My Quest for the Perfect Roast Chicken
Roast chicken. For some, these words only conjure a dull sense of pedestrian banality, while for others they inspire awe, wonder, and sentiments of transcendent home cooking. Why is there such a difference?
Having gone from one end of that spectrum to the other, I have one hypothesis: many people just haven’t tasted a great roast chicken. In our day and age, where over 99% of chicken is factory farmed, it can even be hard to find chicken that tastes like chicken should. One time in high school French class, we were assigned to play the roles of diner and waiter. On seeing poulet rôti on the menu, I thought to myself: “Why would I even pretend to order that?”
Well, as it turns out, I later traveled to France and experienced some of the best poulet rôti of my life (here). First of all, the French place great value on the quality of ingredients. Local markets invariably have a poultry specialist selling wide range of pastured birds, from many types of chicken to guinea hen and ducks. That’s an important — but not the only — part of why roast chicken is such a revered French dish.
The other important part is to cook it properly. Many people prefer chicken thighs to breast, complaining that chicken breast is dry, tough, and flavorless. Yet, chicken breast is wonderful when it’s done right. The problem is that it’s very easy to overcook, leading to a dry, stringy texture. It’s an even harder to avoid when roasting a whole chicken, since we’re also trying to create a crispy skin by rendering out as much fast as possible, and roasting thighs and legs thoroughly — both of which require lots of heat.
Several techniques have emerged to address this conundrum, including spatchcocking (cutting out the backbone of the chicken and laying it flat) and butterflying (separating the thighs from the body). But that leads us to the final issue: roast chicken should be comfort food that we can easily make at home. In my opinion, these techniques require too much butchery — and hence too much effort — not to mention they detract from the Norman Rockwell-esque beauty of a whole roast chicken.
So, is all hope lost? Is it impossible to have delicious roast chicken at home that is easy enough for a weeknight dinner? Of course not; you wouldn’t be reading this if that were so. In fact, a great roast chicken is truly magical: the legendary Engagement Chicken has allegedly inspired many a boyfriend to propose. So if you’re looking for a great meal, or even a ring on your finger, read on!
This section describes the what and why of a good roast chicken in detail. If you’re in a hurry, skip down to the recipe.
Summarizing from above, we’re looking for these four things in our roast chicken:
- Crispy, crackly skin, with most of the fat rendered out
- Perfectly cooked, barely pink breast (155°F)
- Thoroughly roasted thigh and legs (165–175°F)
- As little effort as possible to get the above, so that it is simple enough to prepare even on a weeknight
To start with, buy the best chicken that you can. The single most important factor is an air-chilled chicken. Most chickens are processed by dunking in a giant vat of cold water, which leads them to absorb up to 10% additional weight in water (and bacteria), makes the meat bland/mushy, and prevents the skin from crisping. My favorite chickens in the NYC area are from Snowdance Farm, who provide pastured, air-chilled chickens with a luscious layer of yellow fat. If you can’t buy from a local farm, Bell and Evans is available nationwide.
We’re going to season the chicken the day before, underneath the skin. This accomplishes several things. First, it is a dry brine for the meat, making it more tender and flavorful. Second, leave the chicken uncovered in the fridge overnight, using the dry environment to remove excess moisture and allowing the skin to become crispier during roasting. Third, separating the skin from the meat helps liquid fat escape during rendering, making the skin even more crispy. Best of all, there is no handling of raw chicken necessary the next day — it’s ready to go in the oven right away, making it possible to roast on even a weeknight.
As for the exact seasonings, you can really choose anything that suits your fancy. A great chicken can be as simple as just salt and pepper. My favorite is the classic and delicious combination of lemon, garlic, and thyme; many other spices and flavors also work well. Use about 1/2 tbsp of salt per pound of chicken total (seasoning both the inside and outside). With some experience, you’ll know when you’ve used the right amount of salt — everything will taste very flavorful, but not salty.
Use the convection setting on your oven if it has one: it helps with even heat distribution and crisping the skin. We start roasting the chicken breast side down, which blasts the exposed thighs with more heat while keeping the breasts somewhat protected. This part is essential to creating a temperature differential between the breast and thigh, and getting a perfect roast. In terms of temperature, 430–450°F is ideal for getting a crispy skin, but there’s a trade-off in terms of how much smoke it creates later on.
Near the middle of the roasting process (about 30 min for a 4 pound chicken) we will do a few things simultaneously. Flip the chicken breast side up, turn down the oven to 380°F (~the smoke point of chicken fat), and insert a thermometer (oven-safe, if you have one) in the breast. There will also be a nice pool of schmaltz under the chicken, so now is a great time to mix in any side vegetables to roast with the chicken.
Watch the thermometer until the breast reaches 149°F, then take the chicken out (the breast will hit 155°F after resting). For a 4 pound chicken, it usually takes about 45 minutes more after flipping. This dry brined, perfectly roasted chicken breast will be nothing like the dry and stringy meat you’ve had in the past. You needn’t check the temperature of the thighs, but if you do the thermometer will read 165–175°F — nice and tender, and no tough, pink meat in sight.
