Tender, juicy and thoroughly flavoured, Chinese five spice chicken brings roast chicken to a new level. This recipe offers many tips to ensure the desired result.
One of my favourite ways to use five spice powder, a popular spice blend in Chinese cuisine, is to season a whole chicken and roast it with a honey glaze. It has an appetising brown colour like Soy Sauce Chicken, a balanced savoury sweet taste like Char Siu chicken, and a compelling aroma like Smoked Chicken.
It only calls for 8 ingredients. The cooking procedure is straightforward too. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing dish for dinner or festival occasions, read on to learn all the tips and tricks.
Spatchcock the chicken
When preparing a whole chicken for roasting, I prefer spatchcocking, aka butterflying. This method involves removing the backbone so that the chicken can be laid completely flat. The benefit is obvious: It takes less time to cook and the meat can be cooked more evenly.
Here is how you do it:
- Place the chicken over a large tray with the breasts down and the legs towards you.
- Find its backbone in the middle. Use kitchen scissors/shears to cut along both sides of the backbone, separating it from the ribs (You may reserve the backbone for making chicken stock).
- Flip over the chicken so that the breasts are facing up. Use the palm of your hand to firmly push the middle of the chicken until it’s flattened completely.
To make your five spice chicken as tasty as it can be, it’s essential to season it ahead of cooking. This allows the flavour to penetrate the flesh instead of having it just on the surface. Here are the ingredients and how to apply them.
For a chicken that weighs 1.8 kg/2 lbs, you’ll need:
- 2 teaspoons salt. Fine grain salt is preferable as it spreads more evenly.
- ¾ teaspoon five spice powder. I have a separate post on how to make it from scratch.
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder. It’s also known as garlic granule.
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce. You may replace it with light soy sauce (or regular soy sauce), but the dark version is better at browning.
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine. Please feel free to skip it if you don’t want to include alcohol in the dish.
In two small bowls, mix the dry ingredients (salt, five spice, garlic powder and white pepper) and the wet ingredients (soy sauce, Shaoxing wine) separately. The honey in the image above is for brushing onto the chicken while roasting.
- First, lay the butterflied chicken with the skin facing down. Rub half of the dry mix over the cavity side. Massage well to help it to stay on.
- Flip the chicken over. Spread the wet mix evenly over the entire skin. Then rub the rest of the dry mix over.
After that, store the chicken in the fridge. The ideal resting time is between 12 to 24 hours. You don’t need to cover the chicken. The dry environment in the fridge will help to slightly dry out the skin thus helping to crisp up while roasting.
Roast in four stages
Before I explain the process, here are some tips for achieving the best result:
- Remember to take the chicken out of the fridge at least one hour before cooking. This allows it to come back to room temperature.
- Place chicken, skin side up, over a wire rack that fits into a roasting tray. This helps the hot air to circulate underneath.
- Pour some water into the tray (lower than the rack). This way rich drippings from the meat won’t get burnt. Remember to top up when necessary while cooking. Afterwards, you may use the liquid to make a flavourful gravy (optional).
- Use a fan-assisted oven (aka convection oven) if available. It produces better air circulation than a conventional oven thus cooking meat quicker and more evenly.
- Adjust the oven temperature a couple of times. The high temperature in the beginning and at the end will help lock in the moisture and brown the skin.
- Brush honey over the skin at the end of the process. It adds an appetising shine to the skin, as well as a nice sweet taste to complement the savoury flavour.
Stage 1: Preheat the oven properly before roasting: fan-assisted oven at 390F°/200C°, or conventional oven at 425F°/220C°. Place the roasting tray on the middle rack of the oven. Cook for 15 minutes.
Stage 2: Turn the oven down to 320F°/160C° (or 350F°/180C° if using a conventional oven). Continue cooking for 20 minutes (Check the water level in the tray and top up if necessary).
Stage 3: Mix 1 tablespoon of honey with ½ teaspoon of dark soy sauce. Take out the chicken and brush a thin layer of the mixture over the skin. Put back into the oven and cook for 5 minutes.
Stage 4: Turn the heat up to 390F°/200C° (or 425F°/220C° for a conventional oven). Take out the chicken and brush a second time. Leave to roast for a further 5 minutes.
Check the doneness
The total cooking time required may vary depending on the performance of your oven. The size and type of the chicken are also influential factors. To check the doneness, here are two methods:
- Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken. When it reaches 165F°/75C°, it’s fully cooked and safe to consume. Try not to overcook as it results in dryness, particularly in the breasts.
- Alternatively, pierce the thickest part with a skewer or a fork. If the juice flowing out appears clear, the chicken is done.
🛎 Tip: If your chicken is a little bigger than 1.8 kg/4 lbs (I wouldn’t recommend a very large one though), increase the cooking time in stage 2 by 5 minutes or so. If smaller, reduce the time accordingly.
Rest and serve
Don’t rush to serve the chicken! It’s crucial to rest it after cooking. 10 minutes would do wonders. Dr Stuart Farrimond explains in his book The Science of Cooking that during resting “Heat from the outer layers spreads into the core, and moisture from the cooler core diffuses outwards, giving a more even temperature and juiciness”.
Tender, moist and flavourful, five spice chicken tastes great on its own. So it’s not compulsory to eat it with sauce or gravy. Usually, it’s served as the centrepiece of a multi-course meal, along with other savoury dishes and steamed rice. Check out my vegetarian recipes to find some inspirations for pairing.
Chinese Five Spice Chicken (五香烤鸡)
BEFORE YOU START
- 1 free range chicken, about 1.8kg/4 lbs
You also need
- 1 tablespoon honey
- ½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
- Place the chicken over a large tray with the breasts down and the legs towards you. Find its backbone in the middle. Use kitchen scissors/shears to cut along both sides of the backbone, separating it from the ribs (see images for reference in the post above).
- Flip over the chicken so that the breasts are facing up. Use the palm of your hand to firmly push the middle of the chicken until it’s completely flattened.
- Pat dry the whole chicken with kitchen paper to remove any moisture.
- Mix salt, five spice powder, garlic powder and white pepper in a bowl. Rub half of the mixture over the cavity side.
- Flip over the chicken. Mix dark soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine. Rub it over the skin side. Then spread the rest of the dry mix. Massage to evenly distribute.
- Leave to rest uncovered in the fridge overnight (12-24 hours).
- One hour before cooking, take the chicken out of the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature.
- Preheat a fan-assisted oven at 390F°/200C°, or 425F°/220C° if using a conventional oven.
- Use a roasting tray with a wire rack that fits inside. Fill the tray with some water (lower than the rack) and put the chicken on the rack (skin facing up). Place the tray in the middle of the oven. Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
- Turn the oven down to 320F°/160C° (or 350F°/180C° if using a conventional oven). Continue cooking for a further 20 minutes. If your chicken is a little bigger or smaller, increase or reduce the time by 5 minutes or so (Check the water level in the tray and top up if necessary).
- Take out the chicken. Mix honey and soy sauce then brush a thin layer over the skin. Put back into the oven. Cook for another 5 minutes.
- Turn the heat back up to 390F°/200C° (or 425F°/220C° for a conventional oven). Take out the chicken and brush a second time. Roast for 5 more minutes to finish.
- Check the doneness (see footnote to learn how). Then take the chicken out and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving into small pieces to serve.
- Option 1: Insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken. The temperature should be no lower than 165F°/75C°.
- Option 2: Pierce the thickest part with a skewer. It’s cooked if the juice flowing out appears clear.