Cooking, Savory

Some Thoughts on Roasted Chicken

I’ve made a lot of roasted chicken over the past year and a half. I’ve done them simple. I’ve done them complicated. I’ve brined them and dry-rubbed them and poked butter under their skin. And I’ve had more than a few of them turn out really well. Probably the best chicken I’ve made was one I brined, then rubbed with a honey-garlic glaze. It caramelized on the outside and stayed juicy on the inside and got some rave reviews. But a chicken of that sort took intermittent attention over the course of a whole day. Which, in my opinion, is entirely too long to spend on roasting.

If my experience roasting chickens has taught me one important thing, it is that simple is best. It isn’t necessarily that the simplest recipe produces the absolute most succulent chicken, but rather that after a certain point, roasters of chickens begin to come up against the law of diminishing returns. Sure, that brined and glazed chicken was delicious, but was it that much better than a non-brined chicken that it was worth the entire day? I think not. Advocates of methods like brining may disagree with me here, but I’ll say it anyway: done right, your average chicken is plenty juicy, and it tastes more chicken-y than a chicken that’s been sitting in salt and sugar and vinegar for several hours.

So, all that said, here is my latest entrée into the world of simple roasted chickens. It is a variation of a recipe from Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, but I could just as easily say that it’s a variation on any one of a thousand recipes from any one of a thousand French cookbooks. It is, in other words, classic.

For this recipe, you will need one chicken of the finest quality you can find. I prefer pastured, organic, etc., etc. But let’s just say the fresher the better. It can be of whatever size you think is appropriate to the number of people you plan to serve, but I’ve found that between 4 and 6 pounds is easiest to manage. You will also need:

A generous amount of fresh thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage, and / or parsley. If you are lacking any of these, any combination of savory herbs you like will due.
2 lemons
6-8 cloves of garlic
A scant 3/4 cup of white wine or marsala
2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 450F. Wash and thoroughly dry your chicken, both inside and out, then place it in a roasting pan. Place the neck and giblets (which should come with any good chicken) in the cavity. Cut one lemon in half, and cut one half of that lemon into fourths. Fill the chicken’s cavity with the quartered lemon half, the cloves of garlic, and as much of the fresh herbs as will fit. There is no need to take the herbs off the stems. Just stick them in there. Then, generously salt and pepper the skin of the chicken all over.

Place chicken in the oven for 30 minutes. In that time, combine the juice of the other half of the lemon with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and enough wine to make just less than half a cup. When the 30 minutes is up, pour the liquid over the top of the bird, turn your pan 180 degrees, and turn the oven down to 350F.

Cook for another 20 minutes. In that time, combine the juice of a second lemon with another tablespoon of olive oil and enough wine to make about 1/3 cup of liquid. At the end of the 20 minutes, pour the liquid over the top of the bird, turn your pan 180 degrees again, and allow to cook until the interior temperature of the deepest part of the breast is 165F. I would suggest inserting a cheap digital probe thermometer early on in the cooking, so that you know for sure.

When the chicken is done, remove the pan from the oven and remove the chicken from the pan. Extract and discard the contents of the chicken’s cavity, and pour any residual juices from the chicken back into your roasting pan.

Pour all of the chicken juices (there should be about 1 cup, maybe a bit more) into a small sauce pan, and reduce over high heat until there is about 1/2 cup left. While you’re waiting for the juices to reduce, use a sharp knife to cut your chicken into eight pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, and 2 breasts) being careful, especially with the breasts, to keep the skin on. Once your liquid has reduced to almost a syrupy consistency, pour it back over the dismembered chicken, and serve immediately.

The result should be moist, lemony, and taste strongly of the herbs all the way through. And better yet, it should take less than 2 hours, largely unattended, from start to finish.

Like I said, objectively speaking, I’ve made better roasted chickens than this. But I’ve never made a chicken so good that took so little time and attention.