String Roasting

string roasting a heritage turkey

A turkey roasting from a string.

String roasting is an ancient roasting method. It is a method that enables you to roast meat or poultry in front of the fire even if you don’t have a spit. I own a beautiful old spit that is turned by a clock motor but I rarely use it because I find string roasting to be more satisfying. It roasts meat silently — and perfectly. String roasting is roasting method you can use on a fireplace or campfire. I wrote about string roasting in my book, The Magic of Fire. You may read the string roasting pages in PDF format.

I tell everyone who is willing to listen to me to read Charles Dickens. I am especially insistent in my recommendation of Dickens to anyone I even remotely suspect might have an interest in hearth cooking. Dickens is the master of the literary fire. The fireplace, the fire, embers and ash, are often characters in his books. Dombey and Son ( link) is a Dickens novel that is rich in everything a Dickens novel can be expected to be rich in — extraordinary characters, beautiful writing, deep emotion — but it is also extraordinary for the way in which fire is woven into the story.

The passage from Dombey and Son that follows involves a meal prepared by the comic character Captain Cuttle for Florence on the night of her great distress. The meal that Captain Cuttle makes for her is a meal of love and it is cooked entirely on a small parlor fireplace. The chicken is hanging from a string and is the only representation in fiction that I have found of string roasting.

The Captain had spread the cloth with great care, and was making some egg-sauce in a little saucepan: basting the fowl from time to time during the process with a strong interest, as it turned and browned on a string before the fire. Having propped Florence up with cushions on the sofa, which was already wheeled into a warm corner for her greater comfort, the Captain pursued his cooking with extraordinary skill, making hot gravy in a second little saucepan, boiling a handful of potatoes in a third, never forgetting the egg-sauce in the first, and making an impartial round of basting and stirring with the most useful of spoons every minute. Besides these cares, the Captain had to keep his eye on a diminutive frying-pan, in which some sausages were hissing and bubbling in a most musical manner; and there was never such a radiant cook as the Captain looked, in the height and heat of these functions: it being impossible to say whether his face or his glazed hat shone the brighter.

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

This passage introduces string roasting — but it also demonstrates the incredible versatility of a small parlor fireplace. With pots and frying pan arrayed on the hearth in front of the fire Captain Cuttle was able to cook a complex meal. I take this particular description of a meal literally because my own hearth technique was developed on a parlor fireplace and when I make an ambitious dinner I know that I must look like Captain Cuttle, busy, and glowing from the heat. But, I digress.

There has been a good four hundred years of cookbook publishing in the English language. String roasting is rarely mentioned. It is a folk method that, for lack of documentation, has been nearly lost.

In the United States, Old Sturbridge Village keeps the tradition alive. In France, the method is kept alive by restaurants that prepare legs of lamb hanging from a string — gigot a la ficelle — and by hunters who roast birds on their country-house fireplaces lined up in a row hanging from strings. It is a method, though, that deserves a new look.

There is a nice description of String Roasting in The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, an extremely influential cookbook written by Hannah Glass in 1747. The book was influential in England as well as in the American colonies, and it remained popular into the early decade of the nineteenth century. The recipe for roasting pigeons in front of the fire by hanging them from an iron bar is typical of her careful writing. The second paragraph is really a note. In it Hannah Glasse explains why string roasting is best for roasting pigeons — and by extension all small birds — it keeps the juices in the body cavity — but she provides alternates anyway, including cutting the birds open and grilling them butter fled — what she refers to as “broiled.”

To roast Pigeons.

Fill them with Parsley clean washed and chopped, Pepper and Salt rolled in Butter; fill the Bellies, tie the Neck-end close, so that nothing can run out, put a Skewer through the Legs, and have a little iron on purpose, with six Hooks to it, on each hook hang a Pigeon, fasten one End of a string to the Chimney, and the other End to the Iron (this is what we call the poor Man’s Spit) flour them, and baste them with Butter, turn them gently for fear of hitting the Bars, they will roast nicely and be full of Gravy: Take Care that you take them off with Care, not to lose any of the Liquor; you may melt a very little Butter and put into the Dish; your Pigeons ought to be quite fresh and not too much done; this is by much the best way of doing them, for then they ill swim in their own Gravy, and a very little melted Butter will do.

