Want to learn to cook? Roast this chicken.
It’s easy to roast a chicken. And if you can successfully roast a chicken you’re well on your way to profound kitchen competence. That’s not an overstatement.
Roasting a whole chicken is a cooking gateway: dealing with raw chicken at first may seem mysterious and unapproachable; then before long it becomes a second-nature, commonplace event that will signal the beginning of satisfying and productive time in the kitchen.
The reason ‘most important’ even enters the conversation of roasting chicken as a cooking fundamental is because of what happens along the way. The acts of preparation and roasting should prove empowering enough to motivate you to spend more time in the kitchen; and after you’ve carved a cooked chicken a few times you’ll be able to cut up a raw chicken easily, at which point your cooking options expand significantly. (A fully cooked chicken will sort of come apart where it’s supposed to on it’s own, with a little assistance. A raw chicken will come apart the same way anatomically speaking, but will require the use of a sharp knife as well as a bit of knowledge and effort.)
A possibly even better reason to make roast chicken than the resultant meal is the resulting stock. With it you can cook flavorful risotto, deglaze pans to create quick, impressive sauces, or have it on hand in the freezer for easy soup when you or a loved one is sick.
Some of this may sound out-of-reach right now but if you cook regularly – once every week or two is really all it takes – these once seemingly exotic foods will be so much part of your normal repertoire that you won’t need recipes for them.
Why “Pre-salted (not brined)”?
Salting ahead of time produces the most delicious chicken any of my (hundreds of) dinner guests have ever had. And it’s so easy as to be almost laughable.
The idea behind adding salt ahead of time is that the chicken becomes gently infused with it, ensuring every bite of the cooked chicken is moist and flavorful. That’s what salt does – it retains moisture and highlights and emphasizes flavor. There are two effective ways to introduce salt to chicken: to brine or to lightly cure.
Brining is the technique of saturating a quantity of water with seasonings – primarily salt (often along with sugar, especially for pork) and aromatics such as bay, thyme, and garlic – whose flavor will be imparted to the meat that will be submerged in the brine. The length of time the meat stays in the brine depends on the size and density of the meat as well as the cook’s desired outcome.
Lightly curing, or pre-salting, can be as involved as completely covering food in salt (“gravlax,” which is cured salmon, means “buried salmon”) or, as with our chicken, may be as simple as “pre-salting” sounds: sprinkle salt on the meat at hand, ahead of time.
Let’s say that the two techniques produce equally good results. No – let’s say that brining the chicken produces a better result. Why wouldn’t we always brine?
Because of the brine! Which is not that difficult to make, but it’s still an extra step involving a large quantity of liquid and a container to hold that liquid as well as the chicken and the space in the refrigerator for that (large-ish) container. Compare that to: rinsing off a chicken, showering it with salt (which in itself is kind of fun), putting it on a plate, covering it loosely, and putting it in the fridge.
Like I said, pre-salting is easy – really, really easy. And the result is just as good or better than brining. Try both and let me know what you think.
Selecting a chicken
You want a raw chicken that’s about 3 pounds, which is a meal for one if you alone eat only this one thing, maybe standing at the cutting board where you carved it, unable to stop yourself from picking up another piece. I’ve done this many times, shaking my head in disbelief at how good it is, one of my favorite feelings in the world. I made this. Ideally, this size chicken will feed two or possibly three with some potatoes roasted in the same pan, something green to round things out.
Three pounds will cook and rest in about an hour and the ratio of meat to skin to bone is optimal. The meat is…the meal, while bone imparts flavor and keeps things juicy, and the skin is a delicious treat whose layer of fat happens to continuously baste the roasting meat.
Note that I said about 3 pounds. When you go shopping you may find that 3 pound chickens are hard to find; do the best you can. I can get it in my head that I need something very specific and I’ll end up at four stores. It’s taken me awhile to realize:
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
3.5 pounds is fine. Occasionally I’ll find one that’s 2.5 or 2.75 pounds; these are awesome. Not a fan of 4+ pound chickens. Again, it’s about the ratio of meat to skin to bone. That’s why chicken wings are so good – there’s as much skin and bone as meat.
If you live near a farmers’ market you may be able to find chickens there. Some of my favorite meals have been of chickens from these smaller producers.
