Just looking at these two words makes my palms sweat. No dish has caused me more anxiety and sleepless nights than this "simple" classic. If you have been happy with your roast chicken, I suggest you stop reading right here. What I am about to write might seem neurotic and deeply disturbing to some of you. Roast chicken is supposed to be about family gatherings, about happy childhood memories, about feeling good that the bird you are eating is "free range" and raised without antibiotics. It's a simple, comforting dish. A roast chicken should not be a study in the bird's musculature. You shouldn't try to dissect the poor beast 15 different ways to achieve the perfect ratio of crispy skin to succulent meat. You shouldn't need to try 5 different salting and brining techniques. You should just roast the bird and enjoy it; but I can't.
Every time I roast a chicken, it lets me down in some way. The skin is soggy in parts, or it's crisp but stiff, or the breasts are too dry, or the legs are too underdone, or the seasoning overshadows the chicken flavor. Sure, one can always marinate it in yogurt, rub it with spices, or put a stick of butter under its skin. These tricks can even produce rather tasty results, but they'll never yield that perfect chicken I always dream about -- the beautiful dish that lets the chicken be itself, but the tastiest self it could possibly be.
At some point, it occurred to me that I couldn't remember when I had this quintessential roast chicken. Maybe I never actually tasted it in real life, but it haunted my dreams for many years and I could easily conjure it up while lying awake at 3am. This perfect bird should have a crisp, fragile skin -- one that crackles and yields easily when you bite into it. The breasts should be delicate and juicy. The legs should be fall-off-the-bone tender with deep savory intensity.
"But wait!" you say. "I have a perfect recipe for you. All you have to do is..." Before you write up your chicken remedy to my persistent problems, let me just tell you what I have tried.
- Salting at least a day in advance -- produces great flavor and is worth it. I got this tip from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
- Brining -- makes the meat artificially juicy (processed tasting in my opinion), ruins the skin (it browns too fast, and comes out stiff and chewy). Not worth it.
- Soaking in yogurt and seasoning -- great flavor (more natural tasting than brining), same skin problems as with brining.
- Rubbing the skin with some subset of garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, cumin, coriander, paprika -- garlic bits burn, herbs are good in moderation, spices seem to detract from the pure chicken flavor I am after.
- Roasting on a V-rack -- major pain to get it set up and clean up; the chicken sometimes sticks to the rack and ends up with torn skin; dripping fat results in smoke unless you put a lot of vegetables underneath (they usually burn and need to be discarded).
- Roasting on a flat rack -- similar problems to the V-rack, but easier to set up (at least it is in my house because I use the flat rack all the time, but my V-rack is packed away in my pantry).
- Roasting in a skillet -- easiest set up, least amount of dishes, best drippings, the skin on the back can get soggy.
- Placing the chicken onto its breast for part of the roasting time -- helps the breasts cook slower and come out moister, helps the legs brown, definitely worth it.
- Air-drying the chicken in the fridge before roasting -- if the chicken was salted a day or two in advance, I find it helpful to dry it thoroughly with paper towels and let it sit uncovered in the fridge for 3-4 hours before cooking, but if you let it sit too long, the skin gets stiff and chewy.
- Stuffing butter under the skin -- usually results in greasy drippings, but does help the breasts stay moister.
- Separating the skin from the flesh before roasting to help fat render -- it's easy and does seem to result in less chewy skin.
- Poking holes in the skin with a paring knife to help fat render -- doesn't seem to be necessary if the skin is separated from the flesh before roasting, it also creates week points in the skin that can easily tear when you try to flip the chicken.
- Butterflying -- helps the chicken cook faster and allows you to achieve moister breasts and more done legs (similar results as flipping the whole chicken onto it's breast while cooking).
- Leap-frogging (a different form of butterflying a chicken that I found in a recent issue of Gourmet) -- helps legs cook to a much higher temperature than breasts and promotes excellent browning of the skin on the legs.
- Basting -- you don't have to go nuts about it, but a few bastings with butter help the skin get beautifully brown.
