by two cross-wise inserted iron or wooden pins or between the two sides of a wire rack. You do not need to damage the chicken or turn it into pulp as if it were splashed in a traffic accident or after a fall from up high.
The grill or BBQ usually means high temperatures, direct heat and therefore a relatively short cooking time. That is why I recommend marinating the flattened bird for a while in lemon juice. You need to dry it before roasting otherwise it will cause flames.
Some people like to add a sauce of mustard, soy and chillies to the bird. If so, only add that sauce towards the end of the cooking period (with a brush or spoon or fork) so that the sauce will not burn into a black and carcinogenic coating.
The French also have a more refined technique which calls for knife dexterity – called Poulet crapaud or Poulet à la crapaudine (chicken toad, or chicken as a toad, chicken and toad both in female form). The chicken is sliced in two via the back bone, then the rib cage (coffre) is taken out with a boning or fillet knife, the bird is flattened and an incision is made near the top of the chicken’s ‘shoulder’ through which its two legs are pulled. The chicken then has the form of a toad.
Some people call it already à la crapaudine when two separated chicken halves are flattened.
In all these ways, you have a flat piece of chicken that can grill evenly on a barbecue, while spit roasting takes long and often goes accompanied by flames due to falling fat.
- One cockerel or spring chicken
- Two lemons or lemon juice
- Two cloves of garlic
- White pepper
- Optional, herbs like oregano, thyme
- Wash the chicken and remove the backbone or breastbone (I cut along the beast bone). Remove excess fat and any sharp bone fragments. I also removed the wing tips and the butt.
- Flatten the chicken between two carving boards
- Put the chicken in a rectangular dish and add the juice of two lemons, let it rest for 30 minutes (or longer), turning from time to time.
- (In the mean time you can prepare a salad, jacket potatoes, a humus spread, picked cucumbers or whatever you would fancy as a side dish).
- Crush the garlic cloves with the side of a knife.
- Take the chicken out of the dish, pat it dry, rub it with garlic and put it on a wire rack.
- Put it on the barbecue or grill and cook for 20-25 minutes, turning regularly (every three to five mins, depending on any flames). Towards the end, you can add some lemon juice, or a sauce (see above), to both sides.
- Take it off the heat, add some pepper and salt to taste, add any herbs and let it rest for at least 10 minutes and present.