with the best roast chicken recipe
THE average Central European backyard chicken was eaten only once either a family member or the chicken got sick. They’re best left to lay eggs, according to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who would never eat chicken1. Indeed, on Friday evenings, Herr Professor did not have garlic Brathendl (Austro-Bavarian for roast chicken)! Yet, roast chicken is the customary Friday night vehicle for garlic, the traditional aphrodisiac, to assist the husband in his marital duties.
Regardless of Freud’s objections, roast chicken certainly is an iconic comfort food. And when it’s seriously good, it never fails to make me lick my fingers and munch on those crackling bits of skin.
Reality is often different though: Dry breasts, undercooked legs and thighs and no real crispy and salty skin, maybe even soggy parts between the legs and breasts. (Don’t put too much Freudian reading into all this!) But, there’s good news: A simple solution exists with no compromise in taste – on the contrary!
How NOT to Roast a Chicken:
I applied Teutonic pedantry – whilst suffering from characteristic Austrian muddleheadedness – to establish the shortcomings of the following basic cooking techniques, as they relate to roasting a chicken:
- Trussing is not useful enough: Classic trussing2 plumps up the breast meat, thus thickens it, which will take longer to cook, but still, as experience shows, not long enough, from preventing the breast from reaching 150°F (66°C) before the legs reach 170°F (77°C). Even some innovative trussing3 approaches don’t really solve that problem either. Therefore, as famous examples, neither Judy Rodgers nor Mark Bittman truss their roast chicken, because the heat can more freely reach the critical parts between the thighs and the breasts.
- Flipping and Turning while Roasting is not necessary: The classic culinary method will counter the overcooking of the breast meat and the under cooked thighs by flipping from breast side down to up and turning from the left leg to the right one. But, as you will see, this is absolutely not necessary. Just get the thighs hotter with, possibly, some sort of head start. You’ll see how.
- Barding is not desirable: Draping the poultry with thin slices of bacon fat will make it taste like bacon and not like chicken. In addition, you won’t even get crispy brown skin.
- Basting is counterproductive: Basting will hasten the cooking process and therefore further dry the breast. Also, inevitably, whether you use pan juices or even butter, the basting will not only contain grease but also moisture, which is really the last thing we want on the skin.4
- Brushing with pure fat will do nothing to the cooking problem at hand: Though it will provide even browning! But, rubbing the bird with oil before sticking it in the oven, as we will do, will produce the same effect with less effort.5
- There is little to no benefit of the traditional Chinese scalding of poultry skin with boiling water: It seems like it should accomplish deluxe crispy skin. But, my side-by-side tests have shown otherwise it doesn’t make a difference as long as the rest of the whole roasting procedure is done correctly. Why? The scalding is only one of many steps in the making of a Peking duck.
- There’s no point in rubbing baking powder6 into the skin to raise the pH-level: This supposedly produces even better browning. I don’t bother, as my tests didn’t show an improvement, as long as the rest of my procedure is executed.
- There’s no need to separate skin from the breast, thighs and drum-sticks or to puncture the fat pockets on the breast and thighs to get really crispy skin. My experience showed no significant difference.
Some Classic Answers to the Conundrum
First, there are two illustrious ways of dealing with the problem:
- One is the well-known avoidance tactic, advocated by J. Kenji López-Alt:7 Butterfly the chicken, a.k.a. spatchcocking,8 the swear word. Even if the home cook bothers to undertake this major operation, to cut out the bird’s backbone,9 there’s no more whole bird left to bring to the table. There’s only a quartered chicken, loosely connected by skin. Okay, that’s an exaggeration.
Except for that, results are almost perfect. “Almost” because, here too, between the thigh and the breast the cooking is a lot slower. Hence the tendency to dry out the breast before the thick part of the thigh, turned towards the breast, is done.
- Another famous, albeit complicated procedure, is leaving the chicken whole:
These get exceedingly elaborate when compared to the straightforward procedure presented further on. Heston Blumenthal’s, or the Modernist Cuisine‘s Nathan Myhrvold’s, modus operandi10 includes pre-blanching, brining by immersion or with injections, air drying, cooking at low temperature and, finally, browning in a pan or via deep-frying.
