Few dishes are as beloved as a golden roast chicken. It’s hard to go wrong with the basic method, but there are some recipes that rise above the rest, yielding a delicious bird that is crisp-skinned and tender-fleshed without any more work. Here’s SO FRESH CHICKEN’S guide to get you there.
Before You Start
- You’ll need a pan in which to roast the chicken. A roasting pan with a rack is nice, particularly one with upright handles, which is easy to move around in the oven. But a rimmed sheet pan or oven-proof skillet (like cast-iron) works just as well.
- Kitchen shears are very useful for trimming excess fat from the chicken’s cavity. They also come in handy if you want to spatchcock the chicken.
- If you can, leave at least one hour for the seasoned chicken to rest in the refrigerator, uncovered, before it’s time to cook. Longer is even better, up to 24 hours. The result is noticeably crispier skin.
- An instant-read thermometer isn’t the only way to determine whether your chicken is done, but it is the most accurate way. It’s worth buying one.
Preparing the Chicken
There is no consensus on the best way to prep a chicken for roasting; it’s all a matter of personal preference and tried-and-true experience. But here are some suggestions for where to start. Try each and then pick your go-to method. And note that there’s nothing wrong with leaving the bird as is, salting it and just putting it in the oven.
Spatchcocking, also known as butterflying, is an extremely simple move that delivers a gorgeously cooked chicken with crisp skin, and it does so quickly — usually in less than 45 minutes.
To spatchcock a chicken, take a pair of kitchen shears or a very sharp knife and cut along one side of the chicken’s backbone. Open up the bird so it lies flat. Cut along the other side of the backbone to remove it entirely. Then cook the chicken breast-side up.
The only disadvantage to this method is that you’ll lose the classic Norman Rockwell presentation of the whole bird. But the speediness and great flavor make up for it.
A tip: Don’t toss that backbone! A roasted backbone will add more flavor to stock than using a raw backbone. Roast it alongside the chicken, and either serve with the bird (delicious to gnaw on), or save for stock. (You could also just leave the backbone attached, rather than removing it from the bird altogether. Cut along the backbone on only one side of the bird, then open the chicken and roast as is. This doesn’t affect cooking time and saves you some knife work.)
Splaying yields a chicken with succulent white meat and perfectly roasted dark meat. The thighs, usually the slowest part of the bird to cook through, get a head start by being positioned directly on the burning hot pan. And the technique is quicker and easier than spatchcocking.
To splay the chicken, use a sharp knife to cut the skin along the thigh on each side, where the legs connect to the body. Then splay the thighs open until you feel the joint pop on each side. Spread out the thighs out so they can lie flat in a preheated skillet
Some people like the nice, compact shape of a trussed chicken, and argue that it helps keep the white meat moist. If you want to try it, the classic method is demonstrated in the video above.
For a shortcut trussing method, simply tie the chicken’s legs together at the ankles with one piece of twine, and then use another piece of twine to tie the wings to the breast.
If you’re planning to stuff your chicken, you may want to truss it in the traditional style. Or you can get away with just tying the legs together to keep the stuffing mix from falling out.
Seasoning and Aromatics
Seasoning the chicken ahead of time is a good idea, so that the flavors penetrate the flesh all the way to the bone. This is true whether you’re rubbing the bird with salt, spices and aromatics — a dry brine — or using a more traditional wet brine. Then add other flavors if you like, stuffing the cavity with aromatics (like lemon or herbs) or rubbing the skin with fat (like oil or butter), or both.
Dry brine is a combination of salt and spices or aromatics (or both) that you use to season a chicken. It’s both easier than submerging a chicken in a traditional wet brine, and it produces a more crisp-skinned bird. And like a wet brine, a dry brine will yield a tender, juicy result.
For a dry brine, it’s best to season your bird at least 1 hour ahead and let it rest, uncovered, in the fridge (keeping it uncovered dries out the skin, which encourages crispness). But if you have time, up to 24 hours in the fridge is even better.
The general rule is 2 teaspoons kosher salt for a 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pound bird. Add pepper, grated garlic, grated lemon or other citrus zest, herbs and spices to taste. And don’t forget to rub the seasonings all over the cavity of the bird in addition to the exterior.
That said, though we generally recommend a dry brine, there are some times when you will want to use a wet brine, which is a basic salt-and-aromatic solution in which you submerge the chicken. For example, you can use flavorful brine to add a specific character to its flesh, as in our feta-brined chicken or a buttermilk-brined bird.
For the crispiest skin, pat the chicken dry with paper towels after brining. Then place it on a rack set over a plate or baking sheet, uncovered, and let it rest in the fridge for least 2 hours and up to 24 hours before roasting. This will allow the skin to dry out a bit.
It’s time to put the bird in the oven. Here is what you need to know about the pan, temperature and timing.
