Technique: Cakes & Ale’s Billy Allin on open-top braising

The method yields super-tender meat with minimal effort
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

For an easy dinner at home, Billy Allin suggests open-top braising, a slow-cooking method that yields super-tender meat with minimal kitchen effort. For poultry, Allin prefers the “crocodile” method, in which he places chicken (or duck) pieces in a pan and partially covers them with liquid, leaving the tops exposed “like the backs of crocodiles floating in the water.” Then he transfers the chicken to the oven and allows it to cook, uncovered, so that the skin on top browns while the liquid reduces down to a rich jus. Tips: Use high-quality stock (fortified with dry white wine), aromatic vegetables, and herbs, and season the chicken well the night before. But don’t overdo it. “You do not need to put Sriracha on this,” he says. “I like my chicken to taste like chicken.”

1 Place 4 chicken legs (with thighs attached) on a paper towel–lined rimmed tray. Generously season pieces with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper (or 1 tsp. of spice blend). Refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.

2 Preheat oven to 325°F. Remove chicken from refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking. Pat dry with paper towels. Coat a large, heavy, oven-safe skillet with 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil and set on medium heat. Add ½ onion, thickly sliced; 13 stalk celery, sliced; and 2 small chopped carrots. Saute until vegetables are softened and lightly caramelized.

3 Add 1 plum tomato (San Marzano, if possible), 1 fresh bay leaf, 2 sprigs thyme, and 1 whole peeled garlic clove. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, stirring to break up the tomato.

4 Add 1 cup dry white wine and 1 Tbsp. Champagne vinegar. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add chicken pieces and enough stock to partially submerge, leaving the top of the chicken exposed. Cook over medium until liquid is hot.

5 Drizzle top of chicken with more olive oil, and place pan in oven. Cook at 325°F, uncovered, for 1 ½ hours, or until done.

6 Cut each thigh and leg into 2 pieces. Pat off excess oil. Serve with jus from the pan.

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel
Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Spice Blend
Combine 1 cup kosher salt, 1 Tbsp. each toasted and ground coriander seed and toasted and ground fennel seed, 1 tsp. each toasted and ground cumin seed and freshly ground black pepper, and 1 ground clove. Store in a covered container.

Side Ideas
Allin suggests assertive-flavored sides to balance the mildness of the chicken. One favorite: quickly sautéed baby turnips and fresh artichoke hearts (or baby artichokes if you can get them.) He brightens the plates with handfuls of arugula leaves and suggests adding cooked farro for an earthy, chewy counterpoint. Pair with a dry Riesling, an Alsatian Pinot Gris, or light Beaujolais.

1 lemon, quartered
4 medium fresh artichoke hearts, halved (see directions)
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
8 small turnips, trimmed, scrubbed and halved (or quartered) into bite-size pieces
A few handfuls of arugula leaves

In a medium skillet, combine artichoke hearts, 1/3 cup olive oil, wine, water, and salt. Bring to a heavy simmer and cook 8 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and artichoke hearts are sizzling in remaining oil. When very tender, remove to a paper towel–lined plate.

Add remaining 1 tbsp olive oil to another medium skillet. Swirl to coat, and add turnips. Cook and stir, shaking pan occasionally, until turnips are lightly caramelized. Transfer pan to oven and cook at 325ºF, 5 to 10 minutes, or until turnips are can be pierced easily with knife. Remove to a paper towel–lined pate.

To serve:
Place chicken on a plate with artichoke and turnips. Drizzle with some of the jus, and top with a handful of arugula leaves.

Tip: Preparing fresh artichokes
Peeling artichokes is a pain, but the flavor is infinitely superior to canned or frozen. A basic method: Squeeze the juices of 1 lemon into a large bowl of water, then cut up and toss in the rinds. Snap off the tough outer leaves from artichokes, then cut off the tops, leaving only the soft outer leaves. Using a paring knife, peel outer skin from around the base of the artichoke and stem. Cut artichoke heart in half, then scoop out all of the “choke,” the silky purple and white leaves in the middle that include the hairy-looking filaments that can scratch your throat if swallowed. Immediately dip hearts into lemon water to prevent browning until ready to use.

Chicken Stock
Makes 2 to 3 quarts

1 whole organic chicken, cut into pieces
1 small (or 1/2 large) onion, cut in half
1 medium carrot, cut in half
1/2 stalk celery
2 sprigs thyme
1 fresh bay leaf (or ½ dried leaf)
1 whole clove
2 peppercorns
1 1/2 gallons water

Place chicken, onion, carrot, celery, thyme, bay leaf, clove, and peppercorns in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the chicken by an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 2 hours, uncovered, skimming surface as needed. Strain through a colander. Reserve chicken for another use.

Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

About Billy Allin
James Beard semifinalist Allin is the chef owner of Cakes & Ale. Raised in South Carolina and educated in the culinary arts in northern California (including a stint at Chez Panisse), he worked as Scott Peacock’s sous chef at Watershed before opening Cakes & Ale with his wife, Kristin, in 2008.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.