If you’ve had the pleasure of dining at the iconic Zuni Cafe, you’re probably thinking about their roast chicken right now just from seeing the words Zuni + Cafe. It’s what they’re famous for, and there’s a reason for that. There’s also a reason that people have no problem at all waiting an hour for it.
I of course was curious what their secret was, and lucky for all of us, it’s not a secret after all!
Let’s take a step back for a second so I don’t simplify this too much. (But don’t worry, it’s still simple). After looking into what the thing was that made Zuni roast chicken so good, I did find that there was one element that made the biggest difference. But we can’t discount the fact that they are cooking good quality chickens in very hot ovens by chefs who know what they’re doing. And then they’re serving those perfect chickens over a seasonal bread salad to soak up all those juices.
It’s multi-faceted, is what I’m saying.
But! Before you get discouraged, let’s circle back. The big thing I’ve learned from Zuni roast chicken is all about the dry brine. It’s not too far off from my Perfect Roast Chicken, which has been a popular recipe here on the blog for (5!) years now – it’s dead simple, and results in crispy skin and succulent meat. Dry brining takes it a step further, and the only factor changing is time; The chicken is salted a day or two before being cooked, and the salt (and herbs and spices, if applicable) work their way into the chicken and give it So. Much. More. Flavor. It almost seems too simple to make such a big difference, but it really and truly does.
The herbs and spices are optional and flexible. I change them up pretty much every time I use this method. If I’m undecided, I just use salt and figure out the flavor profile later. For grilling, I love the combo used here, but you can absolutely make it your own:
- Make it AIP by ground turmeric, ginger and cinnamon and squeeze on some lemon juice once it’s finished.
- Use fresh herbs in the salt mixture like I do for my Roast Turkey.
- Give it more of an adobo flavor with garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, cumin, black pepper and paprika.
- This recipe right here gives a great flavor base for BBQ chicken, so feel free to brush some of my BBQ sauce on during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
Whichever way you choose, the salt is the key, and you’ll need about 3/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of chicken.
Mighty Fine Grilled Chicken
prep time: 5 minutes, plus 6-48 hours to brine
cook time: 25-30 minutes
yield: 4-6 servings
10 chicken legs and/or thighs (about 3.5-4 pounds)
1 scant tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pat dry the chicken and place in a baking dish or similar container.
- In a small bowl, combine the spices.
- Coat the chicken evenly with the spices. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 and up to 48 hours.
- Once you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat your grill to medium, so the temperature is around 400-425ºF. Oil your grill grates if necessary.
- Cook the chicken for 25-30 minutes with the grill closed, turning every 10 minutes or so, and rotating it around the grill as necessary to account for hot spots / uneven heat.
Don’t have a grill? Don’t dismay. This chicken is also great roasted in a 425ºF oven for about 45 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165ºF.
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