Heston Blumenthal – how not to roast a chicken

I saw Heston Blumenthal the other night on TV with his roast chicken recipe, and I wish I hadn’t.  His suggestions really worry me.  Leaving aside his recommendation to brine the bird before roasting (because what we all need in our western diets, ladies and gentlemen, is more salt!), he advocates roasting the bird at 90 degrees centigrade (70, even, in a fan oven!) for several hours to a target internal temperature of 60C in the thickest part of the breast.  While I have no doubt that this treatment results in a marvellously moist tender bird (it’s barely cooked after all!) the food safety implications of the process are pretty horrifying.

All raw meat is contaminated with bacteria. This is just a fact of life – after all, meat is dead animal, and animals have bacteria in and on them in life which are impossible to remove in the course of processing.

Poultry meat in particular is high risk.  A UK study published in 2000 identified Campylobacter jejuni in 83.3% of supermarket chicken that they sampled.  I would go as far as to say, I almost guarantee that any raw chicken you purchase will be contaminated with Campylobacter, Salmonella or E. coli, and the risks are probably higher with free range birds which aren’t raised in a sealed environment.

The reason we don’t all have food poisoning all the time is that cooking – the application of heat – is extremely effective in killing these pathogens.  Here’s the problem – Salmonella requires a temperature of 60C for 10 minutes to be effectively killed. Campylobacter also needs to get to 60C, though it’s a bit  more fragile so a minute or two should do trick.  E. coli is more robust – but less common in poultry meat – and needs to be heated to 72C.  The universal advice for safe cooking of poultry meat takes all of this into account and advises the thickest (and hence least heated) part of the meat should reach a minimum temperature of 75C for at least 10 minutes.

On these numbers you can see how Heston’s recipe might *just about* not be gastrointestinal suicide, but you would want to be very confident of your temperatures.  The trouble is, any error in measurement – if your probe isn’t really in the absolutely coldest part of the bird – is going to read higher than the true lowest temperature, making it very easy to overestimate the minimum temperature and have parts of your bird below 60C.

To be quite honest, I don’t care how tender and succulent this roast bird might end up – it amounts to food hygiene russian roulette!  I’ll be staying away from the Fat Duck, I think.

Please, if you want a wonderful succulent roast chicken, buy a good free-range bird with some good fat under the skin, add some lovely flavours in the cavity (I like a quartered lemon with some whole cloves of garlic and a handful of thyme), a little bit of salt and pepper on the skin with a couple of rashers of bacon if you fancy it, and then roast at about 180C to a safe internal temperature.  Rest for 20 – 30 minutes before carving, and enjoy a tasty, succulent, and above all safe roast dinner!

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Meddlesome creatures – the return of the bletted medlars

After two and a half week’s bletting in the spare bedroom, about half the medlars looked unchanged, the other half had softened and darkened in colour, with skins that look and felt a bit like nicely ripened passion fruit.

Bletted medlars

I was itching to get on and, in any case, had read in a couple of places that having some un-bletted medlars in the mix would help with setting the jelly, as they are higher in pectins. Brilliant then – time to get going!

Medlars in different stages of blettingFermenting medlarOf course, I had to taste the bletted medlars – I can report they’re a very unattractive mid-brown squishy substance, with a gentle sweet and slightly floral, perfumed flavour.  Not unpleassant but nothing to get really excited about.  One of my medlars had started fermenting, it’s skin was tight with gas and there were bubbles escaping from the calyx (the ‘dog’s bottom’ bit of the fruit).  In the spirit of experimentation (and so you don’t have to!) I did have a little taste of the liquid leaking from this – again not unpleasant, a little more citrussy than the bletted medlar.  I may have to look into medlar wine recipes!  There were also a couple of medlars which were dry and hard and black in the middle.  I threw those ones away.

Bletted medlars on a plateAfter consulting a few different sources (many recommended adding apples to the mix – something I wasn’t keen to do as I really want to see what medlars taste like!) I settled on a very simple recipe – medlars, sugar, and just a squeeze of lemon juice into the stewing water, using my almost-all-purpose fruit jelly recipe.

The liquor that drained from the jelly bag nearly had me giving up in disappointment.  It was distinctly cloudy with a rather insipid pale brown colour, a bit like too-weak milky tea.  A quick taste, and it was quite bland apart from a dominant flavour of tannin – like I’d been boiling up dry leaves and bark for an hour.  It almost went down the sink, but since I wasn’t sure what it was meant to taste like, I decided to persevere.

Medlar jellyThe result is a revelation – dark golden in colour, sweet/acid with a gentle floral top note and a soft tannin base flavour, quite unlike anything else you’ve ever eaten – my husband tried for several minutes to work out what it tasted ‘like’ before giving up on the exercise. The set of my jelly is a bit softer than I would have liked – to my pint and a half of liquor I added a pound of preserving sugar and half a pound of golden caster I had lying around. The jelly had been boiling for well over half an hour at this stage so I suspect the main problem was shortage of pectin from the quite well-bletted medlars.  I don’t think it really matters!