The Butterfly Chicken Effect
By R. Scott Pearson, CEO
Please click here to download this article's PDF
Butterflying a chicken (also called spatchcocking) transforms a sometimes dry tasteless bird into a delicious, juicy treat. By opening the bird up to heat from the cavity side, we cook faster and expose more of the meat to delicious, sweet Traeger smoke.
Prepare your spice rub in advance by combining your favorite spices with baking powder, not baking soda. For this recipe, we are using black pepper, garlic granules, paprika, and baking powder in equal amounts. If you change the mixture, always make baking powder 25% of your total mixture for poultry with skin. Baking powder contains corn starch to absorb moisture, and small amounts of baking soda and an acidic ingredient. Some people are sensitive to aluminum flavor from baking powder, so you may want to choose an aluminum free brand. Baking powder makes the skin brown better and also makes it super crispy by raising the pH and creating microscopic bubbles inside the skin.
Step 1 is to use scissors to cut along the backbone on both sides, removing it completely. Open it up, cavity side down, then press downward on the breastbone and ribs to break enough ribs to cause it to lie flat. Sprinkle Kosher salt on the cavity side of the bird, turn it over, and spread more salt all over the skin. Leave the salt on the skin for ten minutes or so to allow it to bring moisture to the surface. Don’t worry about salt drying the bird, in time, the salt will change the protein in the meat and cause it to reabsorb the exuded moisture. When there are beads of moisture all over the bird, spread your spice rub evenly all over the skin. Cover the bird and place it back in the fridge for at least an hour, but preferably overnight.
This is a hot and fast cook, so there isn’t time to get great smoked-all-day flavor. One way to compensate so you still get some smoke is to put the bird in the grill while it starts and warms up. You may or may not like the heavy creosote laden smoke flavor this gives you; you will have to decide for yourself. Any flavor pellets will work well. For this cook we are using Traeger Pecan pellets, the favorite in our taste testing events, The Great Traeger Pellet Shootout.
Place the bird cavity side down directly on the grates and set the grill to High or 450. Insert a temperature probe into the breast meat of the chicken, avoiding contact with bone. If you have two probes, place one in the thickest part of the thigh. Chicken is done at 165ºF minimum Internal Temperature (IT). Breast meat should be removed as soon as possible after reaching 165ºF, but dark meat is better at around 180ºF. If you know where your grill’s hot spots are, place the legs in one of them. If you have not mapped this out, put the legs nearest the exhaust. This tends to be the hottest, especially on grills with a smokestack.
The USDA food safety standard for poultry is 165ºF IT before removing from heat. Food poisoning organisms that require 165ºF to kill can exist inside of poultry flesh, which is mostly unheard of in fish and red meat. Many references state that you can remove poultry from the grill at temps a bit lower, counting on carryover cooking to bring the meat to 165º for the required time. This is very likely true when cooking at high temps like we are using for this recipe. It is not true when cooking at temps below 200ºF. If you feel that the white meat is overdone using this recipe, (I did not) you may want to consider your risk tolerance, the accuracy of your measuring tools, and the certainty that you have the probe in the absolute coolest spot, before stopping the cook below 165º IT next time.
Monitor temperature closely. Expect total cook time to be less than 60 minutes, although this may vary, as some models heat faster than others, and dry pellets produce more heat than damp ones. When the breast meat reaches 165ºF, check the thigh. Hopefully, the dark meat will be a bit hotter than the breast. If not, you need to leave the bird in the grill until all parts reach 165ºF. Remove immediately when all parts of the bird are 165ºF or more. This bird took 52 minutes at 450ºF. It needs to rest only a minute before serving. This will likely be the juiciest, crispiest, and tastiest chicken you have ever eaten.