When Neven and I started Salt & Fat, this is the post I had in mind. A whole, roasted chicken, one of my absolute favorite meals to cook. There’s something about the whole bird, with the crisp skin and flavorful dark and white meat that I think we lose when we pick up a cellophane wrapped skinless chicken breast. Roasting it yourself is so much more fulfilling than grabbing one of dozens of dried out rotisserie chickens spinning around at the prepared food counter. This is what real, honest cooking is all about and it’s something everyone can do. Once you’ve learned the basic technique, the variations are limited only by your own resourcefulness.
A roasted chicken also activates so many different parts of your cooking brain. You’ll want to focus on the bird itself, where it came from, and then properly prepping, seasoning and, of course, cooking it. Out of the oven, you’ll need to break the bird down before you can put it on your plate. The leftovers are quite versatile, you’ll never suffer a dried out, boring chicken breast again. Then there’s making your own chicken stock, one of the great and simple rewards of being a home cook. This is real cooking, all from a bird that will cost less than a single mediocre meal at chain restaurant.
We’ll get to the variations and particulars eventually, but here’s a basic primer on roasting a chicken. Start to finish, the whole thing will take an hour and a half, which includes heating the oven and letting the bird rest, and most of that time is spent waiting.
First, find yourself a chicken, preferably one that’s raised locally without hormones or antibiotics. Three to four pounds is usually about right. Set your oven to 425°. Make sure there aren’t any gizzards in the cavity, rinse, then pat the inside and out dry with a paper towel. Rub about a teaspoon of kosher salt and black pepper inside the cavity, dust the outside with another tablespoon of kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. If you have some kitchen twine, tie the legs together (we’ll work on advanced trussing techniques later) and tuck the wings behind the bird — the chicken in my pictures came from a farmer’s market where they used a loose flap of skin to tie the legs. Smart!
A small roasting pan with a rack (not the full sized one you’ll use at Thanksgiving) is the perfect cooking vessel, but a pyrex baking pan or even a cast iron skillet works just as well. Center the bird in the pan then put the whole thing in the dead center of the oven. Set a time for exactly one hour and find some way to occupy yourself in the meantime. Take the chicken out, make a small slice where the thigh meets the breast, the juices should run clear and an insta-read thermometer, should you have one, should register at least 160°. If not, back into the oven it goes for another 10 minutes or so. Let sit for at least 10 minutes (no need to cover with foil, I promise it’ll stay warm and steam will just cause that beautifully crisp skin to get soggy) before carving.
A basic carving technique is to first cut away each leg and thigh as a single piece of dark meat. Next, make a single cut down the center of the chest of the bird to expose the breastbone and separate the breasts. Cut along each side of the rib cage to remove each breast — let the rib cage guide your knife and remove each breast as a whole piece. If you want, cut the wings off and serve those as well or leave them attached to the breast for serving or just save for a snack later.
With sides, a whole chicken could serve four, but halving one with someone else is a real treat. Smear the crisp skin with some real butter and dijon. Rice, a simple green salad, fried brussels sprouts or glazed carrots would all make wonderful accompaniments. A crisp American pale ale goes especially nice.