Roast chicken, a dish so simple yet so difficult to master. When I was in the restaurant business roasting a simple chicken was often used as a test when hiring a new chef. At a glance roasting a chicken is one of simplest things in the world, but really think about it. How often have you had a truly great roasted chicken? So often the breast is dry or the thighs are undercooked, the skin never takes on that great crispness, or the whole thing just tastes rather bland. Yes, it’s simple to roast a chicken and yet so difficult to make it great. Roasting a chicken takes a lot of skilled technique and it is difficult to cover up if you have made an error at any point. That’s why so many people use it as a standard to measure chefs by.
Believe me, I have roasted countless chickens in my time. In the beginning it was a hit or miss proposition, but slowly I learned a few techniques that helped me conquer this foe. Search the internet and you will find a number of “fool proof” ways to roast a chicken. Let me tell you, first off there is no fool proof way. It takes diligence and missing that mark will definitely mean undercooked thighs or overcooked breasts. Some methods will have you rub butter over the flesh, under the skin. This is a great method but time consuming and a pain the ass if you aren’t careful as you can easily tear the skin. Also what about the wings and legs and thighs, it’s pretty hard to get under the skin on those.
All good methods will have you truss the chicken, pulling all the meat in tight to the body. Many people kind of tune out when they hear the word truss, thinking it is some difficult task better left to butchers and chefs. Not so! It is relatively easy and I will show you, step by step, how it’s done.
If at all possible start with a good quality chicken. At least try to find an organic bird from a small producer, or better yet source chicken from a local farmer if at all possible. Your last resort should be any of the large named producers. These birds are filled with antibiotics and hormones and in general are quite tasteless compared to locally raised birds.
Finally, we come to seasoning. A good roasted chicken requires copious amounts of salt and pepper to make a flavorful bird, both on the outside and on the inside. Beyond that the choice of herbs and aromatics is yours. Personally, I like to keep it simple, oftentimes, flavoring the bird with garlic only, though adding lemon or orange wedges to the cavity imparts some wonderful flavor as well as herbs such as thyme, rosemary, tarragon or others, whatever suits your tastes. Brining has become a very fashionable thing to do when roasting a chicken and it does provide a bit of a cushion, in terms of timing, as it can help keep a slightly overcooked breast still moist. While I am in favor of brining I think that everyone should learn to properly roast a chicken without this safety net and if you do things properly your chicken will end up as flavorful and moist as one that was brined.
1 whole chicken (4-6 pounds)
1-1 1/2 Tbsp. butter*, softened
2 heads garlic
Remove the giblets from the chicken and save for another use. Rinse the chicken under cold running water, then pat dry. Allow to sit for 1 hour at room temperature to take the chill off (don’t worry about letting it sit out, it’s not sitting out long enough for it to be dangerous). Meanwhile break apart the heads of garlic and peel the cloves. To make the job easier, lightly crush the cloves with the flat side of a knife. The skins should then pretty much slip off. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Once the chicken has rested, pat dry again and season the cavity with plenty of salt and pepper, getting your hand in there to run the seasoning into the flesh. Add the garlic cloves to the cavity. Next fold the wing tips underneath the bird.
Take an 18″ piece of butcher’s twine, find the center of it and wrap it around the neck of the bird, making one complete loop to secure it. Bring the two ends of the string up alongside the bird and over the thighs.
Loop the string around the end of the legs and have the ends cross in the center.
Next loop the strings all the way around the bird, underneath the tail, again meeting in the center, pulling them tight and tying them off.
Season the outside of the chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Use more than you think you need. Finally, take the softened butter and rub it all over the outside of the chicken, seasoning with salt and pepper again. Place the chicken in a pan on a roasting rack. If you don’t have a roasting rack, peel 1 or 2 onions and cut into 1/2″ slices. Place the slices in the pan and place the chicken on top of that. Place the chicken into the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 425°F. Roast for approximately 45-55 minutes or until an instant read thermometer, stuck into the thickest part of the thigh registers 162 degrees (I prefer to use a digital probe thermometer that I leave in for the entire cooking process. I set it so that an alarm goes off when it reaches the proper temperature). Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before carving. Many recipes will tell you to cover the bird during this rest, but I find this to cause the skin to get soggy and one of my favorite parts or roast chicken is the crispy skin. Giving the chicken this resting time will allow the meat to relax, which in turn will allow more of the juices to stay in the meat. Carving before allowing this rest period will cause the chicken to expel much of its juices and moisture. This resting period goes for just about any large cut of meat. Carve and enjoy!
*I often use butter, but many fats can be used in place of the butter. Olive oil is probably the other most popular choice although I have used both duck fat and goose fat on numerous occasions. Bacon fat alone would be too strong and overpowering, but if you want the additional flavor cut 1 part bacon fat with 2 parts butter or oil.