When you roast them on a Spit all the Gravy runs out, or if you stuff them and broil them whole you cannot save the Gravy so well, though they will be very good with Parsley and Butter in the Dish, or split and broiled with Pepper and Salt.

Hannah Glasse,
The Art of cookery Made Plain & Easy, 1747

Hannah Glasse specifies string roasting for this dish because she wants the body of the bird to retain all of what she calls its “gravy.” When roasted on a string the bird hangs vertically — legs up — and if the neck-end is tied up tightly, no fluids are lost. The trick to this recipe is how to tie the neck-end tight enough. During the 18th century, and also even now in French cuisine, meat is almost always served with a sauce — with gravy. The object of this dish is to create a light natural sauce while cooking the pigeons. If you don’t get the neck-end completely closed and some of the juices drip out while the birds are turning in front of the fire then you will have to make up a gravy for the birds before service and the dish will not retain its character. This recipe for pigeon is easily adapted to young pigeons — squab — and to quail.

My redaction

Full instructions for building and maintaining cooking fires are found in my book, The Magic of Fire. However, I think you will be able to make this recipe from the instructions provided here along with reference to a PDF of the string roasting pages from my book.

The Fire: Build a hot fire. The air where the birds roast should be so hot that you cannot long hold your hand there. Start the fire about 1 1/2 hours before you plan to cook.

The string roasting system: Read the PDF from my book. For this recipe you will be roasting several birds at the same time. The birds hang from a horizontal rod — Hannah Glasse suggests an iron bar with hooks. While a metal bar with hooks could be commissioned from a blacksmith or assembled out of parts purchased at a hardware store, the simplest approach is to hang the birds from a stick or 1 inch (2.5 cm) dowel. The stick or dowel should be a little longer than your fireplace opening is wide. Before starting the recipe, hang the stick or dowel so that it hangs just under the height of your mantle, and so that strings hanging from it will clear the face of your fireplace by 1 inch (2.5 cm). See instruction 9 (below) for details on how the birds are attached to the horizontal pole.

Ingredients: For each squab you need enough fresh chopped flat-leafed parsley to lightly fill each bird, 1 ounce of unsalted butter rolled in a mix of 50% freshly ground pepper and salt. Additionally, you need melted butter with which to baste bird, and unbleached white flour to dust it with. You will also need needle and thread for sewing up the bird, and string for trussing it.

Note on buying pigeon or squab: This recipe calls for pigeon — but a pigeon young enough for the flesh to be tender when roasted. In the U.S. we call young pigeons squab and so it is squab that you should use for this recipe. The squab should have its neck and head attached when you buy it. In the United States such birds can often be purchased from Chinese markets. It is important that the neck skin only be cut just below the head. Modern slaughtering practice can be exceedingly sloppy. If the neck skin has holes in it close to the shoulder of the bird it will be impossible to seal the neck. You should select your birds carefully. In large Chinese shopping districts you can sometimes select live birds and have them slaughtered and dressed to your specifications. The more convex the eye of the bird you buy the fresher the bird.

Plan on 1/2 bird per person, so three pigeons or squabs will serve six people. For ease of handling plan on spacing the birds about 10 inches (26 cm) apart. Thus in a fireplace that is approximately 3 feet wide (1 meter) you can roast three birds at one time.

1. Remove the birds from the refrigerator. Rinse, and pat dry.

2. In a mortar, pound 1 part whole pepper with 1 part gray sea salt. One ounce of this pepper and salt mix is sufficient for three birds. If you don’t have a gray sea salt just use whatever salt you have.

3. Cut butter into 1 ounce sections, one section per bird. Thus, for three birds you would cut three 1-ounce pieces of butter. I like to make the butter into a ball, but the shape is not necessary. Roll the butter whatever its shape, in the salt/pepper mix so it is thoroughly covered.

4. Wash and coarsely chop fresh flat-leafed sparsely, including the stems. In the time of Hanna Glasse you can assume that sparsely was growing in the kitchen garden. In my experience, flat-leafed parsley grown at home has significantly more flavor than flat-leafed parsley purchased at the market — even farmers market.

