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 like I was doing a real-time version of the meme: *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation...”
Where did I end up? With a good technique for a pressure cooker whole chicken. It’s useful, and I’ve used it repeatedly 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 a blend of me talking to myself, and 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 on 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.
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 dark meat chicken. 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.
All that said, it was interesting to test this out, in a "no knowledge is wasted" kind of way. 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.
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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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