By Charlie Burke
It's frequently said that the test of a good cook - or restaurant- is the ability to cook really good roast chicken. I've always found this somewhat amusing, because the process is really not that difficult, and, once mastered, produces reliably good results. I suppose the converse is true: if unable to produce a crisp juicy roast chicken, then one cannot be considered an accomplished cook.
Properly done, roast chicken is as appropriate for entertaining as it is for an informal family meal, and many fine restaurants are unable to remove it from their menus because of its popularity. As in all cooking, attention to a few important details makes all the difference. First, the size and quality of the chicken is basic. Choose fresh locally raised (preferably free range) chicken as a first choice; kosher or naturally raised commercial chickens are the next best option.
Many "roasters" sold now are 5 -6 pounds, which are somewhat large for high heat roasting. I prefer 2 1/2 - 3 pound chickens, cooking two if we're feeding guests. If not using kosher chickens, consider salting or brining before cooking. Salting the chicken skin and cavity with 1 teaspoon of salt per pound for 24 - 48 hours results in tender, moist meat, as does brining for 12 - 24 hours (add 1 cup kosher salt/ gallon of water, submerge chicken and keep in refrigerator). Bring the chicken to room temperature, rinse and pat dry before cooking.
If you do not have time for salting or brining, simply salt and pepper the dried chicken before cooking. Adding fat or oil to the skin is unnecessary, but wiping the skin with lemon juice promotes browning and crisping of the skin. We usually add a lemon sliced in half and several garlic cloves or shallots to the cavity, along with herbs such as sage, rosemary or tarragon. The basic recipe stays the same and permits many variations limited only by your imagination. I remember cooking a recipe of Jasper Whites' which called for coating the chicken with Chinese 5 spice powder and enjoying a unique and delicious meal. You also have the option of placing potatoes, carrots or your favorite vegetables in the pan with the chicken which, served with a mixed salad, makes a complete meal.
This is high heat cooking and the temperature rises very quickly at the end of cooking, so close attention is required then. Since cooking continues after the pan is removed from the oven, try to remove it 5 degrees or so below optimal temperature (180 degrees in thick portion of the thigh). If you do not have a thermometer, the juices at the thigh joint should be barely pink when the skin is slit; with sitting for 10 to 15 minutes they should become clear.
For 2 -3 servings:
Preheat oven to 475 - 500 degrees (use the lower temperature if your oven is likely to smoke; ovens vary so ideally the temperature should be checked with an oven thermometer) Rinse chicken and pat dry. Salt and pepper skin (omit salt in brined or salted chicken).
Place lemon, garlic or shallots and herbs inside cavity; do not truss chicken.
Preheat an oven proof roasting pan over stove top (use the smallest pan which will accommodate the chicken). Place chicken into roasting pan and put into preheated oven with legs facing back of oven, if possible.
Check at 20 minutes; skin should be browning and blistering but not burning. Turn oven down 20 degrees if charring is observed.
Cooking time should be 45 - 50 minutes (temperature over 175 degrees in thick thigh meat or juices nearly clear)
Remove from oven and place chicken onto a platter to rest for 10 - 15 minutes (lift from pan by placing wooden spoons into each cavity; try to tilt large cavity toward roasting pan to drain juices into pan)
Spoon or drain fat from roasting pan, place pan over medium heat and add 1 cup of deglazing liquid, scraping up the browned bits and boiling until slightly thickened.
Carve chicken* and serve with pan juices.
The meat should be juicy and the skin well crisped. After doing this a couple times you will hardly need a recipe and will be able to serve it confidently to family and guests. A medium red wine or even good Beaujolais would go well with this chicken, as would a full bodied chardonnay.
*Chop up the carcass, cover with water and simmer for a couple hours with a carrot, celery stalk, onion, pepper corns and bay leaf for a great stock to use for soup or sauces.
About The Author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice president of the New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association (www.nhfma.org). His column & recipes appear weekly in The Heart of New England's newsletter... get a free subscription by sending a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.TheHeartofNewEngland.com
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