Ramblings, Today I Learned
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Instant Pot Whole Chicken – Testing Notes

A whole chicken sprinkled with Cajun Spice Rub in an Instant Pot, ready to cook
Chicken in the Pot, ready to cook

Testing notes on cooking a whole chicken in the Instant Pot

If you read the recipe header for Tuesday’s Instant Pot Whole Chicken recipe, you could probably feel my frustration. It’s as if I was writing out a long form *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” meme. I ended up with a good technique for a pressure cooker whole chicken. It’s useful, and I’ve used it a few times in the weeks since I finished recipe testing. (It’s a great way to cook a whole chicken when the end goal is shredded chicken enchiladas, for example). But it still irritates me. This post is me talking to myself, the notes I took along the way. I figured it would be interesting for readers to follow along with a recipe that didn’t exactly go how I planned it.

Why is it hard to cook a whole chicken?

There’s a reason Julia Child said: “One can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken.” It’s not easy to get a whole chicken just right.

Chicken has two wildly different types of meat. The dry, easily overcooked white meat is in the breast. The tough, fatty dark meat is in the leg. Leg meat thrives under pressure; it wants to be overcooked, and a pressure cooker is great at that. Breast meat is finicky, and is perfectly cooked in a very narrow window from 160°F to 165°F, where it starts to dry out.

All my tricks for perfectly cooked chicken breast involve thermometers, so I can pull the chicken off the heat at exactly 160°F. That’s impossible in a sealed pressure cooker. So, I’m making a command decision – the dark meat takes priority, and I’ll have to live with how the white meat comes out.

Instant Pot Whole Chicken – 6 minutes per pound?

The standard recipe on the internet is:

  • 1 cup water in the pot
  • Chicken on a rack
  • 6 minutes per pound

I want that to work. Whenever I write a recipe that says, say “Cook a 4-pound chicken for 24 minutes”, I get a wave of comments (usually during the day on a major holiday) asking “but what if I have a 3 pound chicken? Or a 6 pound chicken?” Having a “minutes per pound” timing will head off many questions.

According to the 6 minutes per pound rule, that should give me:

  • 3 pound chicken – 18 minutes
  • 4 pound chicken – 24 minutes
  • 5 pound chicken – 30 minutes

Which…seems about right from my previous attempts at this recipe. I figured I’d compare 6 minutes a pound to 5 minutes a pound, to see if I got better results with a shorter cooking time. I pull out my 6-quart Duo Nova and my 6-quart Ultra, buy some 3, 4, and 5 pound chickens, and get to work.

Complications

The chickens I cook in my Duo Nova are best at 6 minutes per pound. They all come out between 180°F and 185°F in the leg, right where I want them. And, the breast meat is around 175°F – not ideal, but not completely overcooked. I can work with this.

At 5 minutes per pound, the 3 pound chicken is good – the legs are a little underdone, but the breast is exactly 165°F. But the 4-pound bird is undercooked, at only 155°F in breast – and I have the same undercooked result with the 5 pound bird. 6 minutes a pound is looking good.

At the same time, I’m trying the Ultra, and…it overcooks the breast meat (180°F+) at 6 minutes per pound. That’s weird. And when I test the 5 minute per pound timings, they work. Ultra does not mean “Runs Hotter” – high pressure is the same 12 PSI in both the Duo Nova and the Ultra.

So, I pull another one of my pressure cookers off the shelf. I set my Instant Pot Max to high pressure (not Max pressure), and try again. The results match the Duo Nova – 6 minutes a pound give me the best results…except for the 5 pound bird, where 30 minutes at high pressure leave it a little overcooked. (180°F in the breast.) Close enough – I don’t want to undercook the chicken, so 6 minutes a pound it is.

How long should I cook a whole chicken in an Instant Pot?

So, my pressure cooker whole chicken technique lines up with most of the internet. Put a cup of water in an Instant Pot, add the rack, then set the seasoned chicken on the rack. Cook the chicken for 6 minutes a pound at high pressure (24 minutes for a 4 pound bird). Then, let the pressure come down naturally for 10 minutes. Quick release any remaining pressure – usually, my pressure valve has dropped at this point, so there’s nothing to quick release – and the chicken is ready.

