Roast chicken. I love you so much. And you really made me a cook.
Here’s the thing. Just the idea of cooking a whole chicken scared the tar outta me. But, how do I even handle the thing? How do I get it to cook evenly? What if I give someone salmonella? Me, carve it? No way. Then, Ina Garten was on my television, telling me it’d all be okay. Ina’s roast chicken was my gateway drug, so to speak. I watched her do it on Barefoot Contessa and thought, hmmmm, I think I can do that. Can I do that? Yes, let’s. And, I did. And I called my mom and was all proud of myself. That was over 20 years ago. (I am old now.) And, then, once you make roast chicken, you became more confident. Things you’d never considered before become unscary. After this roast chicken triumph, I moved on to making bolognese and soups and fresh pasta and canning. Each cooking project you tackle leads to the next one. And I’m not talking complicated things. You need to master classics and they become your repertoire — and you expand from there.
To me, roast chicken is the most comforting thing I cook, period. It’s what I make when someone needs a little love. When my friend’s dad died, I made them roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and chocolate pudding. It seemed like a meal I would want when I was feeling sad. The other wonderful thing about roast chicken is that you can make it so many ways —and you will figure out the way you like it best. I love that. Over the years, I have played around with everything from the cooking time and temp, what I stuff into it, how I truss (or don’t) truss it, you name it. And, let’s be honest, a lot of times, I rummage through the fridge to see what I have on hand. Like fresh herbs about to expire, those Meyer lemons I was gonna preserve (eye roll emoji), usually some garlic or onions from the bowl I keep on the counter. By the way, I love that Melissa Clark and I both have slight panic attacks when the garlic inventory is low. Sometimes I smoosh soft butter up under the skin to crisp it up — first time I did that I pulled the skin off the bird and ate it right there standing by the stove.
Onto the actual cooking part. So, yes, I’ve done the hot oven (425) all the way through. I’ve done the start it in a 450 oven and then turn it off and let it cook. I’ve done 350 all the way through then turn it up to 400 to brown it (this is how I usually do it.) Julia Child has a method where she roasts and rotates, bastes. It’s damn good. Thomas Keller’s is beautifully done and super simple. The late, great Judy Rodgers of Cafe Zuni brined her famous roast chicken and cooked at a very high temp. One of my favorite writers, Helen Rosner, uses a hair dryer. See, a million ways. I suggest that you click on every one of the links I’ve included and read through the recipes. I think it’s always good to keep an open mind when it comes to tackling this cooking project, especially if it’s your first time. Try a few, see what works for you.
I also love that roast chicken is the meal that keeps on keeping on. Once you’ve eaten your way through the bird, you then throw the bones in your freezer to make chicken stock later and then use that amazing stock for cooking, to make soup, whatever you want. Having homemade chicken stock in your freezer is the best! Once you go homemade, you may never go back to the cartons at the store (but no judgement if you do, I am not a judgey cook. No.)
Also, to truss or not to truss: that is the question. I don’t completely truss (tie up) mine. I simply tie the chicken’s legs together. I do truss the bird sometimes and it does cook more evenly. I’m a nerd and I like to practice my trussing. Here is a video of Chef Thomas Keller making his roast chicken — go to 1:50 to get to the trussing part. Try it, you might get into it and want to always truss. I am just usually not that married to it.
You must let the bird get to room temp before you cook it — this is non-negotiable. When you unwrap it, pat it (very) dry with paper towels and let it air dry it in the fridge for a day — this will help the skin crisp up later. You will need to pull it out of the fridge about two hours before you plan to cook it.
One last thing. You should buy the best chicken you can afford. I try to buy from local farmers, but honestly I can’t afford it every single time. So when you need to, hit up the grocery store and buy an organic bird and then when you can spring for a really good one at the farmer’s market, do. You will taste the difference. No judgement from me either way — you do you.
Okay, here you go. This is how I do my roast chicken. Try it this way…then try it a different way if you want…as I said earlier, you will find the way you like it best.
Charm City Cook Lemon and Garlic Whole Roasted Chicken
1 whole chicken (about 4-5 pounds), rinsed and patted dry
2 heads of garlic, halved longways
1 lemon, quartered
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme or rosemary, if desired
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 – Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Season the chicken liberally with kosher salt inside. Insert garlic and lemon into the chicken cavity. Really stuff it. Tie chicken legs together with kitchen twine. Place chicken in a 9×13″ glass baking dish. You can also rest the bird on any fresh herbs if you have any on hand, rosemary or thyme work well.
2 – Rub chicken on all sides with olive oil. Season with about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place in oven on middle rack and roast for approximately an hour (depends on the size of your chicken.) Cook until a digital thermometer registers 160 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the bird. Note: I usually take it out at about 155 degrees and tent with foil to let it finish cooking on top of the stove, but that is entirely your call. Rest 15-20 minutes before carving to preserve juices. Serve warm or let it cool and place in your refrigerator.
After you use up all of the chicken meat, place the carcass — and any leftover herbs, veggies, from cooking — in the freezer to make chicken stock later. Here’s a recipe from Epicurious, which you can follow loosely. Stock is another cooking project that you will find a way you like to do it best and you will feel like a rock star for not wasting one bit of your beautiful chicken.
Invite some friends over. Share a meal with people you love.