My mom was the master of the chicken dinner. And that’s a very good thing, considering we ate chicken at least six nights a week (or so it seemed). Rolled, baked, stuffed, broiled, sautéed, stewed—you name it, she made it. But it was the baked versions that were always my favorite. She coated the pieces (always on the bone for extra flavor) with melted butter, seasoned them well, and baked them until they were golden brown. The chicken was always moist and tasty, and the pan juices mingling with the butter were heavenly drizzled over rice or potatoes.
Baked chicken is still one of my favorite comfort foods, and today I prepare it for my family much like Mom did, though a bit less frequently. I follow her guidelines, along with a few of my own, and the chicken is always golden brown on the outside, and juicy inside.
Follow this blueprint for perfect baked chicken
I take the same three-step approach any time I bake chicken: I select the best chicken, toss it with a little butter and a generous amount of seasonings (to avoid the dreaded bland baked chicken), and bake it in a very hot oven to fully develop the flavors and crisp the skin.
Buy the best bird you can find. After all, the chicken is the star, and no seasoning can disguise an inferior chicken. I like to buy a free-range bird, which is fresh and ever so much tastier than its mass-produced relatives. I always look for a chicken that weighs between 3-1/2 and 4 lb. This size bird (a large fryer) yields pieces big enough to withstand a longer run at higher heat in the oven. This means the chicken can stay in the oven long enough for the skin to get crispy, yet the meat will stay moist.
I buy a whole bird and ask the butcher at the grocery store to remove the backbone and cut the chicken into quarters. This way I have more control over the quality of the chicken and the size of the pieces. My family likes the variety of dark and white meat. Of course, if the group I’m cooking for prefers a certain part of the bird over another, I substitute those parts for quarters. But I try to stick with equal-size, larger pieces for even cooking and the best results.
Choose your baking pan carefully. Whoever said that size wasn’t important didn’t know a thing about baking chicken. For that well-done skin and moist, juicy meat that everyone loves, always start with a shallow pan. If you use anything deeper that 2-1/4 inches, you’ll end up with stewed chicken and flabby skin. So don’t even think of using a deep roasting pan. Stay away from too-small gratin-style pans, too. Overcrowding the pan will end up steaming the chicken and all those flavorful extra aromatic ingredients you add.
This doesn’t mean you need a fancy or expensive pan, just a pan that’s the right size for the job. I have great success with a couple of sizes of Pyrex baking dish. When I’m cooking chicken with lots of extras, like the Honey-Balsamic Baked Chicken, I choose a larger pan (like a 10-1/2 x 15-1/2-inch Pyrex). This way the flavors mingle but still have enough elbow room to brown during baking. Medium-size pans (a 9×13-inch rectangle or oval) are fine for recipes that don’t have a lot of extras in the pan, like the Crunchy Parmesan Chicken. The chicken should fit comfortably in the pan with just enough room to squeeze in a spoon for basting. Keep in mind that you’ll want to use a pan that can also go on the stovetop (enameled cast iron or stainless steel) if you plan to make a sauce from pan drippings, as in the Lemon Tarragon Chicken.
Go for big flavors and lots of them. I am never timid when it comes to seasoning my baked chicken. Plain chicken is awfully bland, but that makes it the perfect foil for your favorite bold flavors. I begin a recipe for baked chicken by thinking about what flavors and seasonings complement and enhance the mildly earthy side of chicken, and then I consider how those flavors will taste after cooking for an hour at 425°F. For example, fresh herbs play an important role in Baked Chicken with Herbs, Garlic & Shallots. Ten sprigs of thyme and eight of rosemary may sound like a lot for four chicken pieces. But as the chicken bakes, the kitchen fills with the heady aroma of the herbs while their flavors mellow and permeate the chicken. In this case, I choose hardy, woody herbs that withstand the high heat of cooking; more delicate herbs like parsley and chives would lose all their flavor when exposed to high heat.
When I’m cooking vegetables alongside the chicken, I choose garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes, or other vegetables that deepen in flavor and character as they cook. I cut the veggies into decent-size pieces (about 1 inch) so that they’ll soften but not disappear. The vegetables, as well as the juices they give off as they cook, add another element of flavor when served with the chicken.
There are two other tricks for maximizing flavor in baked chicken. The first is to tuck a bit of compound butter (quick to make) under the skin. The butter adds flavor and helps keep the chicken meat moist. Second, don’t forget pan drippings. Usually I simply spoon pan drippings over the finished baked chicken for added flavor and moistness. But you can go one step further: remove the fat and deglaze the pan drippings with a liquid for a quick sauce.
For the best skin, heat the oven to 425°F. I think most folks truly underestimate the importance of baking chicken in a hot oven. If the oven isn’t hot enough—only in the 350° to 400°F range—the chicken will overcook before it can brown. At 425°F, the chicken is well browned yet still juicy after about an hour. Over the years, I’ve tried lots of variations on Mom’s Baked Chicken, and, well, sometimes it just pays to do what your mother tells you. So cook the chicken at 425°F.
I usually don’t baste chicken while it’s baking; I find the skin winds up crisper in the end without basting. One exception is a recipe like the Crunchy Parmesan Chicken, where basting actually helps to form that wonderfully crisp crust. Without basting, the flour-cheese coating would stay dry.
I do find that rotating the pan during cooking is often helpful. Every oven has hot spots. It’s a good idea, no matter what you’re baking, to know where these are. Actually, if you don’t know where they are, you’ll learn when you bake chicken. Certain spots will brown more quickly than others. So give the pan a turn or two during baking to ensure even browning and baking.