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Roast Chicken Made Better, Start to Finish

Make classic roast chicken even better by starting with seasonings under the skin and finishing with a delicious sauce from the pan juices.

by Beth Dooley, Lucia Watson

Issue 26

"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

Roast Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Herbs Recipe

Serves four.

  • by

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.

  • how to make roast chicken
    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.
  • how to make roast chicken
    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.
  • how to make roast chicken
    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.

  • Roast Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Herbs Recipe
    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.
  • Roast Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Herbs Recipe
    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.
  • Roast Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Herbs Recipe
    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):
Size : based on 3-lb. chicken; Calories (kcal): 540; Fat (g): fat g 36; Fat Calories (kcal): 330; Saturated Fat (g): sat fat g 13; Protein (g): protein g 45; Monounsaturated Fat (g): 15; Carbohydrates (g): carbs g 4; Polyunsaturated Fat (g): 6; Sodium (mg): sodium mg 410; Cholesterol (mg): cholesterol mg 155; Fiber (g): fiber g 1;

Don't truss, but do try a rack

Trussing seems time-consuming--and a little counter-productive. Trussing keeps the drumsticks and wings close to the body so that the skin on the interior part of the breast as well as that inside the drumsticks and wings doesn't brown well. And getting the delicate breast meat and the denser dark meat to cook at the same rate is already an issue in roasting, and trussing can make the dark meat take even longer to cook.

We do like to use a V-shaped rack when possible, which cradles the bird and holds it up higher off the pan than a flat rack (or no rack at all). This lets the hot air circulate under the bird so that it browns entirely -- no more flabby chicken skin on the back side. By lifting the chicken up, the juices hit the pan and evaporate into a rich, caramelized layer (the intensely flavorful base for your sauce), leaving the fat as a layer that can simply be poured off. We've found that when setting the chicken on a flat rack or directly in the roasting pan, the juices that collect around the chicken never have the chance to reduce. Though flavorful, they aren't caramelized so they're not as rich tasting, and they're mixed with the fat, which makes degreasing difficult.

Use an initial surge of heat for crispness without making a mess
how to make roast chicken
A double doneness test is best. Look for clear juices and also use a thermometer. Undercooked chicken doesn't taste good, nor is it safe, so cook your bird to 170°F.

A blasting heat crisps the skin and gives the chicken a great roasty flavor, but we recommend just an initial 15 to 20 minutes at 450°F, followed by a more moderate 375°F for the remaining cooking time. High heat throughout cooking works, but the fat spatters a lot, making a needless mess. If the heat is too low, however, the skin never really develops that lovely crispy brown and the meat tastes too bland. As for basting, larger birds are fattier and don't need to be basted; we only baste birds that are under three pounds.

Ovens vary and so do chickens, so cooking times in the recipes should be guidelines only. You also need to consider the amount of other ingredients in the pan; for example, our yogurt-marinated chicken with mushrooms takes a little longer because you've got two pounds of mushrooms sharing the pan with the chicken. The important thing is to learn the signs of a fully cooked chicken. We don't like overdone birds, but unlike red meat, the flavor and texture of chicken don't benefit from undercooking.

Our tests for doneness start with color. The skin should be dark golden, and the juices that come from the thigh when you prick it (and also from the cavity when you tilt the whole bird) should be clear, not rosy. The drumsticks usually wiggle easily in their sockets, though it's sometimes hard to get a good grip on a hot bird. The ultimate test you should use until you're really experienced is to stick a thermometer into the middle of the thigh meat, not too close to the bone nor too close to the skin; it should read 170°F.

Hurry up and wait. The next step in roasting may seem counterintuitive: you pull your golden-brown bird hot from the oven and you want to rush it to the table. Don't. The chicken will be much better if you let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. This lets the juices redistribute themselves. We actually prop up the chicken, backside up, to let the juices run into the breast meat. The 10-minute rest also gives you time to degrease and deglaze the pan and to finish your sauce.

Capture all the flavor by making a sauce from the drippings

This is always our final step in roasting a chicken, and one that we think too many cooks overlook—making a sauce from the pan juices. The crusty bits that cling to the roasting pan are like gold: concentrated nubbins of roast chicken flavor. We pour or spoon off all the fat (don't go crazy and try to get every drop: a little residual fat won't make your sauce too greasy, and chicken fat tastes good) and then add some liquid to the pan to melt the caramelized juices, forming a thin, shiny veil that covers the pan. We add some stock, reduce it, add a little more, and then reduce that to a silky sauce, thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. If you like, you can reduce just once, but we like the double reduction technique because it seems to create layers of more complex flavors.

Best-Ever Roast Chicken

Best-Ever Roast Chicken recipe

Serves four.

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This is the classic roast chicken that all cooks should have in their arsenal. One of the secrets to success is starting it out breast-side down, which keeps the breast meat juicy. Though the chicken is fabulous on its own, you can take it to the next level with a few more ingredients by making a simple pan sauce.

Want to learn more secrets to perfectly roasted chicken? Watch our Test Kitchen's step-by-step video to learn exactly how to achieve tender, juicy meat and crisp skin.

For the chicken:
  • 1 4-lb. roasting chicken, giblets removed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
For the pan sauce (optional):
  • 1/2  cup dry white wine
  •  1  Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
  •  1  Tbs. cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
  •   Freshly ground black pepper
Roast the chicken:

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F.

Put the chicken breast side up on a roasting rack in a medium (9x13-inch or similar) flameproof baking dish or roasting pan. Tuck the wing tips behind the neck and loosely tie the legs together with a piece of kitchen twine. Season the breast all over with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Turn the chicken over. Season the back all over with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Drizzle the oil evenly over the back of the chicken.

Roast the chicken breast side down for 30 minutes. Turn it over by inserting sturdy tongs into the cavity and flipping it. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 165° to 170°F, an additional 30 to 35 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, loosely tent it with foil, and let it rest for 15 minutes.

If you're making the pan sauce:

While the chicken rests, remove the roasting rack from the pan and let the pan sit for 10 minutes to slightly cool the pan juices. Tilt the pan so the juices run to one corner. Use a large soup spoon to skim off and discard as much of the clear fat as possible.

Position the pan over a large burner on high heat. Pour the wine into the pan. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan. Add 3/4 cup water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer. If the liquid does not cover the entire bottom of your pan, tilt the pan to move the liquid around. Continue scraping up all of the bits, using the back of the spoon to dissolve as much of the browned bits as you can, until the sauce reduces to about 1/3 cup and is a deep mahogany color, 8 to 10 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat, add the parsley, and swirl in the cold butter until it melts. Season to taste with pepper and transfer the sauce to a pitcher or bowl for serving.

To serve:

Snip the twine from the chicken’s legs, carve the chicken, and serve.

nutrition information (per serving):
Size : with skin; Calories (kcal): 560; Fat (g): fat g 35; Fat Calories (kcal): 310; Saturated Fat (g): sat fat g 9; Protein (g): protein g 56; Monounsaturated Fat (g): 15; Carbohydrates (g): carbs g 0; Polyunsaturated Fat (g): 7; Sodium (mg): sodium mg 450; Cholesterol (mg): cholesterol mg 180; Fiber (g): fiber g 0;

Brian Hagiwara


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