Roast Chicken 101

I remember my first roast chicken. I was in college. Somebody had given me a copy of The Frugal Gourmet. (I quickly graduated to The Silver Palate – thank god!) The “Frugal” recipe called for a lot of olive oil, a moderate oven and just over an hour of roasting. I probably don’t have to tell you that this produced one very blond bird. The skin was pale, glistening, floppy and kind of freaky. It was very very moist and the flesh perhaps a tinge more pink than I am comfortable eating. For some inexplicable reason, I made roast chicken from that recipe for years. I wasn’t really up on the beauty of a perfectly roasted fowl. (The Silver Palate wasn’t big on things like that – it was more like “Glazed Blueberry Chicken” than roast.) So I didn’t make a roast chicken very often. It was just too gross.

A lot later, years and years actually, I was introduced to the Judy Rodgers method.  By that time, Roast Chicken had acquired a retro-chic and was often offered “for 2 – in approximately one hour” at fashionable bistrots. Ms. Rodgers’ recipe was one of those and involved salting the bird 3 days in advance, gently placing herbs under the carefully loosened skin and something called “bread salad”. Please don’t quibble that bread cannot really be salad. Relax, follow the directions and don’t look back. Just don’t. Judy Rodgers’ Roast Chicken with Bread Salad is the ultimate in ludicrously delicious comfort food made of mainly humble ingredients. I had it once in her restaurant in San Francisco, Zuni Cafe and only later discovered the recipe. It’s a little laborious – don’t let that deter you.

Roast chicken should be the workhorse of at least a monthly recipe repertoire. It can be dinner, then leftovers can be sandwiches or quesadillas the next night. The bones and drippings from a roast chicken make an excellent base for stock. Which can be made into soup on day three or four. Roast chicken makes the house smell like you’ve been slaving in a hot kitchen in order to lavish affection on those who are lucky enough to be eating dinner with you. However, a three day marathon is a tall order on a weekday. So after a little trial and error, I’ve tweaked the recipe. Taking a cue from an excellent teacher at Mugnaini Cooking School, I’ve combined recipes and a little common sense that comes from cooking for a family of five. This Roast Chicken requires only a little time and tastes wonderful. The pan drippings are liquid gold. Even though the method is streamlined, you won’t be giving up much. (You really should make Ms. Rodgers’ bread salad version some rainy Sunday though.)

Roast Chicken 101

the secret is the salt rub

The chicken will need to rest in the refrigerator for one night. The prep takes only 15 minutes though. All that’s left is to roast the following day.

  • (1) 4 pound (or thereabouts) free range chicken
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt, I like the Real Salt brand for this, and everything else actually – it really does make things taste better
  • 1 tbsp mixed fresh herbs – the shrubby ones, like rosemary, sage and thyme
  • the zest of one unwaxed organic lemon, removed with a Microplane grater
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 heavy duty skillet, not cast iron, it will get too hot. The skillet must be able to go from the stovetop to the oven
  1. Rinse the chicken in the sink in a large colander. Pat dry with paper towels and set it in a small roasting pan that will fit, with the chicken in it, in your refrigerator.
  2. Rinse and dry the herbs and remove the leaves. With a sharp chef’s knife finely chop the herbs, the salt, the pepper and the lemon zest.
  3. Rub this seasoned salt thoroughly all over the bird.
  4. Cover lightly with parchment and place in the refrigerator overnight, breast side up.
  5. When you are ready to roast, preheat the oven to 475.
  6. When the oven is hot, take your heavy duty skillet and place it on the stove over medium heat. Leave it for 5 minutes. 
  7. After five minutes, place the chicken, breast side up, in the pan. There will be a loud dramatic slapping sound as the cold chicken hits the hot pan. Put the whole thing in the hot oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
  8. After 30 minutes you’re going to need to flip this bird. Don’t worry, it’s not such a big deal. Using a metal spatula, carefully loosen the bird from the pan. (Because you placed the cold bird on a very very hot pan, this should be quite easy.) Drape a mitt over the skillet handle so you don’t forget and grab onto it. This has happened to me and it was not funny. I couldn’t grab onto anything for days afterwards. Using a few wadded paper towels, grab the bird by the legs and quickly flip it onto it’s breast. With mitts, put it back in the oven for 20 minutes.
  9. After twenty minutes, flip the bird back onto it’s back. Place it back in the oven for 5 or 10 minutes to recrisp the breast skin.
  10. Remove the chicken from the oven and then the skillet and let it rest on a platter or cutting board while you deal with the drippings.
  11. Pour off all the clear liquid on the bottom of the skillet. I usually pour it over those paper towels I used to flip the chicken and throw it away. The clear stuff is just chicken fat. It’s the browned bits on the bottom that you want.
  12. Pour a couple of tablespoons of water into the pan and set over medium heat. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up all the browned bits until they blend into the water, forming a glossy brown liquid – this is actually liquid gold. Believe me.
  13. Cut up your chicken. I use kitchen shears for the job. Arrange the pieces on a platter and dribble a tablespoon or two of the pan drippings over the top. Save the rest with all the bones for stock. You can freeze the bones and drippings together and do this later. Maybe on the weekend.
This probably looks like a lot of directions. Yes, it takes a little planning. Just do it once when you have a little extra time, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll soon see it’s a little bit of work with a huge pay-off.
My final piece of advice to the cook is, make sure you get the wings. They will be crisper than the most crispy delicious thing imaginable (better than pommes frites!) and perfectly seasoned. The small amount of flesh will be moist and simply fall from the bones. Be very careful not to make a big deal out of it. Just make sure you get them. My nine year old has caught on to my little land grab so now he gets one of the wings, but that’s just between the two of us. No one else is the wiser.
We served our roast chicken with a salad of shaved fennel, julienned apples, toasted hazelnuts and white cheddar. I’ll tell you how to make that next time.

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