Lemony Roast Chicken

Easy, inexpensive, and highly delicious, roast chicken is the preferred Sunday night supper around our house. The basic recipe I use is a slight variation on the one my mother has made since I was little. Between the two of us, my mother and I have roasted a hundreds of chickens, and here in print for the very first time are our tried-and-true methods. Roast chicken is great with any number of accompaniments, but my favorites are mashed Yukon Gold potatoes or yams, roasted Cipollini onions, and a simple green salad.

Chicken Procurement

The first step is selecting a chicken. It’s easy to see the difference between naturally-raised chickens and their factory-farmed counterparts – factory farmed chickens are unappealingly yellow, unsavory and fatty looking, and ooze gross liquid from their packaging, where natural chickens have creamy skin and a much more firm, dry, and plump appearance. I prefer Bell and Evans chickens. They’re air-chilled, raised on natural feed, and allowed to roam freely. Also tasty are Whole Foods chickens. Don’t shy away from spending a few extra dollars for a high-quality chicken. It’s simply not worth wasting your time with inferior ingredients, and even spending up, you’ll still be paying $7-8 for a whole bird, which will easily feed four normal appetites. I usually buy a 3.5-4 lb chicken.

Salt Cure (optional)

If you have 12-24 hours before you need to cook the bird, I recommend a simple salt-and-pepper cure to improve the chicken’s flavor. I only started curing chickens about a year ago, and it certainly is not a requirement, although it definitely has a positive impact on the outcome. To cure the chicken, combine 2 tablespoons of coarsely flaked sea salt (Maldon is my favorite) with about ½ tablespoon of freshly ground black pepper. Remove the chicken from its packaging, and remove the neck and any other extras from inside its body cavity. (Note on the odd bits: I throw the neck in the pan to generate more tasty chicken juice, but you could also use it to make a quick stock. You can reduce this further and combine with pan drippings later to make really fantastic gravy, see recipe below.) Place the chicken in a small roasting pan. A Pyrex pie pan, an All-Clad sauté pan, or a cast iron skillet will all do nicely. Fold the wing tips under the body. Using your fingers, detach the skin from the chicken breasts and thighs. Trim any large pieces of fat away from the neck and cavity areas. Rub the chicken inside the cavity and under the skin with the salt and pepper mixture. Cover loosely with waxed paper and refrigerate until you’re ready to roast. DO NOT salt-cure unless you have at least 12 hours before cooking, or the salt will not have time to adequately disperse through the chicken and you will have a salty bird.

Preparation

When you’re ready to cook the bird, preheat the oven to 500°. Slice 4-5 cloves of garlic and quarter 1 organic lemon, and place inside the cavity. I used to truss chickens (to the delight of more perverse acquaintances, I often trussed them in their own skin, making a slit in the lower breast skin on one side and slipping the opposite drumstick into the hole) but I find that you can roast in less time with more even results by leaving the legs be. You’ll also be rewarded with more crispy skin. Next, and it is helpful to have an assistant at this juncture, pour 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil into your hands and rub it all over the chicken. Shake about 1½ teaspoons of paprika over the top of the chicken for an even dusting, followed by 1-2 tablespoons dried thyme. If you did not cure the chicken, season well with salt and pepper.

You’ll notice this recipe does not call for stuffing the bird with bread-based stuffing; as a matter of fact, I’m fairly opposed to this practice as it means longer cooking times and drier birds. I love stuffing just as much as the next person, I just prefer to bake it in its own dish, as opposed to up a chicken’s butt.

Before you pop the chicken into the oven, press down on one of the back legs and note the texture of its motion as it returns to its original position. Make a mental note of this, as this is what “raw” feels like. As you become more practiced, you may be able to use this as a method for determining when your chicken is done.

Roasting

Place the chicken in the oven with the rack set so the bird is right in the middle. Roast for about 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°. Roast for another hour or so. For your first few chickens, I recommend checking for doneness by piercing the spot where the thigh joins the body. Clear juice indicates that the bird is done, whereas pinkish or bloody juice means back to the oven. Keep up with the “pressing the back leg down” test to see how the motion and feeling changes as the chicken approaches done-ness. Resist the urge to open the oven door where possible, however, as you’ll lose heat very quickly.

Once the chicken is done, remove from the oven and cover with a tent of aluminum foil. Allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes.

Carving

To carve, place the chicken on a cutting board. If you have one with a gutter around the edges for catching juice, use that one, otherwise be prepared to waste tasty juice and paper towels. Using a sharp kitchen knife, slice away the skin between the leg and the breast until you can tell where the connecting joint is. There’s a “sweet spot” where you can easily slice through the joint, separating the leg from the body. Angle the knife toward the body and rotate the leg a bit to get the best access. Once you’ve removed both legs, slice diagonally between the drumstick and the thigh to separate. Place on a a warmed platter, and keep covered with aluminum foil. Next, slice away the wings with a small piece of breast meat. Again, there’s a sweet spot, be patient and poke away with the knife until you find it. Next, slice from the top of the breast along the bones of the rib cage to remove the breast in one whole large piece. Slice across the breast into 1/2 inch slices. Repeat with the other breast. This is as far as the civilized usually go, but the truly enlightened know that the best bits of all are hidden on the back — flip the carcass over and feel around for the juicy “oysters.” These are best removed and consumed kitchen-side.

Now pour the carving-juice back into the pan, and use it and a whisk to loosen tasty drippings from the bottom of the pan. If there is a lot of fat, tilt the pan so that the juices accumulate in one corner. The fat will rise to the top, where you can skim it off with a spoon. Pour the pan juices over the carved chicken, and serve immediately.

Fancy Gravy

In a small sauce-pan, combine the chicken neck, a stalk of celery sliced into pieces, a small sliced onion, a sliced carrot, a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, 3-4 cups of water, and a few peppercorns. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 45 minutes, then strain out the solids. Continue to simmer until volume is reduced by half.

When the chicken is done, pour carving juices back into the pan and place over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup white wine and whisk the sticky drippings up from the bottom of the pan. Add 1-2 tablespoons flour and whisk for a few minutes more. Add wine or stock gradually until you achieve desired volume (about 1 cup usually), whisking continually. Gravy is done when it thickens, after 3-4 minutes. Taste and correct seasonings.

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One Response to “Lemony Roast Chicken”

  1. Stephan Battles Says:

    Great idea this. It is always difficult to thin of varied things to cook especially for a hungry family and some of the ideas here and elsewhere on your site have given me some great ideas so thak you!