There is little debate about the enduring appeal of the humble roast chicken. It's the food you long for when you're away from home, but it can be found across cultures, from Asia to Europe to the Middle East. It's the magical dinner your grandmother coaxed out of the oven - homeyness on a platter with a few melting celery stalks and carrots. Meanwhile, in the Hamptons, it's what food maven Ina Garten lovingly makes every Friday night for her husband, Jeffrey.
Roast chicken is snob-proof, tempting Boston Market patrons and the foodiest of the foodies with its familiar, buttery smell. "Roasted chicken is one of my favorite things in the world," says David Katz, chef/owner of Philadelphia's Meme.
What remains a matter of debate is the best way to prepare it. For a staple of Sunday-night eating, roast chicken remains a surprisingly difficult dish to master. And as with enlightenment, many paths seem to lead to the same destination.
A comparison of any three recipes reveals a host of distinctions. Should the bird be flipped? Should the temperature start high and go low, or start low and go high? Should the bird be trussed or left fancy-free? Buttered or oiled? Bed of vegetables or rack? What should be simple becomes a series of small but potentially critical decisions.
Of paramount importance is the quality of the bird. While serious home cooks and professional chefs advise against using factory-farmed chicken, ordinary folks can't source a prized French bluefoot chicken or, the darling of local chefs, the Giannone chicken from Quebec, favored for its air-chilled processing and its unique consistency among natural chickens. "I'm not a hippie about most food, but in this case I always choose a white chicken that's free-range, no antibiotics, no hormones. The Giannone has great flavor, but you could also use Bell & Evans," says Katz.
Meritage chef Anne Coll, who also favors the Giannone chicken in the restaurant kitchen, follows a similar rule of thumb. "Anything you could get from a local farmstand or at Whole Foods would work well at home. Natural chickens are just sweeter. It makes a difference."
In his book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, British chef and food writer Simon Hopkinson asserts that while a poulet de Bresse is ideal, technique trumps ingredients and "a good cook can produce a good dish from any old scrawnbag of a chook." (Hopkinson's trusty recipe involves an obscene amount of butter, a lemon in the cavity and some periodic basting. The result is, indeed, a juicy, very fragrant chook.)
Which leads us to the matter of technique. If the goal is to get a crispy skin all around, there are some easy rules to follow. Chickens that sit on vegetables or in their own juice will not be crisped on the underside - unless they are turned midway through. Using a rack and a higher temperature (400 degrees or above, or if you're lucky, a convection oven) will help along the crisping, as will letting the chicken sit unwrapped in the fridge to dry out a bit before roasting. Finally, if the cook leans toward basting, basting should be done early in the process, leaving the chicken alone to crisp during the final third of cooking time.
My civilian friend Joe, who makes a superior chicken with a very crispy skin, observes three principles: (1) Loosen the skin from the breast and thigh. (2) Generously rub melted butter mixed with desired herbs and seasonings under the skin. (3) Situate bird in the oven with legs in first.
An age-old problem is managing the roast so the breast, which cooks quickly and dries out, is juicy and the legs and thighs, which are last to finish, are done. Trussing, says James chef/owner Jim Burke, will help with this. "It doesn't solve the problem that the breast will take longer, but it will keep the breast moist," he says. Burke, whose wife calls him "Chicken King," prefers to roast the breast and legs separately.
From there, a chef's choices are a question of personal style - and, perhaps, ambition. Done right, early salting or brining can deliver a more flavorful and juicier product. The two-day-salted roast chicken that Judy Rodgers serves in her San Francisco restaurant Zuni Cafe is the stuff of poultry-lovers' legend.
"With a brine you get a nice aroma and flavor and you can pretty much cook the chicken forever and it won't be too dry," says Coll. At Meritage, she uses an Asian-spiced brine with star anise, rice wine, and ginger. The added step improves the moistness of the breast, infuses it with a delicate, almost floral flavor, and eliminates the need for any fuss once the chicken goes in the oven.
Daniel Stern of MidAtlantic and R2L goes a few steps further and stuffs the bird with mirepoix, then brines it in a mixture of white wine, garlic, onion, bay leaf, mustard seed, and black peppercorns. Stern also believes in butter - the more the better - and basting multiple times during roasting to achieve a caramel-colored tan. "For me it was a matter of trial and error, finding the flavors that worked," Stern says.
At Meme, space restrictions in his kitchen have led Katz to a baroque method whereby he cooks the breasts sous vide with foie gras, pan-roasts the legs separately, and, when a diner calls in an order, puts them both into the oven for a final crisping. At home, though, Katz is an avid practitioner of the uncomplicated chicken: olive oil, fresh thyme leaves, coarse salt and pepper, plus a rack for the chicken to sit on.