Then, there is the simple and elegant way. After many roasted chickens over decades, let alone the large amount of birds put in the oven for this post, I can tell you for sure:
The Best Way to Roast Chicken:
Salting Early and a Blazing Hot Skillet.
That’s all! Tried and true.
- Salting Early, or dry-brining, up to 3 days in advance. Leave the chicken to air dry in a refrigerator. This simple but very effective French technique of pre-salting and dehydration was picked up by Judy Rodgers in France and described in her legendary Zuni Café Cookbook.11 Other chefs, like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Thomas Keller also encourage cooks to try salting earlier.12 It renders meats incomparably juicier and tastier.
In fact, salt draws out moisture in the beginning, which is later reabsorbed via osmosis. Salt also softens the protein and lets it absorb more water, so juices are much better retained inside the meat while roasting.
- The whole chicken, as is, no trussing, no splaying, no nothing, is placed breasts up in a blisteringly hot skillet. A cast iron skillet is a must here, because of its excellent heat retention properties. The chicken then goes into a very hot oven. It immediately gets cooking from the bottom. Hence, the thighs start to cook way before the breasts, which are further above. And as the thighs are not trussed, they are even closer to the smoking hot pan. In my experience, if the pan is real hot, there’s no need to splay the chicken13 open. That leaves us with a much nicer bird!
This ingenious minimalist technique for a simple roast chicken was discovered by Mark Bittman and published in the New York Times in 1999.14 If you have no cast iron skillet, it is time to get one. They are really cheap, too.
Let’s get started!
Get a High-Quality Bird for Maximum Taste
An excellent animal is the key to a good taste, as this is the main contributing factor. This way the roast chicken will need nothing but salt and pepper to get to its fullest chickendom. At most, you’ll want to complement with garlic, for that classic Friday night touch, and maybe some herbs for its cavity. Here in Vienna, it’ll usually be rosemary15.
Find the best air-dried organic chicken you can buy, one that led the happiest life possible. You’ll sense the difference, guaranteed! Nothing will help, if you use a thawed product here. (I do use frozen stuff myself, just not for roast chicken.)
An organic kosher chicken is a good choice. This poultry consistently scores high marks in blind test tastes. Kosher also means that it has already been thoroughly brined. You would therefore want to skip or greatly reduce the amount of salt used in the recipe.
Size Matters for an Evenly Roasted Chicken
Try to aim for 3 pounds (1,5 kg). That’s enough for four servings. At this size, as Judy Rodgers told us, the ratio of skin and bones to meat is ideal for the chicken to flourish at high heat, roast quickly and evenly, while staying succulent. Tried and true.
If you wish to serve more guests, you’ll have to get more chickens, not a bigger one. Big chicken will be leaner, which will be detrimental to their taste, especially when roasting.
So let’s roast away:
Recipe: Simple Whole Roasted Chicken (Viennese Brathendl)
Yields 4 servings
- 1 whole chicken, 3 pounds (1,5 kg), giblets removed, trimmed of leftover pin feathers and excess fat (which you want to save for schmaltz.)
- 1 tablespoon (17 g) kosher salt (Morton) or 2 1/4 tbsp iodine-free table salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Optional Viennese outfit:
- 3 sprigs rosemary, typical in Vienna
- Pinch Hungarian paprika for color.
- 1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise and any number of garlic cloves Gematria dictates16
- Prepare the chicken: 2 days in advance, rinse and pat the chicken dry thoroughly, inside and out.
- Salting early: Liberally sprinkle salt inside the chicken’s cavity putting emphasis on the breast side. Sprinkle the bird all over, putting more salt on top and on the thicker parts. If using a kosher chicken, use only a tiny amount of salt!
- Air drying: Set chicken uncovered on a rack above a plate. Let the chicken brine and dry in the refrigerator for 48 hours.
- Bringing the chicken to room temperature: At least 1 hour before roasting, get the chicken out of the fridge. This is an essential step for any protein! A cold protein will not cook evenly, as the outside will cook before the thick cold parts have a chance to be done. You can check with an instant-read thermometer (but be aware of cross-contamination).
- Preheating a cast iron skillet in a 500°F (250°C) oven or as high as your oven gets with convection on. Put a cast-iron skillet in the oven to get it smoking hot at the same time (about 45 minutes). Or put the skillet on a burner over high heat for 10 minutes, to get it even hotter.
