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Moroccan cuisine has a vast array of chicken dishes. Whether the birds used are beldi (free range or country chicken) or roumi (standard battery chicken), they must undergo a specific process of cleaning and brining before they are considered ready for cooking.
Thorough cleaning and brining of poultry is a serious matter. It’s believed to be fundamental to the taste and texture of the final dish. Having grown up with this, I find it hard to order chicken dishes in restaurants as this detail is probably missing from the dish’s preparation.
I grew up in a family of busy women looking after their families but also after their careers. For them, Saturday morning was a market day when food and groceries had to be secured for the coming week. A trip to the market was always followed by food preparations and cleaning.
Many weekends, my late father (and now, my mother) would go to the market and order 20 to 25 chickens and cockerels (coquelets) from the seller. The birds immediately went to the “guillotine,” followed by a hot water bath and the feather plucking machine. After he was done with his shopping list and had loaded the car, my father picked up the chickens and headed home.
Cleaning and Brining the Chicken
While my father was doing his weekly shopping, my mother would prepare two large buckets of water and a couple of smaller buckets.
One large bucket was filled with fresh water; this is where the chicken would land first. The other large bucket contained fresh water mixed with big pieces of lemon and bitter orange (naranje) as well as vinegar and sea salt; this is where the poultry would brine for a few hours.
But before the brine bath, each chicken had to be meticulously looked over and cleaned. Giblets (and any accidentally found egg—without shell, would you believe?) would be separated and set aside in one of the small buckets. We would use those livers, hearts, necks and gizzards (el kanssa) later on in specific recipes.
Unwanted bits went into another small bucket which was designated for trash. All in all, it was a heavy chore for whoever was around to help.
The poultry would remain in the brine for a few hours. In addition to tenderizing and improving flavor, the brine bath helped with the final cleaning that followed, as unwanted bits became easier to detach. The brine also helped eliminate any remaining blood and impurities, which is in line with Islamic guidelines.
After the brine, each chicken would be processed one by one to remove lumpy or slimy fat trapped between the skin and the meat, as well as any remaining bits of feather and plumes. In Moroccan cooking, it is essential to get rid of these bits or the cook will be in hot water. The skin would be left intact since it protects the chicken afterwards and gives a nice crust in the case of roasting.
A final wash in fresh water was mandatory, then the birds would be set aside in colanders or big baskets to drain.
Storing the Chicken
Next, the chicken had to be prepped for the freezer. Some were left whole and some were cut into six pieces, ready for tagines and stews. Others might be boned and filleted. All were bagged and put into the freezer, to be consumed in the coming weeks.
After all this exhausting work, the work surface had to be deeply cleaned with bleach and lots of water.
In my small kitchen, the work of cleaning and brining chickens is downsized as I only handle one or two birds at a time. Despite health and safety messages warning not to wash chicken due to the potential spread of bacteria, I still follow the process of cleaning and brining each bird before using it.
The process I follow is outlined below. It really makes a difference to the final dish. It is important to limit the work space so it will be easy to clean with detergent and hot water after the task is over.
Cleaning and Brining Chicken
- 2 chickens
- 3 tbsp salt
- 1 lemon cut into 4 wedges
- 4 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
Cleaning the chicken
- Delicately insert your fingers between the skin and the meat, trying to separate them as you go while keeping the skin intact, especially if your recipe calls for roasting the chicken.
- Slide your fingers in the cavity and pull out fatty bits, stringy bits and anything sticking to the skeleton except the white meat.
- Rub the chickens inside out with half of the salt and some of the lemon wedges. You could add ginger at this stage if using it.
- Put the chickens in a deep bucket or container and top them with cold fresh water. Add the vinegar, the salt and the lemon juice from the rest of the lemon. Add the wedges to the water as well. Set aside for at least 30 min, covered.
- Slide your hand again between the skin and the meat and again pull any lumpy or slimy fat still trapped in between. After the brining stage, this becomes much easier and the lumps that resisted before will come off easily.
- If you plan to keep the skin on, make sure you pull out any bits of feather or plumes. If you have gas hob, hover the chicken above a gas flame as this will burn those unwanted bits. Wash the bird once done.
- The tail (sot l'y laisse) as well the wing tips and drumstick tips should all be cut off and discarded. Leaving any of these bits is considered inappropriate in Moroccan cooking.
- Wash the chicken thoroughly and place in a colander to drain. Pat dry and transfer to plastic bags.
- Freeze or place in the fridge for a few hours before you cook it.
- It is essential to thoroughly clean any surface that came into contact with the chicken.
- Covering the chicken while it's brining is important, especially if you are going to put it in the fridge as the bacteria might spread to other items around.