- Trussing -- counter productive. Even cooking is the last thing a chicken needs since breasts taste best at a much lower temperature than legs.
- Oven temperatures from 250F to 475F -- the higher the temperature the tastier the skin, but the louder the fire alarms.
- Roasting different chickens -- I've tried Bell & Evans, Giannone, Misty Knoll, D'Artagnan. Bell & Evans tends to have the least flavorful breast and the most card-boardy legs. Haven't tried D'Argagnan in a long time, but I remember it being quite nice. Giannone and Misty Knoll are by far my favorites. I know that Bell & Evans, Giannone, and D'Argagnan are air-chilled. Not sure if Misty Knoll chickens are. I e-mailed them, but haven't heard back yet. In theory, air-chilling should result in more crispy skin.
Chicken was a mystery to me. All recipes suggest cooking it to the temperature at which every other animal tastes bad (160-170F). For years I assumed it was because of safety. Something terrible must happen if you eat chicken at 140F, right? Well, a bit of reading through on-line resources and consulting the Joy of Cooking seem to indicate that salmonela dies at temperatures as low as 131F if given an hour (140F if given 30 minutes, and 150F if given 10 minutes). Sure you might be taking a small risk by cooking it to 140F and only resting it for 10 minutes, but I am sure that driving through Harvard Square to buy the chicken at Savenor's is a much riskier undertaking. Besides, duck breasts are not safer than chicken, yet everyone orders them medium-rare in restaurants :)
If safety was not what was driving the "160F for breasts / 170F for legs" mantra, what was? After roasting 50+ chickens following 20+ recipes, my guess is that these temperatures are simply the least common denominator. Breasts might taste a bit dry at 160, but legs taste absolutely awful if they don't reach 170F. They have a lot of connective tissue that needs time to melt. Cook them to a lower temperature and you'll be eating a very juicy, but very chewy chicken. Since overcooking is a bigger crime in my book than undercooking, I was always afraid to go over 170 for legs. Yet at 170F, the flesh was never as tender and succulent as when I braise the legs until they fall off the bone. My problem with braised chicken recipes is the flabby skin; otherwise, I would have given up on roasting legs long ago. What finally occurred to me was that 170F doneness temperature for roast chicken legs is a compromise too. The legs don't really reach perfection untill they reach 200F (the temperature at which connective tissue is completely melted).
What does all this boil down to? A perfect whole roast chicken is a dish that defies the laws of physics: breasts that are cooked to 140F (150F after resting) and legs that are cooked to 195F (200F after resting). It's like cooking a pork tenderloin and a pork shoulder in one go and expecting good results. Yes, I know -- it's done when people roast a whole pig, which is way over-rated if you ask me. Somehow all these whole beast dishes always sound and look more impressive than they taste.
I knew the solution lied in reconfiguring the chicken. The question was how. I already had a little breast roast that I liked. I remove the breasts and wings in one piece so that the two breasts are still attached by the skin and trim the wing to the first joint. I got this idea from a package of duck breasts -- they are often sold attached together. I wonder why the chicken is never sold butchered this way -- it does wonders for the breast meat. You put the breasts together and truss them with a kitchen twine into a cilindrical roast. This gives you double the volume under the skin making the cooking time longer and allowing the skin to properly crisp up before the meat cooks through. It's a very compact and easy to rotate roast (rotating it in the oven is important to help it cook evenly). It's the first chicken dish I've ever done in a class. We cook it in our sauce class and then deglaze the skillet to make a porcini sauce. Even next to a porterhouse, and medium-rare tuna, this dish can hold its own. It seems to get people so excited that I started thinking about a chicken class, but first I needed to come up with something worthy to do with chicken legs.
