How to Roast a Chicken

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First, a treatise on mashed potatoes.  Now I’m blathering on about how to roast a chicken.  Are these recipes really worth posting?  Aren’t they everywhere?  I don’t know.  I think there are renditions of them everywhere, to be sure, but I’ve tried a lot of dud recipes for things that should be simple.  Including roast chicken.

See, despite having been in the kitchen for as long as I can remember, despite seriously considering culinary school as a career path, I came into adulthood with some odd gaps in my culinary knowledge.  I could make Indian curries and spanikopita and 8-layer chocolate cake, no problem.  I even made my own wedding cake!  But I’d never canned anything in my life, I had never steamed a vegetable*,  and I was terribly insecure about how to properly roast a chicken.

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See? A wedding cake!

The internet didn’t help.  I found recipes with temperatures ranging from 300° to 450°, with bake times ranging from 45 minutes to 2 hours.  And all manner of seasonings – dry brines, wet brines, spices, herbs, compound butters, aromatics to fill the cavity of the bird, glazes, pan sauces… and on and on.  I tried a few that looked promising, and frankly, the results weren’t great.  The chef-y seasonings tasted lackluster, the baking times were always way longer or way shorter than the recipe predicted, and I could never manage to get the dark meat to cook through properly without turning the white meat into poultry-flavored cardboard.

Fortunately, I have a mother-in-law who does fresh, simple, home style cooking better than just about anyone else I know.  She took me under her wing (um, no pun intended) and helped me master the basics that I’d been neglecting in favor of fancy-pants cookery and ethnic dishes.  This is essentially her method for roast chicken, with one crucial modification.  It produces a beautifully browned bird with perfectly cooked dark meat, moist, flavorful white meat, and delicious crackling brown skin.  And it’s dead easy.

Oh, and there’s gravy too!  Pan gravy, from the gorgeously flavorful drippings this method produces.  Also dead easy.  Come on, let’s do this!

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First, get yourself a bird or two.  Honestly, half the secret to great roast chicken is to start with great meat.  Because the method and the seasonings are so simple, the quality (or lack thereof) of the meat is very apparent.  Sure, you can still make a generic grocery store chicken taste pretty good, but if you want succulent, moist, intensely flavorful roast chicken, you want to look for birds that have been allowed to eat grass, hunt for bugs, roam around outdoors, and just generally be chicken-y.

We buy our chickens in bulk once a year from a local farmer, and keep them in a chest freezer.**  Because the chickens are sold as whole birds, we have to process them (cut them up) ourselves.  This leads to us eating more roast chickens than we used to, because there’s only so many times that I feel like chopping up a bird into component parts.  And the leftover meat from a roast chicken is super versatile.

Onward now!  Season your birds!  Pick your flavor.  The internet is filled with suggestions here.  You could go simple, with poultry seasoning and salt.  You could make a compound butter with minced garlic and fresh herbs (rosemary and thyme would be particularly nice) and push it between the skin and the meat.  You could stuff a halved lemon, quartered onions, garlic cloves, and sprigs of fresh herbs inside the cavity of the bird for extra flavor.  Try anything that suits your fancy.  I use… seasoned salt.  Yep.  Plain old big-box store seasoned salt.  I’ve tried a lot of other flavor combinations, including the ones above, and they’re good.  But I just keep coming back to seasoned salt for its straightforward, subtle flavor, which really lets the natural flavor of the chicken shine through.  And it’s easy.  Easy is good sometimes.

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One correction to this photo.  If you’re planning on making the pan gravy, it’s best to season your meat on a cutting board instead of in the pan, or you run the risk of over-seasoning the gravy.

Now, for moist, tender, flavorful chicken breasts, here’s what you do.  First, always cook your chickens breast-side down, so the natural juices will collect in the breasts instead of draining away from them.  Next, fill the roasting pan with a half-inch or so of water.  This bathes the breasts in the salty pan liquid, kind of like brining them while you cook.

Doesn’t this ruin your chances of getting crackling brown skin on your chicken breasts?  Yes, but we’re dark meat people, and we generally chop up our chicken breasts for use in other dishes anyway.  If you want more browning on the breasts, you can set your chicken on a rack above the water.  The presence of the water (and steam) will still help prevent the breasts from overcooking, although you might sacrifice a little bit of moistness.