- Olive oil, pepper and salt: Pat dry the chicken inside and out. To bring a nice Austro-Hungarian color to the roasted bird, sprinkle the top with a tiny bit of paprika.
- Rub the chicken with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle inside and outside with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Add a little bit of salt on top of the breasts and thighs. If using, put the head of garlic cut in half together with the dry sprigs of rosemary inside the chicken. (Make sure anything you put in the cavity is dry, because the less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.)
- Roast the chicken: I like to tuck the wings under the bird, before carefully placing the chicken breast-side up in the blisteringly hot cast-iron skillet. Put the chicken on the middle rack of the oven. If you see that the skin chars or there is smoke, reduce the heat by increments of 25°F (5°C). After 15 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 350°F (175°C). Continue to roast until the skin is golden brown. Don’t baste!
- Check for doneness: An instant-read thermometer inserted into the coolest part of the chicken, (the thick part of the thigh, between the breast and the leg,) should read a minimum 160-165°F (70-75°C). Don’t touch the bone with the tip of the thermometer, as this yields higher readings. As the thermometer moves across the chicken, watch for the lowest figure.
- Without a thermometer, which is the safest and easiest way to check for doneness, fetch a small knife to make a small incision way down to the bone. If there’s still red flesh left and the juices don’t run clear, put the chicken back into the oven.
- Let rest for 10 minutes: Lift the bird out of the pan and let the juices flow out of its cavity into the pan. Place the chicken on a warm (not hot) serving platter protected from drafts and cold air. The juices will redistribute in the meat. Don’t use foil or any other cover for the chicken, as you risk being left with soggy skin!
- Degrease the roasting juices: Collect the schmaltz. Tilt the pan, and pour off most of the clear grease, the schmaltz, that floats on top. Skim this liquid gold, with a spoon if necessary and reserve for later use. Mix a couple of tablespoons of water (or white wine, or chicken stock) into the drippings and juices left in the pan. Boil, stirring occasionally. Once the chicken has rested, add the juices that have collected under it to the rest of the juices from the roasting skillet.
- Serve and carve: Start with the legs before you go for the breasts … and let the children have their lucky break with the wishbone, which, incidentally, looks like an Esnachta, the cantillation mark that breaks the verse in two. To some, however, this wishbone contest is nothing but goyishkeit...
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- There’s more on that subject in Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten, by Katja Behling-Fischer (At Sigmund Freud’s Table: Lifestyle, Hospitality and Eating Habits of the Founder of Psychoanalysis. With Many Recipes)
- Classic Trussing of a Chicken as used by Thomas Keller
- Innovative Trussing of a Chicken by Chef Steps
- cf. The Food Lab: How (Not) to Roast a Chicken (Serious Eats)
- cf. The Food Lab: How (Not) to Roast a Chicken (Serious Eats)
- Salt and Baking Powder Dry-Rub Air-Dried
- cf. The Food Lab: How (Not) to Roast a Chicken (Serious Eats)
- Spatchcocking a.k.a. Butterfly Chicken
- Spatchcocking a.k.a. Butterfly Chicken: Cutting the Backbone out with kitchen shears
- cf. Heston’s Perfect Crispy Roast Chicken (BBC) or The Modernist Cuisine’s method revisited by Chef Steps Ultimate roast chicken.
- Judy Rodgers, Zuni Café Cookbook: A compendium of recipes & cooking lessons from San Francisco’s beloved restaurant (New York, London: Norton, 2002).
- cf. Emily Kaiser in “Chefs Who Salt Early If Not Often” (New York Times, February 25, 2004)
- What a horrible presentation! A splayed open roast chicken in a cast-iron skillet.
- cf. Mark Bittman in: “THE MINIMALIST; For Chicken, A Quick Trick For Roasting” (New York Times, September 22, 1999).
- Other than my knowledge in this matter, I can cite a notable source to back me up: The famous Viennese cookbook Die gute Küche by Ewald Plachuta and Christoph Wagner.
- In Jewish culture: Assigning a numerical value to words, names or phrases in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other. Cf. Wikipedia on Gematria.