This weekend, I finally struck gold. First of all, I found the best way to butcher the legs. I don't like separating them off the back. You always end up losing the "oyster" (the most delectable morsel of meat in a roast chicken that happens to be at the back). Inspired by the leaping frog method, I slit the skin between the legs and the breasts, pressed the legs open, and cut the back of the chicken cross-wise with kitchen shears to separate the bottom of the chicken from the top. This gave me two legs still attached by the back bone. I don't have a recipe for this dish yet because I haven't figured out exactly which of these steps made it so wonderful. For example, I used a Misty Knoll chicken from Savenor's. How necessary is that? I am sure Giannone would be equally good, but would Bell & Evans? I salted the chicken in advance, but I am curious if it would be just as good salted right before cooking. Does the type of skillet/roasting dish matter? This calls for many more experiments before I can come up with the simplest possible recipe without compromizing the results. But I took a ton of notes on what I did this time.
Chicken type: Misty Knoll from Vermont
Cut: two legs attached to the back (all in one piece)
Seasoning in advance: dried with paper towels, loosened the skin over the thighs, salted with Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (should measure salt next time) sprinkling it all over the skin and onto the flesh under the skin of the thighs. Kept in the fridge for 4 days in a large zip lock bag. I don't think 4 days were necessary. I just didn't get around to cooking it until 4 days later. According to Judy Rodgers at least 24 hours are required. Oh, how I'd like to set up an experiment of just salted, 24 hours, and 48 hours chicken side by side. It's a bummer that would be a logistical nightmare.
Drying: Dried with paper towels then placed in the fridge uncovered on a sheet lined with paper towels for 2 hours before cooking.
Seasoning right before cooking: rubbed with 1/2 garlic clove grated on a microplane (being careful not to leave any chunks of garlic on the skin), rubbed with 1 tsp softened butter, then sprinkled with fresh ground pepper
Roasting dish: used a 12 inch cuisinart saute pan with a huge flat bottom and straight sides. I wonder if it would brown better in a pyrex dish or a half sheet. The benefit of using a skillet was the ease of preheating it on the stove top before adding chicken (this ensured no sticking), but the chicken seemed to be browning slower than I expected and I had to crank up the heat a good bit.
Other flavorings: 1 red onion cut into wedges (about 1/2 inch wide), 4 smashed and peeled garlic cloves, 7-10 sprigs of thyme (should use leaves only next time), 1/4 of a lemon, cut into 4 wedges, sprinkle of salt over these veggies.
Oven temperature and roasting details: Preheated the oven to 450F with a rack on top third (assuming the chicken would brown better if it was closer to the top wall). I preheated the skillet on the stove top with 1.5 Tbsp olive oil. When the oil was just starting to smoke, I added the chicken skin side up and placed in the oven for 7 minutes. Then I added the onions, garlic, thyme, and lemon around the chicken and returned to the oven for another 5 minutes. I tried turning down the heat to 350F, but the chicken stopped making cooking noises, so I had to turn it back up to 450F. I also brought the oven rack and the skillet down into the center of the oven instead of the top third.
Basting: I basted with 1 Tbsp melted butter at 12 minutes and again at 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, I also placed whole garlic cloves that were around the chicken on top of the chicken. I removed them at 40 minutes back into the veggie mix after the garlic and the skin were starting to get nicely browned. At 40 minutes, I also basted the chicken with the juices that were accumulating in the skillet.
Cooking time: around 50 minutes
Doneness temp: 200F tested at the thigh
Resting: 10-15 minutes in the skillet
I almost forgot -- how did it taste? I don't think you can judge a book by its cover or the roast chicken by its picture. Let me try to describe it for you. The skin was perfectly crispy and delicate. The flesh was soft and incredibly savory -- the biggest punch of umami in every bite. The accompanying vegetables and aromatics provided a perfect background, but didn't steal the show. The onions gave it a hint of sweetness and lemons a hint of acidity to balance the saltiness of the skin. The garlic was a pleasant perfume, not an agressor. But the beautiful thing was that the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts and it really tasted like chicken! I know how rediculous this sounds. When people don't know how to describe an edible animal, they say, "it tastes like chicken." But this one tasted like the Platonic ideal of a chicken.