A cautionary note on ahead-of-time preparation
This is another step in the process where I used to let myself get derailed. Remember:
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
A two-day salted chicken is so delicious that once you eat one you may not ever want to cook one that hasn’t sat for two days. But a one-day salted chicken is still quite good (better than 99.9% of the cooked chickens in the universe), and one that’s sat salted for a few hours is better than one that gets salt and goes right in the oven. BUT – one that goes right in the oven is better than not roasting one at all and is likely more satisfying than buying a rotisserie chicken at the market.
Once you have some skills and you don’t have time or foresight to salt ahead, you might choose a different way of cooking – maybe breaking the chicken down and braising it, or whatever – but for now we’re roasting. Once you’ve carved a roasted chicken two or three times you’ll be able to break down a raw chicken and choose another method of cooking.
One of the reasons I eat so much chicken is its versatility: it’s a blank slate for an infinite number of flavors. Here we’re going to keep it simple, stuffing the cavity with a sprig of rosemary, a half lemon, and a half head of garlic. If you’re out to impress yourself (and why shouldn’t you be?) or someone else, slide a couple tablespoons butter into the cavity as well.
None of these is essential. If the market is out of rosemary, choose something else – thyme, oregano, whatever. No rosemary, no worries. Lemon is delicious but not essential. Same goes for garlic.
Other than chicken or salt, don’t let the absence of any ingredient stop you from doing this.
What’s it roast in?
Good question. Ideally it’s a material like steel or iron that conducts heat well, facilitating crisp skin but you can roast in just about anything if it’s the difference between roasting or not. I learned to cook a lot of food using a stainless steel “chicken fryer” which is simply a 12 inch pan with two inch high straight sides; a large cast iron pan is pretty great as well. Any pan that’s large enough for the chicken and that’s safe to put in a 450° oven will work, even a glass Pyrex dish or a disposable aluminum roasting pan. I wouldn’t necessarily invest in either of those last two, but if it’s what you have, use it.
Chicken handling basics.
Chickens can carry salmonella so it’s important to keep a sanitary workplace. Any surface the chicken touches needs to be washed with soap and water before other food touches it; same goes for your hands. The ‘danger zone’ for bacteria growth in food is between 40 and 140° Fahrenheit; room temperature falls inconveniently within this range, so your chicken shouldn’t sit out for too long. Two hours is the general guideline, the idea being that if highly perishable food sits out for longer than two hours then no amount of cooking will destroy the bacteria.
Finally…Roast Chicken: The Recipe
If you’ve read to this point you pretty much know the ingredients, but here they are, summarized, along with specific directions. Have fun – no matter what happens, you’ll learn something and be a better cook for it; there’s a really good chance you’ll enjoy a stellar meal as well.
- 1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 half head garlic (not peeled or anything, just the head cut in half, more or less intact)
- 1 half lemon
- a couple tablespoons olive oil (or vegetable oil or canola oil) for the roasting pan
A quick reminder in case you skipped straight to this part: anything that the raw or undercooked chicken touches will need to be washed. This might be the most difficult part of roasting a chicken. Which should be a sign to you that roasting a chicken is not hard at all.
1. Rinsing. So you get your chicken home, you unwrap it in the sink, and you clean off any raw chicken juice or whatnot by rinsing your chicken all over (inside too). Then you put your chicken on a towel on the counter or cutting board where you’ll be working for the next few minutes. This towel is now your chicken towel – a dish towel that won’t be used for anything else except your chicken and when you’re done it’ll go in the wash. Dry the chicken with the towel (or if the towel’s already too damp, use a fresh one, or some paper towels). Cut off the little bit of tail that’s left though it’s not really necessary, it’s an aesthetic thing – and at the bottom cavity there’s usually a significant excess of skin, you want to cut some of that off so it’s not flopping loosely about.
2. Salting. We have arrived at the moment in time for which this chicken was destined and which will place it in a class of its own: strew salt all over the chicken, in all the crevices and inside as well. Try not to miss any spots on the outside and get a little more on the thicker parts. (You don’t need to be so thorough for the inside, but get some in there – I envision salting the lengths of the backbone and the breastbone.) You should use more salt than you think is necessary, a light crusting almost. Realize that much of it will eventually be pulled into and distributed throughout the meat.
