Years ago, a colleague hired me to test recipes for his book. I distinctly remember being utterly stumped when I came to the roast chicken recipe: I just couldn’t get it right. If I roasted the chicken breast to juicy perfection, the legs and thighs were still pink. If I nailed the legs and thighs, the breast was consistently parched. I roasted chicken after chicken, testing different cooking times and temperatures, but never perfected the technique.
It wasn’t until later when I set out to perfect roast turkey that I finally got it, and I learned two things: One, unless you rotate the bird during roasting, the breast will always overcook before the legs and thighs get done. And two, salt is key to producing a fully seasoned bird.
Chicken presents an additional problem. Unlike a turkey, which spends enough time in the oven to turn mahogany brown, these smaller birds—no matter what the oven temperature—never brown as well or as evenly as I’d like. With this knowledge, I developed a first-rate roast chicken.
For extra-juicy breast meat, roast the chicken breast down first. This initial roasting, for 30 minutes or so, means that the breast meat won’t dry out. To cradle the bird properly, you’ll need a V-rack.
To get crisp, browned skin, salt the chicken and then refrigerate it. Many poultry recipes out there (including one of mine) recommend brining—soaking poultry in salt water before roasting. The chicken absorbs the salt water so that the meat tastes seasoned throughout. But I’ve recently discovered that generously sprinkling the chicken with kosher salt and refrigerating it is simpler and just about as effective in terms of flavor. Salt on the surface won’t necessarily set into the muscle tissue, but you’ll still get flavor benefits—and crisp skin. The salted chicken can be roasted in as soon as four hours, but it can also sit in the refrigerator for up to two days. Leave the seasoned bird uncovered in the fridge. According to Dr. Alan Sams, head of the poultry department at Texas A&M University, the combination of salting the chicken and refrigerating it uncovered helps the skin dry out and thus crisp during roasting.
Coax browning along with a tiny sprinkling of sugar. Since a whole chicken roasts in less than an hour, there isn’t enough time for it to develop gorgeous mahogany-brown skin. To encourage browning, I sprinkle the chicken all over with a little sugar before putting it in the oven. (The sugar flavor stays very much in the background but it may cause some dark spots on your chicken’s skin. Don’t worry—they’re not burned.)
Add water during roasting to keep the pan drippings from burning. The water helps those rich drippings stay tasty for a flavorful sauce. By the time the chicken is done, the water will have boiled down, and the drippings will be ready for a delicious, easy pan sauce. If the pan starts smoking before it’s time to turn the chicken, add the water sooner than it says to in the recipe. If the pan dries out and the drippings start to burn before the chicken is done, add a little more water to the pan.
A heavy-duty metal roasting pan will net you the best results when roasting chicken—and it’s a handy piece of equipment even for the occasional cook. Roasting pans are also great for gratins, roasting vegetables, and for custards and cheesecakes that need to be baked in a water bath. One good option is a 13-1/2×9-1/2-inch roasting pan from Sur La Table. Another is Chicago Metallic’s 9×13-inch roasting pan; it’s available at Cooking.com.
To cradle the bird breast side down, you’ll need a V-rack, which sells for around $10 or less and is sometimes sold with a roasting pan as a set. Try Farberware’s Classic Series roasting rack, available in supermarkets.