"Good roast chicken will never let you down," says my grandmother, and Lucia and I definitely agree with her. With its crisp, salty skin, moist breast meat, and dense, meaty dark meat, a whole roast chicken appeals to everyone from a sophisticated diner to a finicky kid. Which is why it makes the perfect Sunday dinner.
Getting any two good cooks to agree on how to actually roast the chicken is another story, however. Do you use high-temperature, fast roasting? Or should you take it low and slow? Truss it tight or leave it loose? Baste? Yes? No?
We tried several methods to really explore what worked best, and while we acknowledge that there are indeed many ways to make good roast chicken (click the link for dozens of Roasted Chicken recipes), we've developed a method that we think is simple, yet which gives us delicious results.
We start with an initial blast of heat, followed by roasting at a moderate temperature; we don't truss, and we don't baste (except for small birds). We do pay careful attention to the first and last steps of the process—we season the bird to make it even more flavorful, and we always like to go one step further than just plain roast chicken by transforming the flavorful pan juices into a simple but delicious sauce.
Web extra: Get our five quick tips for perfect roast chicken.
Use butter for browning, seasonings for a flavor boost
The simplicity of roast chicken is part of its appeal, so we don't like to clutter it up with lots of ingredients and fussy steps, but we do like to give the bird a nice flavor boost before roasting. Usually we'll just use butter and seasonings, but for a change we might marinate the whole bird.
For a basic approach, we rub the outside of the bird with softened unsalted butter, which encourages browning, and we work some butter and other seasonings under the skin of the breast to help keep it moist and to add some flavor notes to the mild meat. A generous dose of salt and pepper both outside and inside the bird's cavity is important so that the seasonings can be absorbed into the meat during roasting—more effective than trying to season the surface later.
We also usually put other flavor additions into the cavity—herbs, lemons, cloves of garlic—which help flavor the meat and especially the pan juices as they flow from the bird into the roasting pan.
Roast Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Herbs
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by Beth Dooley, Lucia Watson
If you don't have an open bottle of white wine to use for deglazing the pan, just use some of the lemon juice that gets squeezed over the chicken.
3- to 5-lb. roasting chicken
3 Tbs. unsalted butter, softened
Finely chopped zest of 1 lemon (reserve the lemon itself)
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (or a mix of parsley and basil)
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 whole lemon (in addition to the zested lemon, above)
2 heads garlic, cut in half crosswise
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
For the sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine
About 3-1/2 cups homemade or low-salt chicken stock
2 Tbs. heavy cream (optional)
Heat the oven to 450°F. Remove the packet of giblets from the cavity of the chicken (and save for use in a stock if you like -- but don't include the liver, which will make the stock bitter). Pull any loose fat from around the opening. Rinse the chicken inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Rub the outside of the chicken with about 1 Tbs. of the softened butter. Mix the remaining 2 Tbs. butter with the chopped lemon zest and herbs. Rub the butter on the inside of the cavity and under the breast skin (see photos). Sprinkle the inside and outside of the bird with the salt and pepper. Pierce the whole lemon with a sharp knife and put it in the cavity of the chicken. Brush the garlic halves liberally with the olive oil and reserve.
Slip your seasonings under the skin for full flavor and moist meat. Rub the chicken all over with softened butter, gently pushing the butter and other seasonings under the skin without tearing it.
Fill the cavity with flavor: Season the bird inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and stuff the cavity with herbs, lemon, mushrooms -- whatever will enhance the flavor of the meat and the sauce.
Lift the bird with a rack so the skin crisps all around. A V-shaped rack is best, set in a heavy roasting pan just larger than the rack, but a flat rack is better than nothing.
Put the chicken, breast side up, on a V-shaped rack (or a flat rack) and set the rack in a roasting pan just larger than the rack. Cut the zested lemon in half and squeeze both halves over the chicken. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 375°F, set the garlic halves in the pan near the chicken, and continue roasting for about 45 minutes more for a total of about 1 hour for a 3-lb. chicken. For larger birds, add another 10 minutes for each additional pound. The chicken is done when the leg wiggles freely in its joint and when the juices run clear from the thigh when you prick it and from the cavity when you tilt the bird. A thermometer inserted into the lower meaty part of the thigh should register 170°F. Set the chicken on a warm platter, propping up the hindquarters with an inverted saucer, and tent with foil to keep it warm while you make the sauce. Remove the rack from the pan.
Make the sauce from the pan drippings (see photos). Carve the chicken and serve the meat drizzled with some sauce and with the roasted garlic on the side.
Good drippings are the foundation for a good sauce. Tilt the pan and spoon off as much fat as possible. Set the pan over high heat to caramelize all the juices, but be careful not to let them burn.
Wine provides backbone and stock gives body. Deglaze with the wine, cognac, or sherry, scraping up all the drippings. Boil until the liquid is just a syrupy glaze, add about 1-1/2 cups of the stock, and boil it down to a sputtering, bubbling glaze.
A second reduction adds layers of complex flavor. Repeat with another 1-1/2 to 2 cups stock, boiling that down until it's reduced to about 2/3 cup sauce. Add any herbs or cream, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
nutrition information (per serving):
based on 3-lb. chicken;