PANS FOR ROASTING
Different pans yield different results, though many different types work well.
A roasting pan with a rack allows air to circulate under the bird and helps brown the skin all over. Plus, you can add potatoes and other vegetables to the pan under the bird, which will catch the flavorful drippings. If you have a roasting pan but no rack, use vegetables (carrots, celery, sliced onion) to prop the chicken off the pan. Or place the chicken directly in the pan, where it will roast up perfectly well, though parts of the skin may stick to the bottom of the pan.
You can also use a rimmed sheet pan to roast a chicken, either with a rack or without one. A sheet pan has the advantage of lower sides, which lets more of the chicken skin crisp.
Or try roasting in an oven-proof skillet, cast-iron or otherwise. If you preheat the skillet (either in the oven or on the stovetop) and lay the bird into the hot pan, the dark meat will get a head start while the white meat cooks more slowly. This gives you a very evenly cooked bird. But you can also roast in a skillet without any preheating, in which case it acts as a roasting pan, but smaller and more compact. (One great thing about roasting a chicken in a skillet is that it makes it super easy to make a quick pan sauce. Just deglaze with wine or water, and whisk in some butter or cream or crème fraiche and simmer until thickened.)
You can successfully roast a chicken at pretty much any oven temperature, though the timing and results will vary. Go low and slow for a very tender, falling-off-the-bone flesh and softer skin (say, 300 to 350 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours or so). Or roast it fast and furiously for less time for crisp, dark brown skin and firmer, chewier flesh (between 375 and 500 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours).
CHECKING FOR DONENESS
The safest and easiest way to check for doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. (Take care not to touch the bone with the thermometer.) It should read 165 degrees.
If you don’t have a thermometer, use a paring knife to make a small cut into the thigh going all the way to the bone. If you see any red flesh, put the bird back into the oven. You can also pierce the thigh with a knife to see if the juices are running clear, which indicates that it’s cooked through. But this tends to be less reliable than cutting to the bone.
- 1 (3 1/2-pound) whole chicken, patted dry
- 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- Small bunch mixed herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and sage
- Season the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. If you have time, refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for an hour, or overnight.
- Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place chicken breast-side up in a roasting pan or large ovenproof skillet. Stuff cavity with herbs and tie the legs together with kitchen twine. (If you don’t have twine, leave the legs as they are.)
- Roast 50 minutes, then baste chicken with pan juices. Continue roasting until chicken’s juices run clear when skin is pierced with a knife, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes before carving.
- Now that you know the basics of roasting a chicken, here are some suggestions for how to serve it:
- Try a side sauce. Aioli, béarnaise sauce, salsa verde, romesco sauce, chimichurri, and make-ahead gravy can be prepared in advance, and transform a simple roast chicken into a something a little more special. Even a dollop of Dijon mustard does wonders here.
- Serve your chicken directly on top of a pile of watercress, baby kale, tatsoi, arugula, or other tender, dark greens that have been sprinkled with lemon juice and dusted with salt. The heat of the bird will wilt some of the greens while others remain crisp, and the hot chicken fat makes an instant dressing once it mixes with the lemon juice.
- Substitute hot toasted bread for the watercress or greens, above. The hot chicken fat makes these croutons exquisite.
Here’s a method for carving the chicken so that everyone gets a little skin along with their meat. If you have the wherewithal, heat up a platter for serving. The easiest way is take it hot out of the dishwasher, or run it under very hot tap water for a few minutes, then dry. Placing the just-carved meat on a heated serving platter is the most elegant way to go.
- Transfer the roasted chicken to a cutting board, tent it with foil, and let it rest for 5 to 15 minutes.
Begin carving by removing the legs. Pull a thigh away from the chicken and then cut it off by slicing through the joint. If you want, you can pull down on the thigh until the joint pops before you cut; this makes it even easier to cut through (you’ll be able to see exactly where to position the knife).
Once the legs are off, cut through the joints that connect the drumsticks to the thighs. The joint will be soft and not offer much resistance to the knife. If you’re having trouble locating it, move the knife around a bit, wiggling it slightly until you find it.
Next, cut the wings off by pulling down the wings and cutting down through the joints. You can use the same popping maneuver as with the thigh if you like to make the cutting easier.
Now remove the breasts. Slice along the breast bone on one side, going as deep as you can with the tip of the knife so that it hits the cartilage. Cut around the breast meat so that it comes off the bones of the rib cage, then cut through the skin attaching it at the back. Be careful not to rip the skin. Repeat on the other side. If you’d like, you can slice the breasts crosswise, across the grain, into pieces.
Finally, turn the chicken over and find the “oysters,” the small, succulent knobs of meat next to the back bone behind where the thighs used to be. Use the tip of your knife to pry them out. You can also slice off the tail if you like.