5. Lightly stuff each bird with the sparsely and follow with the prepared butter. “Lightly stuffed” means filled but not firmly packed. Sew shut.

6.Use a shear to cut the neck as close to the squab’s body as possible. Do this by pealing the skin back towards the squab’s body until you can get the shears where you need it. Be careful not to damage the neck skin when doing this. Once the neck is cut, remove it. Depending on how the bird was dressed after slaughter some of the neck skin may still be attached to the neck. The heads and necks can be reserved for the stock you make from the carcasses after the squab have been served and eaten.

7. This is the most important step. If you were able to select a carefully-slaughtered bird, then all will go well. My suggestion is to fold over the neck end 1/2 to 1 inch (.75 to2.5 cm), sew shut, then fold it over again, and sew shut a second time. Remember, the whole reason Hanna Glasse specifies string roasting is to keep in the juices. Once the neck end is sewn shut, then sew it flat against the back of the bird. This further insures the juices stay in. Holes in the skin are very difficult to close tight enough to keep butter from leaking out so I emphasize, again, the importance of trying to get carefully slaughtered and dressed birds.

8. Trussing. Place the wings against the sides of the squab so that the wing-tips just touch. Use cotton string to tie the wings in place so they will not move during roasting. Hannah Glasse suggests skewering the legs, and then hanging the bird by a string attached to the skewer. You should probably feel your way to this detail. I skewer the legs together in two places, once in the upper leg, just under the knee, and once just under the squab’s ankle. I always roast my birds with the feet attached. If your squab doesn’t have feet, then you can only skewer the birds in the main portion of the leg. Insert the skewer near the joint, so that if it slips when cooking it won’t be able to move. The bird should hang straight, so once you have run skewers through the legs truss them to the bird. It can be helpful to tie the string or thread by which the bird will be hung to the skewer before trussing (see step 9 below). Trim the skewers so they do not hang more than one or two inches (2.5 to 5 cm) beyond each side of the bird.

9. If you haven’t already tied a thin string — kite string or even a piece of thick cotton thread — to the skewer between the squab’s legs. The thinnest string that will support the weight enables the squab to turn the longest without being given a push. Cut the strings so you have plenty of extra string, thus, if the pole is 3 feet (1 meter) above the hearth, cut the string at 4 feet (130 cm).

10. Brush the birds with melted butter. Rub with salt and dust with unbleached white flour.

11. Once the birds are prepared and the fire is hot, hang the birds from the horizontal pole already in place. (See “String roasting system” above, if you haven’t already.) Hang them over a drip pan, so, first, put a drip pan down on the hearth under where the birds will hang. This will be exactly on the edge that separates the hearth from the firebox. Tie the birds to the pole so they clear the drip pan by about 3 inches (7.5 cm). Space the birds approximately 10 inches (25 cm) apart — far enough so they will not touch each other when you turn them.

10. Hannah Glasse suggests that the birds be “not too much done.” Depending on how the fire is, the squab will be done in 20 to 30 minutes. When done, bring a serving platter to the hearth, cut the strings, and place the birds on the platter. Let them rest ten minutes. Remove the trussing strings and skewers, cut the birds in half, and serve. Each half the bird should be filled with parsley. Following Hannah Glasse’s suggestion, you may wish to pour some melted butter into the serving plate. The juices that run from the bird will mix with the butter, augmenting the gravy that should be served with the squab.

Further notes: Hannah Glasse suggests hanging the string from the “chimney.” In very large kitchen fireplaces it is possible to hang a hook on the inside of the chimney. The fireplace itself can be so large one can stand up inside it. Most of us are cooking on what Hannah Glasse would have considered to be a parlor fireplace. Affluent households did not cook meals on their parlor fireplace. That Captain Cuttle, in the Dombey and Son quote, above, string roasts his chicken and prepares a complete meal on his parlor fireplace is a sign of his relative poverty. For those of us, like Captain Cuttle, who cook on parlor fireplaces, the string will have to be hung outside the chimney.

String roasting is always a fine method for small birds. Quail do well string roasted. Hang the birds by their ankles in groups of three. Both Chinese and Mexican markets are a good source of reasonably priced quail. If there is a choice, buy fresh rather than frozen quail.

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