Just about every general cookbook out there has a recipe for roast chicken, and pretty much every culinarian who has ever set about making a list of essential cooking skills has included the roasting of a chicken on it. But with so many recipes out there, which one to try? I decided to see what the experts say, then use that knowledge to go recipe-free.
I started by consulting my go-to team of cooking gurus (in this case, Mark Bittman, Alice Waters, Michael Ruhlman, Tamar Adler and Julia Child, along with the folks at Food52.com). And I discovered that everyone basically agrees on two things: First, the most common way to ruin a roast chicken is to dry it out, so keep a close eye on your bird while it’s cooking. And second, if you want to make an especially great roast chicken, you need to start with a really good bird, which generally means one raised with care, nearby, without any weird byproducts, antibiotics, hormones or questionable injections. I found one at the Main Street Farmers Market, where several farmers offer local meat. I bought a 3.5-pound bird and got quite a number of meals out of it (the chicken dinner, several meals of leftovers and some awesome chicken stock).
Once you have a good chicken, the basic idea is to just to cook it until it is safely done, without allowing the breast to get dry. The cooks I consulted all agree that your chicken is done when the juices run clear. Cook it to that point, and no longer, and you’ll have a good center to your meal.
And here is where things get really fun. You can easily have a yummy chicken for dinner done, with little work on your part, in about an hour. What follows are some basic instructions, but you can improvise and add your own flourishes to make your own signature dish (add herbs, spices, curries, soy sauce, wine, chiles, citrus, honey mustard, shallots or some other favorite flavor-either stuffed into the chicken; tucked under its skin; or sprinkled, spooned or brushed over it during cooking). As long as you cook it enough and keep it moist, your results will be fine.
First, prep the chicken. Some cooks would have you salt the cavity of the bird and/or the skin up to two days ahead of time or as early as possible before you cook it, but it’s not required. Remove the gizzards, neck and-if you want-any excess fat that you see (you can save the fat for rendering, keep all but the liver to cook later with the bones for stock, and make plans to do something fancy with the liver). Most cooks suggest letting the chicken sit at room temperature for about an hour before cooking. During that time, if you want, you can slip some herbs, butter, lemon and/or garlic under the skin of the chicken. Then, rub the chicken with some olive oil or butter and-if you haven’t seasoned it already-with a little salt and pepper.
The old cookbooks all used to call for trussing the chicken (i.e., tying up the wings and legs) before cooking. Some modern cooks say that this helps prevent the drying of the bird, but many also say drying can be just as easily avoided by putting something-herbs, an onion, a lemon-into the cavity of the chicken so that air can’t circulate in there while it’s cooking. Other cooks don’t even mention it, so trussing and stuffing are both optional.
Your cooking temperature should be pretty hot. Some cooks suggest starting out at 425 degrees, browning the chicken a bit and then finishing the cooking at 350 or 360, but others recommend cooking the whole time at anywhere from 400 to 500 degrees. The hotter the oven, the quicker the cook time, but you’ll also need to watch more closely for drying. If you want to baste during the cooking, you can use the drippings in the pan; or you can add some butter, stock or other liquid for that purpose.
Your cooking vessel should be big enough to hold the chicken and its juices, but not so big that the drippings spread out and burn. A small roasting pan, a cast-iron skillet or any ovenproof frying pan will do. If you want, you can lay out a bed of vegetables for the cooking chicken to rest on, which will later provide a nicely seasoned side dish for your meal. Most people roast breast-side-up, but others say cooking is more uniform and juices are more evenly distributed if you alternate-20 minutes breast-up, flip, 20 minutes breast-down, flip and so on.
Depending on the size of your chicken and the temperature of your oven, you’ll need to cook the chicken for about an hour. If you want to double-check yourself, you can put a thermometer into the thick of the thigh and watch the temperature (cook to 165 degrees); but with some practice, you can just check the visual cues to see if it’s done. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so before you serve it.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.