Vicki James-If you google “Perfect Roast Chicken” on your computer, you will find dozens of recipes by wonderful chefs. But if you are trying to decide which recipe to make, it can get pretty confusing. I think you have to start by deciding what you would describe as a perfect roast chicken. For some cooks, the skin is not important. They don't care if it's crispy because they are going to remove it anyway. These food folk are after moist succulent meat only. These people are not my people.
Then there are the cooks who want a really crispy skin, but can’t seem to achieve it. But in addition to crispy skin, they also insist on juicy, flavorful meat. Crispy skin sometimes seems to come at the sacrifice of moist breast meat, which can become dry if you are cooking the chicken at a high heat. Is it even possible to have it all? Yes, I tell you, it is!
I spent a considerable amount of time reading articles and recipes for roast chicken. I am one of those people who insists on having it all – that paradox within a conundrum – perfect crispness on the outside and juiciness within. I feel like the Sir Galahad of chicken, because let me tell you, I've been on a quest! I now stand before you to tell you perfection is attainable even with a plain old chicken from the grocery store.
If you read a number of recipes, you start seeing the term “air chilled” chicken. So what the heck is an air chilled chicken? Can I find one? Can I afford one? Here’s the skinny: in the United States, freshly slaughtered chicken is typically submerged in a chlorinated water bath. Air chilled chickens are cooled with blasts of air. Both are successful methods for bacteria control, but with the water bath method, water is absorbed into the skin. Air chilling actually dries out the skin. When cooked, there’s not a lot of difference except that it's easier to achieve a crispy skin with an air chilled chicken. You can find air chilled chickens produced by Bell and Evans at Whole Foods for a premium price.
Think about it. Water is the enemy of crispness. The presence of moisture means that your chicken is steamed rather than roasted. It’s also why I'm always admonishing my readers to dry everything before they try to brown it in a skillet. You can't get a good sear without a hot skillet and dry ingredients . It's so important in roasting chicken that you should not even use butter on the skin of the chicken because butter is a dairy product and contains moisture.
“Hmmmm”, you are thinking (I can just hear those wheels a’turning), “ so how do I get my chicken dry enough? And if I get it dry enough, won't the meat dry out, too?” Never fear. I’m here to tell you all you need to know. First, you have to plan in advance. You can't purchase a water chilled chicken at the store at 5:00 o’clock and sit down to a savory meal of crispy roast chicken at 7:00. You will need to unwrap your chicken much earlier in the day, or even the day before. After you take it out of the plastic and remove the inner organs, you are going to have a roll of paper towels handy and you are going to dry that chicken. I mean really dry that sucker, inside and out. Now find a tray or a jelly roll pan and line it with more paper towels. Salt and pepper the chicken inside. Mix a tablespoon of baking powder and a tablespoon of salt with some freshly ground black pepper and pat it all over the chicken. Be sure to get in all of the nooks and crannies around the wings and legs. Salt draws water out of the skin and baking powder encourages the skin to blister while it roasts. Once it's thoroughly coated, put the chicken on the pan and put it, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Leave it for several hours. Some chefs recommend chilling overnight, but I had good luck after chilling it for four hours. Every hour or so, take it out and check for moisture. Change the paper towels on the bottom of the pan and carefully pat the bird where it looks damp.
If you are fortunate enough to have a convect roast option on your oven, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. If you are using a conventional oven, preheat to 425 degrees. Let your chicken sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes before you put it in the oven. You want to have as much air as possible circulating around your bird, so set it on a rack over a shallow pan, or use a V rack over a roasting pan. Generously spray the roasting pan and the rack with Pam. You don't want any of your lovely golden brown skin sticking to the rack and tearing when you try to remove it.
Some chefs, like the High Priest of American Gastronomy Thomas Keller, insist that the bird should be trussed. Trussing the chicken makes it more compact and less likely that the white meat will dry out. If you want to learn to truss a chicken, click here for detailed instructions. I did not truss my bird. If you are cooking in a convection oven, trussing is not necessary. I just left those drumsticks and wings a’floppin’. As a compromise, you can tie the bird’s legs together at the ankles. Cross them. They look cuter that way.
After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Cook for about another thirty minutes, then check the temperature of the chicken. You want it to reach 165 degrees internally. At this point, you may think your chicken is getting a little too brown. Not good. We want crispy skin, but not burnt skin. During my most recent attempt at chicken perfection, I turned the heat down to 325 degrees at that point. About 15 minutes later the remote thermometer started to beep. The chicken had been in the oven for exactly one hour. My chicken weighed roughly 3 pounds. A larger chicken will require a longer cooking time. Let your thermometer be your guide.
Remove the chicken from the oven and carefully transfer it to a cutting board or platter. I saw one chef on the Internet remove the chicken by inserting a heavy wooden spoon into the cavity, and tilting the chicken over the pan so that the juices could run out. She then lifted the chicken, still holding the spoon handle, to the serving platter. I used a set of big kitchen tongs, inserting one end into the cavity and lifting the chicken to the cutting board.
Should the chicken rest? That is another controversial issue. Some say yes and some say no. If you do decide to let the chicken rest, take it out of the oven at 160 degrees. If you want to make a pan sauce, the chicken will have to rest while you defat the juices, and deglaze the pan with a little wine and some herbs. Thomas Keller advised that the chicken should rest for 15 minutes. Some chefs say that longer the chicken rests, the more the crispness will be compromised. Keller recommends hacking into the chicken like a cave-man (I’m not kidding), slathering the chicken with butter and serving it with Dijon mustard on the side.
Because I was on a quest for crispness, I did not make a pan sauce or let the bird rest. We carved it right up and enjoyed it with an arugula salad dressed with shaved Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and a lemon vinaigrette. And yes, it was perfect. The skin was golden brown and super crispy and the meat within was juicy and tender. It was the roast chicken I had always dreamed of.
But what if you don't have a convection oven? Check out this post on Serious Eats. In order to take advantage of the natural heat patterns in an oven and get a crispy chicken with a moist breast and fully cooked dark meat, remove the backbone of the chicken and butterfly it so that the breasts are side by side in the center of the pan and the dark meat of each half of the bird is facing out. The author, Kenji Lopez-Alt, writes a great blog that explains the chemistry of cooking in a way that’s comprehensible and useful to the lay cook. Click here for his post which explains the rationale for this method far better than I can. I believe him, though, because he’s the one who turned me on to the idea of using a salt and baking powder rub on the skin, one of the most ingenious cooking ideas ever.
Caveat: if you are roasting your bird in a regular oven, you will will want to start your oven at 425 degrees and then turn it down to 350 degrees. Because convection ovens have fans that circulate the heat throughout the oven, you can use a slightly lower temperature when you convect roast.
Caveat number two: if you decide to let the bird rest while you make a pan sauce, do not tent the bird with foil. Otherwise, when the heat coming off the bird hits the foil, it may start to condense, creating dreaded moisture. Goodbye crispy skin.
Now wasn't that easy? Well, maybe not super easy because your chicken does need a little tending while it chills. Apart from that, though, it's hard to find a simpler,more perfect method for cooking chicken. So, Holy Chicken Grail in hand, this Sir Galahad bids you farewell, and hopes she has launched on your own chicken crusade.
Note: I’m sorry I can't show you the beautiful chicken I roasted. In his zeal to get the best angle with his phone camera, my husband smacked the screen against the v rack, causing it to shatter. Fortunately the screen was replaceable, but the picture did not survive the repair process. You'll just have to take my word for it – it was GORGEOUS.