We all love juicy chicken pieces with crisp, bronzed skin, but we don’t always have the time to make it happen. Some days, thinking about searing the chicken on the stovetop and then finishing the cooking in the oven seems like just too much work. That’s what led me to come up with a method that essentially skips a step: My oven-roasted chicken does away with the stovetop browning. Chicken pieces emerge from the oven with deeply browned skin and succulent white and dark meat, accompanied by a pan full of vegetables and delicious sauce.
How exactly does all of this happen? You start by stirring up a simple sauce, which you brush on the chicken pieces after arranging them in a roasting pan with some vegetables. You begin roasting at a high temperature to brown the skin and then add more vegetables and liquid to the pan and lower the oven temperature to finish cooking. The result is crisp-skinned chicken that’s still moist inside. Once you transfer the chicken and vegetables to a platter, you skim the fat from the pan, and you’re left with a flavorful sauce.
The size of the pan makes a big difference in this dish. It should be rectangular and shallow, about 10x15x2 inches. This size is big enough to leave some space between the chicken pieces and around the outside of the pan, which allows the chicken parts to brown. If too crowded, the chicken would collect moisture and steam instead of crisping. Too large a pan, though, would lead to too much evaporation of liquid and leave you without enough sauce at the end. Pyrex makes an inexpensive rectangular glass baking dish that is the perfect size, but you could also use similarly sized pans that are often labeled lasagne pans.
Make sure to trim the excess fat from the chicken pieces and blot them dry with paper towels. Nicely trimmed skin browns and crisps better, plus you’ll have less fat to skim at the end. And don’t be tempted to skip blotting the chicken with paper towels to remove any moisture that’s accumulated in the packaging. Dry chicken, as with any meat, is critical to browning.
Coating the chicken pieces with a sugar-based sauce gives a boost to browning the skin. As we’ve all learned in baking, sugar delivers wonderfully caramelized taste and color. Each of these recipes starts with a liquid made of sweet and savory ingredients combined with spices and a small amount of oil or butter. Instead of putting a bit of fat in a skillet and sautéing the chicken pieces to crisp them, coating the skin with this liquid and popping it in a hot oven gives a similar result. It’s important to use just a small amount, because you want the moisture to evaporate and the skin to crisp.
Starting the chicken in a hot oven helps get a head-start on browning. I’ve found in writing two chicken cookbooks that chicken, like most meat, doesn’t do well at extremely high temperatures; 400°F is high enough to brown the skin but not so high that it toughens the meat. Instead of using a rack, I simply layer the chicken, skin side up, on a bed of longer-cooking vegetables and start the roasting process without additional moisture. The dry heat lets the sauce coating begin to evaporate and gets the color off to a good start. Don’t worry if the chicken is only slightly brown after 30 minutes. It will keep right on deepening in color through the final baking.
Dropping the oven temperature halfway through cooking helps ensure juicy chicken. This is the time to add vegetables or fruits that cook fairly quickly and a good place to add extra seasonings along with the broth, wine, or juices to boost flavor. Everything melds nicely in the last 30 minutes or so, and then you’re ready for the final step.
Making a sauce for the chicken and vegetables couldn’t be easier. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, move the chicken and any vegetables to a platter. Then tilt the pan, wait a few moments for the fat to rise, and spoon it off. Pass the sauce separately with crusty bread to sop it up, and sighs of satisfaction will follow shortly.