We eat roast chicken quite often. Everyone in our family loves this simple, delicious comfort food. It is often said that the ability to prepare a pleasing roast chicken is one of the gauges of a good cook. Roast chicken is also a great illustration of how the most utilitarian ingredients, treated simply, can produce something far greater than the sum of the parts.
This post is more detailed than most- I’m going for a little more of a how-to than usual. If you don’t prepare roast chicken regularly already, I hope you will try it soon. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
There are lots of different techniques and variations on roast chicken, but I’ve come to like Tom Colicchio’s best. His ‘Think Like a Chef’ cookbook is one of my favorites. It’s a great book because it focuses on teaching technique, rather than simply listing recipes.
Start with a small chicken- he calls for 3 1/2 – 4 pounds. I have a hard time finding chickens under 4 1/2 pounds, but use the smallest you can find. I would love to find a source of good quality organic, hormone-free chicken, but I usually end up using Tyson, Sanderson Farms, or another major producer.
Remove the giblets and any excess fat and rinse the chicken under cool water. Dry thoroughly inside and out with paper towels and season the cavity with kosher salt and black pepper. Colicchio calls for a few sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and parsley in the cavity; I usually add a couple of garlic cloves, some chunks of onion, a small lemon- pretty much anything aromatic I have laying around. NOTE- Do not overstuff the cavity- there should be plenty of airspace inside. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
The next step is to truss- don’t be intimidated, it’s really not that hard. See the link from my Sunday Supper post. After the chicken is trussed, season the outside liberally with kosher salt and black pepper.
Take a heavy, ovenproof skillet (cast iron works well), heat over medium heat, and add a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil. Heat the oil until it moves freely over the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken in the pan ON ITS SIDE, and cook for 6-7 minutes.
Searing the chicken presents a great opportunity to cook using all of your senses, or at least to incorporate smell and hearing into whatever you use already. Listen to the chicken in the pan; as Colicchi says, “it should sizzle, not sputter.” If it sputters, reduce the heat a little. Similarly, if you smell something burning, it probably IS burning. Remove from the heat briefly to allow it to cool. Steam rising from the pan is ok, but smoke comes from things that are turning black. I use a timer as a backup, but use all of your senses to know when to flip the chicken to the other side. It should look something like this:
After about 20-25 minutes, open the oven and add a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter to the pan. Once the butter melts, baste the chicken with the butter and pan juices every 5-7 minutes. This isn’t complicated- tilt the pan slightly, scoop up the juices in the bottom of the skillet with a large spoon, and pour them over the chicken’s skin. Depending on size, the chicken should take 30-40 minutes to finish cooking- 150 degrees in the thickest part of the breast and 160 or so in the thigh.
Please note I am being intentionally vague about the cooking times. I hate to sound like an ass, but you should cook things until they are done- cooking times are irrelevant. Once you have done things a few times, you will begin to figure out how long they take, but cooking time in recipes are guidelines, nothing more. I can’t stress the value of an instant-read thermometer enough. As I’ve said before, my Thermapen is an absolutely indispensable tool, although any instant-read thermometer will work. All cooks fear undercooking and potentially making our family or friends sick (although this is an unlikely possibility), so our natural tendency is to overcook everything. A thermometer allows you to stop cooking when things are done and, in the case of this dish, present a moist and delicious chicken, rather than a dry and chewy one.
I failed to take a picture before carving, but here’s the finished product:
Always allow the chicken to rest on a cutting board, lightly covered with foil for 10-15 minutes before carving. This allows the juices to redistribute through the meat. Maybe I’ll do a future post on carving, but for now, I’ll describe it. I cut through the skin between the body and the leg quarters and remove them. Then remove the legs from the thighs as follows: looking from the underside, find the line of fat running diagonally over the joint between the leg and the thigh- if you cut right through there you should avoid the bones. Remove each breast half from the carcass by making a releasing cut along the side of the chicken, then cutting down the breastbone to remove breast, wing, and skin in one piece. Cleave off the wing- if there is an easy way to do it I haven’t figured it out, and then cut the breast into slices about 1/2-3/4″ thick. Don’t forget the meat on the carcass, especially the ‘oysters’, which lie along the backbone near the thighs. Here’s a pretty good video on carving. His technique is a bit different than mine, but it looks very good. If you follow the recipe above, however, I guarantee your roasted chicken will look better than the one he is carving.
I always present the cut pieces on a plate or platter, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of coarse sea salt or some lemon wedges. The serving possibilities are endless- in this case, we enjoyed the chicken with steamed broccoli dressed with lemon olive oil and home-baked rye bread with butter. Enjoy your chicken!