Cooking With Fire: Salt-Baked Hen

While roasting a chicken by the fire is nothing too unfamiliar, salt-baking is just the opposite. Kind of ancient. People don’t cook poultry like this much these days. You might be wondering: why bother? But the salt, as we know is so often to be, is magic. Exposed to the heat of hot ashes, it seals the meat’s moisture in and ensures it won’t leave. While nearly every other cooking method dries meat out or allows flavor to escape, the salt-bake is almost perfect in this regard; keeps things juicy.

After breakfast I’d journeyed out over the rim of Turkey Hill, which runs behind our cabin, on a late morning cruise. While up there, I stopped along the trail and snipped some branches of juniper leaves off one of the trees, which are everywhere. Their purpose was twofold; even though the berries are unripe this time of year, the leaves still hold a ton of fresh, green juniper flavor (perfect for folding into our salt mixture) and we also like to throw a branch on top of the oven, which slowly warms the plant and releases its oils and aroma into the cabin as the day wears on.

Back at the cabin, I prepared the salt mixture. The concept is simple: you mix salt — a ton of it — with water (or in our case, some gin), egg whites, the juniper leaves, and just a touch of flour. I laid a good layer on on the bottom of a cast iron pan and places the hens side-by-side on top, at which point I encased them in the remaining salt. I’d been building a fire outside, roasting peppers next to it, where I’d soon be cooking vegetables on a hot burning plancha above, and used some of scooped some of the dying ashes directly onto the dome of salt. A little more waiting…

As you can see, Arturo was eager as anyone waiting for hot chicken to finish cooking. You can see him prying his little fingers into the salt, helping to excavate the buried birds a little quicker.

As you could imagine — and I hope these picture help — the skin ends up a little salty, so it takes peeling the skin off before you dig in. When you do, the meat inside is pure, simple bliss.

Alex Leiphart