Five years ago, I fell in love with dry-rub barbecue. Prior to the summer of 2008, I naively believed that the only way to make ribs deliciously on the grill was to mop them with copious amounts of a wet, tomato-based barbecue sauce. I know, I know, silly Deb, but what can you really expect from a Yankee?
Under my friend Molly’s tutelage, I learned the error of my ways. The thing is, no matter how unappealing the word “dry” may sound against meat of any sort, the results are anything but. While a wet sauce just wants to roll or evaporate off your meat as it cooks, the dry rub spices adhere themselves to it, almost crusting in the meltingly tender meat within as it cooks slow-and-low over a the grill. It loses none of its punch, no matter how long it cooks. You might have some barbecue sauce around when you’re done as a dip for the meat, but there’s so much flavor from that spice crust, you probably won’t need it.
Three years ago, I learned something even cooler, which is that you can make amazing, excellent, just about falling-off-the-bones (but not quite; go all the way you’ll ire the barbecue gods) ribs in the oven, which was a dream of a revelation for us balcony- and deck-less city dwellers without grills at our disposal. Sure, smoke chambers and natural hardwood charcoal make for dreamy barbecue, but you’ll be amazed by what you can pull off in the oven when they’re not available to you.
(And if we are being completely honest, sometimes when they are. Gasp, WHY DEB, WHY? Guys, maintaining coals and smoker chips at an even temperature for four to five hours straight is an epic amount of work; keeping an oven at 175 to 200 degrees is not. There, I said it and I feel absolutely liberated now by the admission.)
Now that all of the serious barbecue folk have left the room, I have got to tell you what I did with these same principles (dry rub, oven-style, no shame) last week: I made chicken. And I can’t believe it took me so long. Using a vinegar brine I’d recommend for any chicken you’re grilling this summer, regardless of cooking time or coating, and the modified dry-rub I’ve tweaked from my existing recipes over the years (less salt and heat than Molly’s; less sugar than McGee’s) I slow-and-low-ed (yeah, I just verb-ed that) my chicken in the oven on a day I’d otherwise be moping* about not having any of those things that are blowing up my social media feeds right now (beach houses/upstate cabins/sparklers or the real luxury: the time to freely indulge in them) and I will not pretend that having it for dinner with a side of slaw, potatoes and this staple salad was the same around our dinner table next to the humming a/c in the window that the other sweaty masses on the avenue below as it would have been on a picnic bench, bare toes in the sand, a big green egg nearby, getting prepped for S’mores O’clock. I mean, let’s not be silly. But for a weekday night when you’re counting down the minutes until your holiday weekend begins, one in which your 3.5 year old utters the magical mythical words, “This is delishish chicken, mommy; can I have more?” it was pretty grand. Even better, it was good enough.
One year ago: Blackberry Gin Fizz
Two years ago: Flatbreads with Honey, Thyme and Sea Salt
Three years ago: Porch Swing
Four years ago: Cherry Brown Butter Bars
Five years ago: Mango Curd
Six years ago: Roseanne Cash’s Potato Salad
Slow-and-Low Dry Rub Oven Chicken
The brine makes your chicken juicier than you ever thought possible; I recommend it for any grilled or oven-roasted chicken dish. The dry rub is my go-to these days, the one I use on my ribs even more often than Molly’s or McGee’s. You’ll have a bit more than you need (it makes 1 heaped cup), but I’d rather you have too much than too little. The technique is mostly adapted from McGee, whose oven ribs lesson I’d been eager to apply to more dishes.
You could cook this chicken longer at a lower temperature for even more flavor and tenderness; the chicken should take 2 to 3 hours at 250 degrees. I didn’t get a chance to test this, but estimate that it can be made in slow-cooker on LOW for 5 to 7 hours.
4 cups water
1/3 cup Kosher salt
1/3 cup white or brown sugar
1/3 cup white vinegar
6 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons sweet or smoked paprika
3 tablespoons chili powder
Up to 1 tablespoon ground red pepper (if you like things quite hot) or to taste (I used 1/2 teaspoon)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
Up to 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
5 1/2 to 6 pounds mixed bone-in skin-on chicken parts (we used 2 small chickens, each in 8 parts)
A generous squeeze of honey
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Brine the chicken: In a large plastic container, mix water, salt, sugar and vinegar. Add chicken parts and cover with a lid or plastic wrap in the fridge, for at least 1 hour and up to 6.
Make the rub: Mix ingredients.
Prepare chicken: Heat oven to 300 degrees. Remove chicken parts from brine and pat dry. Place pieces of chicken on two very large pieces of foil, large enough to fold over chicken and form packets. Pat chicken pieces generously on all sides with rub; do not be shy about using more than seems… seemly. Turn the chicken pieces so their meatier sides are down, and tightly fold the foil around them to make two large packets.
Place two cooling racks (which will act as baking racks) on two baking sheets (one on each). Place a chicken packet on each and place one sheet on an upper oven rack and one on a lower. Bake chicken for 1 hour, then rotate baking sheets. Bake for another 30 to 60 minutes, until the internal temperature of the thickest part of each chicken reads 155 degrees. (Chicken is done at 160. This leaves you a little heat window for the next step, without leading to overcooking. If you’d like to skip this, just cook the chicken in foil until it reaches 160.)
Finish the chicken: Heat broiler. Carefully open each packet of chicken and pour accumulated juices into a saucepan (to make a sauce in a minute). Arrange chicken pieces on open foil packets and run each tray under the broiler until lightly crisped at edges and cooked through. Place on serving platter.
Make a sauce* from the juices: Boil your accumulated juices in the saucepan over high heat for anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, until it makes a syrupy sauce that coats a spoon. I like to add a squeeze of honey for flavor while it reduces. Once syrupy, add 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar. Serve with chicken.
* I wanted to warn that I love making sauce this way, but it always ends up a bit too salty from all of that reduction. You could use less or simply skip this step, using instead another barbecue sauce of your choosing (this one says “Remember me?!”, should you desire sauce with your chicken.