Finally, you musn’t skip the best part: gravy! During the essential step of resting, make a gravy with the chicken drippings. This wonderful sauce will not only pair spectacularly with your chicken, but also with any mashed potatoes or polenta you serve alongside.
The ingredients below are for a lemon/thyme/garlic chicken. For the heart of the recipe, salt, pepper, and chicken are all you need. You can also substitute or add any other spices as you prefer.
- one 4–5 pound, air-chilled chicken (pastured is even better)
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lemon
- 1 head garlic
- 1 bunch thyme
For the gravy:
- All-purpose flour
- Chicken stock (homemade if available)
The night before (20 min prep)
Zest the lemon, and finely chop half of the garlic cloves. Mix with about 2 tbsp salt and as much freshly ground pepper as you like. Stir until well combined; the mixture will have the texture of a tapenade.
Place the chicken on a cutting board. Cut out the wishbone at the end of the breast. You can skip this step, but it makes carving much easier later.
Using your fingers or a flat wooden spoon, separate the skin from the breast and thigh meat, being careful to avoid tearing the skin. For the breast, it’s easier to go from both ends and meet in the middle, while for the thigh it’s best to hold the leg straight (see inset).
Take large pinches of the seasoning mix and spread it out over the breast and around the thighs (all under the skin). Divide half the thyme into sprigs and insert it along the breast and next to the thighs with the seasoning.
Sprinkle the remaining seasoning into the cavity of the chicken, and a few pinches of salt and pepper on the outside of the skin.
Slice the zested lemon, and insert it with the remaining garlic cloves and thyme sprigs into the cavity of the chicken as well.
At this point you’ll have a chicken that looks somewhat like the one on the left. Leave it uncovered in the fridge overnight, preferably on a rack in a roasting pan. If you do, you’ll be able to take this pan and stick it directly in the oven, no mess or fuss required.
Believe it or not, that’s most of the work done for a fantastic roast chicken!
The day of roasting (60–75 min roast, 10 min work)
What do you have to do on the day you’re ready to roast and eat this chicken? Very little. The roasting process doesn’t need much attention and so you can prepare the rest of dinner in the meantime or just unwind and enjoy the delicious smell wafting out of your kitchen.
Take the chicken out of the fridge and observe the changes from the day before. It’s no longer pale and whitish, and the skin is dry and ready to become crispy!
Preheat your oven to 440°F, with the convection fan on if possible.
Once the oven reaches the set temperature, put the chicken on the rack breast side down and into the oven.
After about 30 minutes, turn down the oven to 380°F, and take the chicken out. Flip it breast side up, and insert an oven-safe thermometer (if you have one) in the breast. At this point, you can also lift up the rack and mix in any side vegetables with the schmaltz below (carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts, etc.) and roast them.
Continue roasting until the thermometer in the breast shows 149°F, then take it out. Adore your crispy-skinned creation! Leave the chicken to rest about 10–15 min; after resting, the breast will be around 155°F, and the thigh will be around 165–175°F.
While the chicken is resting, make the delicious gravy that you will serve it with. Pour out some of the chicken drippings from the pan and whisk in an equal mass amount of flour to make a roux. Cook the roux until it’s thick and aromatic, then stir in warmed chicken stock (homemade if you have any, perhaps from a previous roast chicken); season with salt and pepper to taste.
Carve your chicken and serve with the gravy!
For a regular feed of delicious roast chicken in various forms, follow chairman.maos.chicken on Instagram.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I don’t understand something about your recipe. Show me a picture!
A: Please post a comment below and I’ll oblige!
Q: Why don’t you wet brine the chicken instead?
A: Although wet brining and dry brining achieve similar effects in producing juicier meat, the extra liquid absorbed makes the meat mushier and makes it almost impossible to get a crispy skin. Many recipes (including the one above) call for air-drying the bird, which conflicts with a wet brine. Dealing with a bucket of salty water can also be quite a mess. For all those reasons, I strongly recommend dry brining.
Q: Why aren’t you trussing the chicken?
A: Trussing isn’t necessary. In fact, it makes it harder to distribute heat to the thighs and hence tends to overcook the breast. Some people think it makes the bird look better, but that’s really about the only benefit.
Q: Why are you roasting the chicken soon after taking it out of the fridge? Shouldn’t you let it come to room temperature first?
A: It’s true that in general, roasting meat that is cold causes it to cook unevenly and take longer. But while you can certainly wait a bit, I’ve that the chicken starting cold actually helps increase the breast/thigh temperature differential (since the thighs are more exposed), and allows more time for fat to render out of the skin without overcooking the breast.
Q: Can I leave the oven at the higher temperature so the chicken cooks faster?
A: You certainly can, and the chicken will cook faster. I’ve found that this does tend to increase the amount of cursing due to the smoke alarm going off, though, and I also prefer not to make gravy with chicken fat that has been smoking due to potential carcinogens.