They can’t all be gems

As you can probably tell, cooking white meat in the Instant Pot exasperates me. I never love those recipes the way I love, say, dark meat chicken. And whole chicken is the worst case scenario – I have to choose to overcook the white meat or undercook the dark meat; I can’t have everything. And I want to have everything.

But, all that said, it was interesting to try all this out. No knowledge is wasted – now I can answer the question “how do I cook a whole chicken” with a link to a recipe. And that feels like a good thing.

A whole chicken sprinkled with Cajun Spice Rub, on a plate, with more spice rub and some parsley in the background
Instant Pot Whole Chicken with Cajun Spice Rub

What do you think?

Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.

Related Posts

The Recipe: Instant Pot Whole Chicken with Cajun Spice Rub
What to Do if I Dump Liquid Into My Instant Pot Without the Pot Liner
Pressure Cooker Beans (Basic Technique)
My other Instant Pot Pressure Cooker Recipes

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Filed under: Ramblings, Today I Learned

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Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.

4 Comments

  1. I was thinking that there was another variable you were not considering, such as thickness of any particular area of the chicken.

    Pressure cooking doesn’t seem to be affected by thermal mass (the poundage of your chicken, say) as much as how deep it had to penetrate to be effective (like the deepest joint of the thigh, or how thick the breast is). Actual mass (weight of bird) is partly compensated for by the longer ramp-up time to reach pressure with a heavier bird.

    But comparing a 4- vs. a 3-pound bird, there likely is a larger relative bone structure for the 3, with thinner breast and thigh, so a shorter time-per-pound would be right. But the 5-pounder may also have a larger overall structure, so the breast and thigh are stretched further as well, wanting a shorter time-per-pound. YMMV.

    I’m thinking it’s depth of cut, or how deep the heat and pressure must penetrate to do the work. And chickens are a complex shape. I am reminded of chefs trying to sous-vide a turkey, which really cannot be done whole. So they dismantle it, and butterfly the breast so the parts can be sealed in bags, then put the whole thing back together so it can be browned in the oven and served on a platter.

    You may not want to do this, since your goal was ‘cook a whole chicken’, but there are options.

    — You could spatchcock the thighs and legs, folding them backward and under the rest of the bird, which would expose more surface area to the heat and pressure.

    — You could use a liquid (which would become broth or gravy) to submerge and protect the breast while the thighs get more heat.
    Issue with the above: the cooking liquid at the bottom gets hot first, so it wouldn’t shield the food. Also, it would add to the poundage calculation.

    — Variant on the liquid immersion: bowl-in-bowl. Cooking water on bottom, bowl on trivet, seasoned liquid in bowl, chicken breast-down in liquid in bowl, thighs hanging over the sides. That would shield the breast a bit and allow the dark meat to cook thoroughly. Would have to play with proportions, tho.

    Also, why has no one come up with a wireless pressure-proof cooking probe? This can’t be that hard.

    • You’re right – I didn’t break up the chicken in any way, because the goal was “cook the chicken whole.” Also, my experience is anything submerged in the liquid is cooked faster than unsubmerged parts – that’s why I used a rack, to keep everything above the water and cook exclusively with steam heat. My preference is to cook a cut-up chicken – dark meat only – but again, that wasn’t the goal of this recipe.

  2. S McDowall says

    OK — coming from a scientific background (Physics major, Chemist, Computer Science) — I have some questions about the process. 🙂 Specifically, did you try to change the ORIENTATION of the chicken and test the timings?

    Breast Side Up
    Breast Side Down
    Standing on Legs
    Standing on it’s Butt

    I am wondering if that could make a different and remove the overdone breast / underdone legs, etc.

    Love your columns btw — cook a lot from them! Keep up the good work.

    • When I get a chance, I’ll try it breast up vs breast down. My assumption is breast up/breast down doesn’t matter – since the chicken is on a rack, above the liquid, it is cooking with pressure-heated steam, which should circulate through the pot and all be (roughly) the same temperature.

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