Traditional Hakka salt baked chicken 盐焗鸡 is prepared by encasing the bird in the salt crust, the culinary tradition that stood the test of time until today since the Qing dynasty.
This surprisingly simple dish relies on the culinary magic inside the cocoon build with a bed of sea salt. The hot salt isolates the chicken from direct heat, ensures even cooking and removes the possibility of burning or charring. The chicken is wrapped in a tight parcel, which retains all the moisture within. It is steaming in its juice, concentrating all the essence and reabsorb into the chicken.
The result is incredibly succulent and tender. Once you open the packet of the juicy salt baked chicken, you know you are in for a treat.
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Fresh chicken is a must to make salt baked chicken, as only a handful of seasoning is used in this recipe. The seasoning is to accentuate the flavor of the chicken meat, not to overshadow it. This treatment is a stark contrast to cooking curry that emphasizes the complexity of the flavor.
The simplicity of Hakka cuisine is also meant we have to prepare it carefully, as there are barely any herbs and spices there to disguise any mistake in the making.
When you open up the parcel of treasure, you will be greeted with the tendrils of steam curls out, and hypnotized by the aroma of the chicken with the smoke flavor of the sea salt.
The salt baked chicken formulation
In the course of developing this recipe, I have referred to some recipes to find out the best way to prepare Chinese salt baked chicken.
I have decided to use chicken thigh because it is easier to cook and does not need a large pot or wok to cook the whole chicken. You can follow the exact method if you intend to bake the whole chicken.
Restaurants use a large (some specialty shop tailored made a vessel) wok to bake the chicken. We can do it at home by using the ordinary size wok instead.
I have carried out three tests to find out some of the myths and the outcome before finalizing my recipe.
Test one: Bake in the oven versus in the wok.
The most important flavor of the salt baked chicken comes from two sources, the sand ginger and the smoke of the salt.
The smoky flavor of the salt baked chicken is significantly more intense for those chicken baked in the wok. The main reason is that the heat generated by the wok is higher than in the oven. I use 250°C to bake the chicken in the oven but still, not match the smoky aroma that permeates the kitchen when I use the wok over minimum heat.
Result: Using the wok to bake the chicken is hands-down.
Test two: To omit the sand ginger
Sand ginger is the primary ingredient for the traditional Chinese salt-baked chicken. It is commonly available in Asia but is an exotic ingredient elsewhere. I know it is difficult to get these ingredients, so I am looking for a solution that the chicken still turns out juicy, tender, evenly cooked without the use of sand ginger.
Result: The lack of sand ginger is surprisingly good. The five spices powder fills the void left by the absence of sand ginger. It is juicy and tender either using the wok or oven.
My conclusion: Sand ginger is an authentic ingredient but not essential to create a fantastic salt-baked chicken.
Test three: Switch up the recipe with Chinese herbs
Traditional Salted chicken is prepared with minimum ingredients. Salt, sand ginger, ginger, wine, and five-spice powder are the only ingredients required. Some people prefer to add some Chinese medicinal herbs to enhance the flavor. The purpose of this set of tests is to compare one with the herbs and one without.
I add two slices of Dong Quai (Angelica Sinensis), two slices of ginseng, and s teaspoons of wolfberries to each chicken thigh before wrapping it.
The result: The Chinese herbs have an aromatic flavor widely used by the Chinese in various cuisine. It is an individual preference when it comes to whether to include the herbs or not. I like to aroma and flavor of the herbs, but I will leave it as the optional ingredient as not everyone is able to get the herbs.
The cooking method
Here is the list of notes you should read before attempting this recipe, especially if you have never tried it before.
The simple marinade gives the best result.
After a gantlet of tests, the marinade consists of ginger, sand ginger, wine, salt and, five-spice powder give the best result. Forget about soy sauce and sesame oil.
How to marinade:
- Mince the sand ginger and ginger finely, (Or you can use the mortar and pestle)
- Add all the ingredients to the chicken thighs. Rub the chicken with the seasonings for a minute or two until it is evenly coated the chicken.
- Place the chicken on a wire mesh and cover with cling film. Let the excess liquid drips into the bottom pan.
- Marinate the chicken for 12 hours in the refrigerator.
Sand ginger is commonly available in Asia but is an exotic ingredient in other parts of the world. If you can’t find the fresh one use the sand ginger powder as part of the dry rub to marinate the chicken. I get the fresh sand ginger in the local market. Therefore, I have changed the recipe by finely mince the sand ginger (and ginger).