If you have a roasting pan, by all means, use one.  I don’t, and I should probably fix that before I spill scalding hot chicken juices all over my kitchen.

Roast your birds at 350°, adding water to the pan as needed to keep it from going dry, until the meat is tender and the skin is golden brown.  The rough timetable I use is 1 1/2 hours for a single bird, or 2 hours for two birds or a single bird with something else like potatoes also in the oven.

To check for sure if your bird is done, there are a couple methods: Stick a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh to check if the internal temperature has reached 165°.  Poke a knife down into the thigh meat and see if the juices run clear.  Or, as my mother-in-law does (thank you Doris!), grab the bottom of a chicken leg with a pair of tongs, and lift up gently.  If the meat separates from the bone at the thigh joint with little resistance, the chicken is done.  I love the last method because I can never seem to get the hang of the thermometer (I either don’t stick it in far enough and it reads too low, or I get it too close to a bone and it reads too hot) or the clear juices technique (how am I supposed to tell if the juices are clear when they’re running down golden brown chicken skin?)

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Grab the bottom of the leg like so…

 

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…and lift up gently. See how the meat is separating easily from the bone?

 

Remove your beautifully cooked bird from the pan, and let it rest, covered in foil, for a few minutes while you prepare the gravy.

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First, dump your pan juices into a large measuring cup.  You should have 2-3 cups of drippings.  Add water or low-sodium chicken broth to the drippings to total 4 cups of liquid.  Reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid in a bowl, and pour the rest into a medium-sized saucepan.

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Add 1/2 cup flour to the reserved liquid and mix thoroughly.  Scoop the flour paste into the pan, and whisk it into the rest of the liquid until no lumps remain.  Now, just bring your gravy to a boil, adjust seasonings to taste, and turn off the heat.

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Serve your high-impact, low-effort dinner to your impressed guests, preferably with some excellent mashed potatoes.  Oh, and maybe some steamed vegetables.  Now that I can make those.  Ha!

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*Braised, broiled, sautéed, roasted, grilled, stir-fried, gratinéed, slathered in all manner of homemade sauces, even tempura-ed!  But steamed over boiling water and eaten with a little salt?  Nope.  Never.

**If you don’t have the space or money for a storage freezer, see if your community offers a meat locker program like the one we have in Corning.

 

Roast Chicken and Gravy

Yields one roast chicken and about 4 cups of gravy (feeds about 6 people)

1 whole chicken
Seasoning of choice (seasoned salt, salt and pepper, chopped herbs, poultry seasoning, etc)
1/2 cup flour
1-2 cups (approximately) water or low-sodium chicken broth

 

Preheat oven to 350°.  Season chicken all over with seasoning of choice (I usually prefer plain old seasoned salt).  Place chicken breast-side down in a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet and fill pan 1/2 inch deep with water.  Roast, replenishing the water as needed, for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, or until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh reaches 165, the juices in the thigh run clear, or the meat at the thigh joint separates easily from the bone when the leg is lifted gently.  (Note:  The shorter time should be sufficient for a single bird.  If you’re roasting multiple birds, or cooking another dish at the same time as the chicken, you’ll probably need the full 2 hours).

Remove the cooked chicken to a cutting board, and cover loosely with foil while you make the gravy.

Pour the accumulated juices into a large measuring cup (you should have 2-3 cups of liquid).  Add water or low-sodium chicken broth to total 4 cups of liquid.  Reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid in a bowl, and pour the rest into a medium-sized saucepan.  Add flour to the reserved liquid and mix thoroughly.  Whisk the flour paste into the rest of the liquid until no lumps remain.  Bring the gravy to a boil, adjust seasonings to taste, and remove from heat.

Cut chicken into pieces and serve with gravy and mashed potatoes.  Enjoy!

 

Seasoning Variations:

  • Salt and Pepper:  Simple and delicious.
  • Poultry Seasoning:  Or a mixture of sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and black pepper.
  • Compound Butter:  Combine softened butter with minced garlic and chopped fresh herbs.  Push butter mixture underneath the skin of the chicken, pushing to get it under as much of the skin as you can.  Slather remaining butter over the outside of the chicken.
  • Aromatics:  Insert a halved lemon, a quartered onion, a few peeled cloves of garlic, some fresh herb sprigs (thyme, sage, and rosemary work particularly well), or any combination of the above into the cavity of the bird before roasting.

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