Don’t be chicken about roasting a chicken

A few weeks ago, I was asked to help with a group meal by preparing a dish and bringing it to the kitchens on the day of the event, along with many other cooks, so that the day-of preparation would be less chaotic for the head cook.

The dish that we finally decided upon for me to bring was roast chicken, which one would think is the easiest thing to make ever, and one would be right. I roasted twelve birds in my little apartment kitchen, and they turned out great.

But years ago, for some reason, I was intimidated by the idea of roasting a whole bird. Only in the last decade have I really felt confident enough to put the recipe into regular rotation. This is a crying shame, because whole chickens are often much cheaper than the broken-down, boned-and-skinned versions, and you get a bonus carcass for making stock in the bargain. So, just in case there are a few others out there who also feel overwhelmed by whole birds, I thought I’d share my method with you so you could give it a try, too.

The chickens that were served at the group meal had been roasted the day before. While they were still perfectly edible the day after, they were a shadow of the golden, crisp-skinned, melt-in-your-mouth dishes they had been coming out of the oven.  I learned how to do this from French Laundry chef Thomas Keller, who probably learned it from any grandma who cooked a Sunday dinner for her family, who learned it from a long line of ancestors who used the same technique for their Medieval birds. No herbs or stuffing, no brining or buttering… it really is as simple as it looks, and the results are so satisfying. Please do give it a try, and let me know what you think!

Timeless Roast Chicken

Ingredients:

A 3-pound chicken (anywhere from 2-pounds on up is fine, though)

Kosher salt

Fresh ground pepper

Instructions:

Preheat your oven to 450°F.

Open the packaging around the chicken, and remove anything that is not part of the whole chicken. Your chicken might have a plastic absorbent sheet, a neck, giblets loose or in a bag. Keep the neck, heart, and gizzard for stock; fry up the liver as a treat for yourself or the cat, and discard the rest.

Rinse the bird with plenty of cool water. Dry it thoroughly with paper towels… you want it to be as dry as possible, inside and out (steam is what makes the skin and meat floppy; this is the secret to crisp skin). If you have time, you can let it air-dry for another half hour.

Set the chicken in a cast-iron frying pan. Toss about half a teaspoon of Kosher salt into the cavity, and sprinkle about a teaspoon over the rest of it. I like to tip it to one side and the other, to let the salt shower down on the thighs as well. Grind a nice dusting of pepper over it.

You can truss the bird if you like, as it helps everything roast evenly, but it’s not 100% necessary. I use about a yard of kitchen twine, with the halfway point at the neck. Bring the ends around the sides, making sure you tuck the wings in nicely, loop a few times around the tips of the drumsticks, and finish with a bow.  Don’t stress on this… if it totally unravels, it will still be completely delicious.

Pop the whole thing into your hot oven, and let it roast until it’s done, about 50-60 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, you can check temperature of the thigh and breast (one of my favorite kitchen gadgets is a remote programmable oven-safe thermometer/timer, about $17-30 on Amazon); I aim for 160°F.

Pull it out of the oven and let rest for about 10-15 minutes (now would be a good time to bring the oven temp down to 425° and slide in a pan of broccoli or cauliflower, cut into spears and tossed with olive oil, Kosher salt, and pepper… it will be done in 10 minutes — right when your bird will be ready to carve — and will be sweet, nutty, and crisp-tender… one of our family’s favorite winter vegetable dishes).

Carefully transfer your bird to a cutting board (I put my board on a spread-out dishtowel, both to keep it from sliding on the counter and to catch any extra juices that may drip off). A well-roasted chicken will practically fall apart as you are cutting it… don’t forget to snag those little “oysters” on the back, and the “Pope’s Nose” on the tail — they are the cook’s treats!

Along with the roasted veggies and a spoonful of rice or mashed potatoes (drizzled with the hot juices left in the roasting pan), this will make a hearty meal for 2 or 3.

When I use a 5- or 6-pound bird, my family of three eats half for dinner, I use the other half for chicken salad, green enchiladas, or stir fry the next day, and then I put the carcass in a big pot of water with a few chunked-up carrots and celery stalks, a roughly chopped onion, a dozen peppercorns, a couple of bay leaves, and a sprig of thyme (don’t forget the neck and giblets!). I let it simmer on low overnight, turn it off to let cool for an hour, then strain it into quart Ziploc baggies to freeze for later. I also pour the remaining chicken fat from the original roasting pan into a glass jar for sautéing veggies or making schmaltz.

Happy feasting!

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