You can stuff a few slices of sand ginger (and ginger) in the cavity if you bake the whole chicken. However, since I am baking chicken thighs, I apply the minced sand ginger all over the surface of the chicken.
A small number of five-spice powder can make the flavor more wholesome. Some recipes add star anise to the coarse salt to bake the chicken, but I find that the effect is less intense than adding the spices to the chicken directly.
You may also omit the Chinese five-spice powder, and replace it with salt/peppercorn mix to enhance the flavor. The salt/peppercorn mix is used in other Chinese recipes such as the Chinese roast chicken.
Coarse salt serves two purposes:
- The salt shields the chicken from the direct heat of the stove and provides an even temperature throughout the whole surface of the chicken.
- The dried sea salt has a distinct smoke flavor, which infuses into the chicken meat. This smoky flavor is unique to the Chinese salt baked chicken.
Here is how to prepare the coarse salt to bake the chicken:
- Put the salt in the wok. Pan fry the salt over medium heat until the salt is hot and smoky.
- Turn down the heat and continue to stir and flip the salt. You will hear the crackling sound as a result of the salt start to dry up.
- Stir-fry until the salt is dehydrated or when it starts to turn to light brown. The salt is now ready to use.
Use an old wok to fry the salt. The salt can damage the surface of a well-seasoned wok. If you do not have an old wok, season the wok again after frying the salt. It is not difficult to do so. Here is an excellent video about how to season a wok.
You can reuse the salt multiples times. Discard the dirty salt and keep the rest. This salt has been baked for a long time and is very dry. You do not need to fry it the next time you use it. Once it is heated up, it is ready to use.
Wrapping the chicken (with baking paper and aluminum foil)
I use a large piece of baking paper to wrap the chicken thigh. Then wrap again with another piece of paper. Next, I use a piece of aluminum foil to wrap the bottom and the side of the chicken parcel, leaving the baking paper to expose on the top of the packet.
The first layer of the baking paper keeps the juice of the chicken within. The second paper prevents the coarse salt from reaching the inner layer, which supposedly should be clean and unfold in front of the diners.
The aluminum foil can protect the heat from the stove (I bake it over the gas stove, not in the oven) from overheating the paper, which can make it extremely brittle and may even char the paper.
Place the wrapped chicken over a bed of coarse salt so that the chicken will not touch the hot surface of the wok. Use the remaining salt to cover the chicken entirely.
Turn the heat to low/medium and cover the wok with the lid. Bake the chicken in the wok with it cocooned inside the salt.
The salt does not penetrate the wrapping, although the smoky flavor does. As such, we still need to include salt in the marinade to season the chicken. The coarse salt act as an insulator, preventing any direct heat from the stove from reaching the chicken. As a result, the chicken is evenly cooked, juicy and tender. It also provides the unmistakable smoky flavor for the salt-baked chicken.
As time goes by, you will start to notice smoke rising from the wok, and be able to smell the smoky aroma of the salt.
Bake for thirty minutes and then turn off the heat. Keep the lid on and let the latent heat of the coarse salt continue cooking the chicken for another twenty minutes. Increase the baking duration (use the low/medium heat) if you want to bake the whole chicken uncut.
The Salt Baked Chicken Recipe
- 2-3 Chicken thigh, about 900g
- Coarse salt, sufficient to encase the whole chicken
- Wash the chicken thighs. Drained. Bone in, skin on.
- Mince the sand ginger and ginger finely.
- Rub the marinade onto the chicken. Place it on a wire rack and cover it with cling film. Keep refrigerated and marinate for at least twelve hours.
- Cut a large piece of baking paper. Place the chicken at the center and wrap it up. Get ready one more piece of paper and wrap it up again. Wrap the bottom part of the parcel with aluminum foil to prevent the paper from charring if you use the wok to bake.
- Put the coarse salt in a wok. Stir fry it over low to medium heat until the salt is dry. Continue stir-frying it until you can smell the smoky aroma of the salt. It will take about ten to fifteen minutes.
- Remove two third of the salt. Place the wrapped chicken on it. Use the remaining hot salt to cover the chicken entirely.
- Cover the wok. Bake the chicken over low heat for thirty minutes. Turn off the heat. Let the chicken bake for another twenty minutes.
- Remove the chicken from the salt. Discard the outer layer of the paper. Serve.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1697Total Fat: 103gSaturated Fat: 30gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 68gCholesterol: 839mgSodium: 3647mgCarbohydrates: 4gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 188g
This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 3/13/2019