Though in his earlier cookbook Bouchon the famed chef Thomas Keller advocated for a similarly minimal chicken, he takes it up a notch in his latest cookbook, Ad Hoc. The bird gets trussed (he even goes so far as to provide a pictorial with instructions), stuffed with garlic and thyme, rubbed with oil and salt and pepper, then roasted atop a colorful bed of root vegetables - a few pats of butter left to melt over the breast. Keller suggests massaging the salt in the cavity and using a cast-iron skillet for the best results. It is, also, a pretty great chook.
Whole Roasted Chicken on a Bed of Root Vegetables
Makes 4-6 servings
4-4 1/2 pound chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
6 thyme sprigs
2 large leeks (soaked and well-rinsed of any dirt)
3 tennis-ball-sized rutabagas
2 tennis-ball-sized turnips
4 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed and cut in half
1 small yellow onion, trimmed, leaving root end intact, and cut into quarters
8 small (golf-ball-sized) red-skinned potatoes
1/3 cup canola oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until it comes to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Remove the neck and innards if they are still in the cavity of the chicken. Using a paring knife, cut the wishbone from the chicken. Generously season the cavity with salt and pepper, add 3 of the garlic cloves and 5 sprigs of thyme and massage the bird to infuse it with the flavors. Truss the chicken.
3. Cut off the dark green leaves from the top of the leeks. Trim off and discard any darkened outer layers. Trim the root ends, cutting around them at a 45-degree angle. Slit the leeks lengthwise almost in half. Cut off both ends of the rutabagas. Stand the rutabagas on end and cut away the skin, working from top to bottom and removing any tough outer layers. Cut into 3/8-inch wedges. Repeat with the turnips, cutting the wedges to match the size of the rutabagas.
4. Combine all of the vegetables and the remaining garlic cloves and thyme sprig in a large bowl. Toss with 1/4 cup oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread the vegetables in a large cast-iron skillet or roasting pan.
5. Rub the remaining oil all over the chicken. Season generously with salt and pepper. Make a nest in the center of the vegetables and nestle the chicken in it. Cut the butter into 4 or 5 pieces and place over the chicken breast. Put the chicken in the oven and roast for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and roast for an additional 45 minutes, or until the temperature registers 160 degrees in the meatiest portions of the bird - in the thighs, and under the breast where the thigh meets the breast - and the juices run clear. If necessary, return the bird to the oven for more roasting; check it every 5 minutes.
6. Transfer the chicken to a carving board. Let it rest for 20 minutes. Just before serving, set the pan of vegetables over medium heat and reheat the vegetables, turning them and glazing them with the pan juices. Cut the chicken into serving pieces, arrange over the vegetables, and serve.
Per serving (based on 6): 722 calories, 35 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 43 grams fat, 135 milligrams cholesterol, 212 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
4-pound free-range chicken
Salt and pepper
Several sprigs of thyme or tarragon, or a mixture of the two
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird. Put the chicken in a roasting pan that will accommodate it with room to spare. Season liberally with salt and pepper and squeeze the juice of the lemon over the bird. Put the herbs and garlic inside the cavity, together with the squeezed-out lemon halves-this will add a fragrant lemony flavor to the dish.
2. Roast the chicken in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Baste, turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees, and roast for 30-45 minutes more with occasional basting. The bird should be golden all over with a crisp skin and have buttery, lemony juices of a nut-brown color in the bottom of the pan.
3. Turn off the oven, leaving the door ajar, and let the chicken rest at least 15 minutes before carving. Stir or whisk the pan juices and serve over the chicken.
Per serving (based on 6): 465 calories, 29 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 38 grams fat, 154 milligrams cholesterol, 216 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Brined Roast Chicken
Makes 3 to 4 servings
4 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 kosher salt
1/4 Chinese rice wine or dry white wine
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
4 star anise pods
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 stick of cinnamon
4 black peppercorns
3 thin slices fresh ginger, peel on
2 quarts ice
2-pound free-range chicken
1. In a nonreactive 4-quart stockpot or Dutch oven, bring water to a boil. Add sugar, salt, wine, thyme, bay leaf, star anise, coriander, cinnamon, clove, peppercorns, and ginger. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the ice to speed cooling.
2. When brine has cooled, put the chicken in the brine and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Remove chicken from brine and pat down with paper towels until the skin is dry. (This will help the skin crisp better.)
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees if using a convection oven). Place the chicken on a roasting rack in a pan or on a sheet tray, drizzle with olive oil, and roast until the leg juices run clear when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. Let chicken rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
Per serving (based on 4): 334 calories, 24 grams protein, trace carbohydrates, trace sugar, 26 grams fat, 96 milligrams cholesterol, 89 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 21/2 cups or about 4 servings
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup olive oil
2 cups roasted chicken, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chives or scallions, sliced very thin
2 celery stalks, diced fine
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Whisk together egg yolk, vinegar, and salt in a large bowl. Pour in olive oil in a steady stream, whisking all the while.
2. Stir chicken, chives or scallions, celery and capers into the homemade mayonnaise. Season to taste.
Per serving: 512 calories, 21 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 47 grams fat, 114 milligrams cholesterol, 242 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.