In the world of kitchen tips and tricks, there seems to be an never-ending supply of "you've been doing it all wrong" type of articles. I've seen various websites and videos alike declare that their method of wrapping kitchen twine around a bird is the way to ensure a juicy, evenly-cooked meal, but it's hard to know how (or who) to truss.
Over a 48-hour period, I roasted a total of four chickens. Was this because I require a large amount of protein to function? No, I am a freelance writer whose only form of exercise is running. Is it because I love chicken? I'm really more of a duck person. Is it because I just had to know which trussing method would reign supreme in a two-day chicken-roasting battle? Yes.
For my own edification (and yours) I trussed various 1.13kg chickens three different ways and left one untrussed for control. I prepared each chicken the same way, using this recipe from Chef Thomas Keller, roasting each bird for exactly fifty minutes at 230°C, after which I removed it and took the temperature of the leg and breast.
What happened next will blow your mind (or at least be mildly interesting, depending on your level of chicken-centric enthusiasm). Let's start by discussing the untrussed bird, as a baseline, before proceeding to the other three methods.
No Trussing Whatsoever
The whole point of trussing is to ensure even cooking. According to Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats, the breast should be cooked to 65°C (Kenji proclaims that any higher is "cardboard" territory) and the leg much reach at least 76°C, in order for the connective tissue to break down. Traditional trussing, where the legs are brought into the sides of bird, plumping the breast meat up to increase their cooking time, allows the white meat to hang in there long enough for the dark meat to reach its desired temperature. (Or so the theory goes.)
Honestly, before this, I had never bothered with trussing, traditional or otherwise. I can't claim that this produced the best roast chicken, though I've never had any complaints. But let's take a close look at the kind of roast chicken you get, no trussing involved.
Relative temperatures: This chicken came out of the oven the hottest after the 50-minute roasting period, with the leg reading at 91°C and the breast coming in at 72°C, which means the leg was cooking much faster than the breast. (Again, this is the aim of trussing.)
Skin: The breasts had a nice, golden skin that didn't shrink up during cooking, but the skin around the thigh was a bit flabby and light.
Juiciness: According to my mouth, the leg and thigh meat were perfect. The breast however, was the driest of all the chickens eaten, and slightly stuck to my teeth during chewing. (Though it was the driest of the four chickens, it still wasn't that dry. It definitely wasn't, as Kenji predicted, "cardboard".) It's also worth noting that this chicken lost the most liquid to the pan (three-eighths of a cup) during cooking.
Traditional Trussing Two Ways
The above video from the New York Times shows us how to truss a chicken with some kitchen string. It's not too difficult, but the pacing of the video is so quick, I had to constantly pause and rewind, spreading salmonella all over my laptop. In spite of this hardship, I got the job done.
But what if you don't have any string? (I didn't until I bought some for this article.) It turns out, you can achieve almost exactly the same results by trussing a chicken with its own skin; ginger delight Justin Chapple shows us how.
After trying both of these methods, I'm pleased (and slightly startled) to report that they came out of the oven almost indistinguishable from one another. If not for the string, I wouldn't have been able to tell them apart.
Relative temperatures: After fifty minutes of cooking time, both birds came out with breasts that registered around 74°C (varying by a couple degrees depending on where I stuck the thermometer) and legs that came in at 82°C. This means that trussing this way actually resulted in a breast that cooked faster, not slower, than an untrussed bird. (Just to recap: this is the opposite of what trussing is supposed to achieve.)
Skin: The breasts once again had a nice, crisp skin, though the leg skin suffered from being held against the rest of the bird, preventing the inner leg skin from progressing past what I like to call the "pale, flabby blond point."
Juiciness: Again, the dark meat on both birds tasted great. Both breasts seemed pretty comparable to that the untrussed bird, and still stuck to my teeth a bit (which makes sense as they were all around the same temperature), though were by no means the driest chicken breasts I'd ever had. Both lost slightly less liquid during cooking than the untrussed bird (around quarter cup).
The ChefSteps "Better Way to Truss a Chicken"
Grant Crilly at ChefSteps is a trussing renegade. He claims that the "traditional" trussing method not only robs one of tasty, crispy leg and thigh skin, but results in the breast skin shrinking up, allowing heat to more effectively dry out your vulnerable breast.
Grant's method results in the chicken taking on an oddly human-like pose, complete with a little chicken thigh gap. I found this to be slightly disturbing looking, though it did result in the best leg skin and most succulent breast meat of all the damn chickens.
Relative temperatures: The legs came out of the oven at 82°C and the breasts at 70.5°C, making these breasts the least cooked of the bunch (though only by three degrees).
Skin: This method resulted in beautiful, golden skin in all the right places, though it's worth noting that I didn't have any problems with the breast skin shrinking back with the traditionally trussed or not-trussed chickens.
Juiciness: This bird lost the least amount of liquid during cooking (only an one-eighth of a cup) and the breast was so juicy it almost seemed poached. The legs were good too, but not particularly better than any of the other chickens.
So, Who Can You Truss?
Though the traditionally trussed chickens were the slightest bit juicier than their non-trussed counterpart, it wasn't enough to convince me that traditional trussing is worth it, especially if most of the meat is going into a salad or sauce. Plus, as we saw above, traditional trussing didn't decrease the rate at which the breasts cooked, and actually decreased how quickly the legs reached their desired temperature.
I was however, quite impressed with ChefSteps' method of trussing. Though it caused the chicken to take on a pose that veered dangerously into the uncanny valley, it resulted in the juiciest breast, the most crispy skin, and lost the least amount of fluid during cooking. If you can learn to truss, truss this way.