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Ah, the proverbial roast chicken. For countless chefs and home cooks, a bird roasting in the oven is the stuff of family dinners filled with the sounds of siblings bickering, of romantic dinner dates, of Sunday suppers. Jacques Pépin recently told us that a roast chicken, boiled potato and salad is his idea of the perfect meal.
And yet, like so many other classic, seemingly simple dishes—the elusive fluffy omelet or spaghetti carbonara where the sauce and noodle become more than the sum of their parts—it can take a lifetime to perfect.
But can we really call ourselves cooks without mastering the bird (see the recipe)? There are few dishes as essential to claim in one's cooking arsenal. After all, it can just as easily be a showstopping dinner party centerpiece as it can an entire week's worth of meals, working its way into warm chicken salad, a late-night chicken sandwich laced with cheddar and pepper jelly to help soak up earlier exploits, or (a personal favorite) it can be taken out of the fridge, placed on the counter, its dress of aluminum foil pulled down and picked at while still cold.
Like those other classics, success lies in learning a technique. "Roasting a chicken is no fuss," Boulud Sud executive chef Travis Swikard, who roasts a chicken for his family every Sunday, says. "A lot of people fuss over it, but once you have the right technique down, it's just about [doing] that and putting it in the oven."
But therein lies the rub (or brine): Like matzo ball soup, red sauce or anything any mother ever made, no one can quite agree on what that technique should be. Jonathan Waxman, whose roast chicken with salsa verde has kept the reservation books at Barbuto busy for years, roasts his chicken after it's been cut in half, basting it every eight minutes. The late Judy Rodgers, who created Zuni Café's exceptional roast chicken, opted for blistering temperatures (approaching 500 degrees) at the beginning of the roast and added no fat to the bird, while Julia Child called for both butter and lemon juice to keep the meat juicy and flavorful.
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To brine or not to brine, to add butter or oil, to let it sit out on the counter and temper before popping it into the oven, to cook it at two temperatures—all of these things can be debated and tested. And fortunately, our food editor, Jake Cohen, and a dining room table's worth of chefs we spoke to did just that. Master their technique and soon, roasting a chicken will be so intuitive, you may not even need a recipe.
Choose your bird wisely. While cooking technique might be up for debate, choosing the right chicken is not. "You get what you start with," explains Georgette Farkas, who owns New York's Rotisserie Georgette, where she says she cooks 50 chickens on a slow day. Invest in an air-chilled bird, preferably one that's fed vegetable feed and is antibiotic free, both Farkas and Swikard say. "It might not be the most plump bird," Swikard adds, but this is where flavor lives. Pépin also notes, "If the chicken is of high quality . . . the skin is beautiful, because it's very thin, much thinner than on commercial chicken."
Amp up that flavor. Channel your Thanksgiving cooking skills and spend the time to brine your chicken. "While it's not as crucial as brining a large bird like a turkey, [brining] is a sure way of seasoning the meat," Cohen says. "It takes flavor on the outside and pulls it inside," Swikard adds. The extra time it takes (we like to brine overnight) pays off in the end, producing a restaurant-quality roast chicken at home.
A little fat never hurt. Before tucking your chicken into the oven, rub butter under its skin to keep the breast meat moist. "Unlike oil, it sticks to the bird, slowly melting around the chicken," Cohen explains. By putting it under the skin instead of on top of it, "it's catched and melts into the bird a bit more. The skin sort of acts like insulation," Swikard adds.
Truss, truss, truss. Tying up the legs will ensure that moisture doesn't escape the bird's cavity and dry out the meat. "Trussing is a must," Farkas says. "Even if you have no idea how to do it. Take butcher's twine and cross the legs like a lady. . . . Like the queen mother, always cross at the ankle."
Get some skin in the game. "People are obsessed about crispy," Pépin says. And, of course, he's right: Golden, crisp skin is the apex of a well-roasted bird. Drying the chicken once it comes out of the brine is essential to a crisp exterior, but above all, Pépin says to never, ever cover the bird with foil once it comes out of the oven. "It starts steaming and gives you a reheated taste." If you are worried about your chicken cooling down too much before dinner, simply leave it beside your range or return it to a 150-degree oven to warm up.
Buy that bird an around-the-world ticket. If this is your first time making a roast chicken, keep things simple. But once you master the technique, try adding Asian flavors to your brine like "honey and soy honey instead of salt and sugar," Swikard recommends, or marinate the bird in yogurt and tandoor spice. Or, for a taste of the Middle East, leave the brine as is, but dust the chicken's skin with za'atar or ras el hanout. After all, birds were meant to fly.
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