- Put the chicken on a plate or in a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for two days or a day or a few hours or not at all.
4. When you’re ready to cook, take your chicken out of the refrigerator a half hour to an hour before you cook it. There will be a small amount of chicken liquid in the container and there will be a bit of moisture on the chicken’s skin. Pat the chicken dry all over with another ‘chicken towel’ or a paper towel. If it’s been a couple days there probably won’t be any salt left on the surface. Leave the bird resting on the towel.
- Put the rosemary (bent in half), lemon, and garlic in the cavity of the chicken.
- Preheat your oven to 450°F. Put whatever roasting pan you’re using in the preheating oven. Most ovens will take 10 to 20 minutes to come to the desired temperature. I just timed mine and it took 14 minutes.
Take the roasting pan out of the oven and place it on the stovetop or other place safe for a hot pan. (The shorter the amount of time the oven door is open, the better. The oven temperature drops when the door is open and it can take awhile to rise again.) Pour a couple tablespoons oil in the pan; enough for a thin layer of oil. (Optional but nice if possible: if you’re using a pan that’s safe to heat on the stovetop, turn the heat to medium high. Once you place the chicken in the pan let it sear for two minutes before placing in the oven)
Put the chicken in the pan breast-side down. I still determine which side the breast is on by envisioning the chicken standing on its legs and extrapolating. (As stated above, if your stovetop is on, let the chicken sear for two minutes.) Place the pan in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. Obviously you don’t need a timer but it’s a worthwhile habit to get into and if you don’t care to regularly grease up your smartphone you may want to spend ten dollars on a dedicated timer that sticks to the refrigerator.
- Flipping. When 15 minutes is up take the roasting pan out of the oven and close the oven door (to retain oven temperature, remember?). You’re going to flip the chicken so it’s breast side up. Use a spatula and slip it under the chicken, pressing the spatula against the pan to get as under the chicken as possible so as to release the skin if it’s adhering to the pan at all. It may help to maximize leverage by using the spatula upside down from the way it’s normally used. You’ll figure it out.
Lift the chicken out of the pan using the spatula and some tongs or some other utensil you can slip into the chicken’s cavity. Flip the chicken over – it will probably be awkward, and you may want to use an oven-mitted hand in lieu of one of the utensils – and return the pan to the oven. (The oven mitt should go in the wash with your chicken towels.)
- After 15 minutes take the chicken out. Flip again and put back in the oven. Remove after 15 minutes. In case you haven’t been keeping track: that’s 45 minutes at 450°F. I dislike extra steps and over the years I’ve tried several time and temperature variations with less flipping and none produced acceptable skin on all sides. And anyway: 45 at 450 flipping every 15. Easy to remember.
Check for doneness: flip the chicken one more time, back onto its back. Cut between the leg and the thigh. This joint takes longer to fully cook than any other part of the chicken, so if it’s done, we’re done.
Watch the juices that run out as you cut. This is instructive in two ways. First, and most pertinently, are the juices clear or are they reddish? How does the interior meat look at that joint? The goal is clear juices with white, opaque meat.
If the juices are tinted red and the meat looks almost but not quite done – just a touch of redder meat – return the chicken to the oven for 5 minutes. If the meat was even redder and more underdone than that, give it 10 minutes. Then check again on the other leg/thigh joint (the first one you cut into is now exposed and definitely will be fully cooked) and return to the oven once again if necessary. There are no more leg/thigh joints to cut into so just do your best to estimate how long to doneness, it shouldn’t be more than a few minutes.
- Resting. If the juices are clear, did you notice how they did in fact run out when you cut into the chicken? We want to minimize this moisture loss by allowing the juices to have time to redistribute themselves throughout the chicken, so once you’ve determined the chicken is done, you need to let it rest for 10 minutes. Move it to a cutting board or plate or platter.
Resting is a crucial step and if your date has low blood sugar it’s tempting to skip it. Don’t. Offer some cheese or nuts or olives to stave off her hunger and avoid bread so she doesn’t get full. Consider what resting the meat actually is: part of the cooking time, even if it’s not taking place in the oven.
After the chicken’s been on the plate or cutting board for 10 minutes proceed with carving; you can find instructions here. If you are one of the early readers of Cook5, please check back soon for detailed carving instructions and a video.