This is what I make when I want a straight-up, no-fuss delicious roast chicken: I season the chicken (in advance if there’s time), set it on a few thick slices of onion or lemon (my choice is usually based on what I have on hand) in a skillet or gratin dish, and pop it in a hot oven and just wait for it to be done. The slices in the bottom of the pan eliminate the need for a roasting rack while keeping the skin from sticking to the bottom pan. They also add a bit of flavor to the drippings, the lemon adding some brightness and the onion a little savory sweetness. (You can even use both together, though you’ll have half a lemon and half an onion leftover.)
The best tasting, juiciest chicken starts at the market. I cannot emphasize enough that your roast chicken can only be as good as the bird itself. This means avoiding chicken from the big-name commodity producers whose intentions are to raise poultry as quickly as possible for the least amount of expense and instead looking for a chicken from a smaller producer who cares about flavor and quality. The next step is to salt the bird (Step 1 below) at least 8 hours (and up to 48 hours) before roasting. The salt not only adds flavor, but it also works wonders to make the chicken more tender.
Serves 3 to 4
One 3 1/2- to 4 1/2-pound chicken, preferably not a factory-farmed one
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 lemon or 1 medium onion, ends cut off, cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter, softened
1. Season the chicken, preferably at least 8 hours (and up to 48 hours) in advance. Over the sink, remove the giblets (they are usually tucked into the cavity), and discard or reserve for another use. Hold the chicken over the drain and let any juices run out. Pat dry inside and out with paper towels. With your fingers, pull away and discard any large deposits of fat from the neck or body cavity opening. Sprinkle the salt all over the surface of the chicken, including the back, thighs and drumsticks, and put a little into the cavity as well. Arrange the salted chicken on a wire rack (a cake cooling rack or roasting rack works well) set in a baking dish or some kind of tray to catch any drips. (The rack allows the air to circulate and promotes a crisper skin all over, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If space is tight or you don’t have a rack that fits, just set the chicken in a dish.) Refrigerate, ideally uncovered but a loose covering of plastic wrap is fine, for at least 8 and up to 48 hours.
2. Heat the oven. Center an oven rack and heat the oven to 400 degrees (375 degrees convection). Let the chicken stand at room temperature while the oven heats.
3. Roast the chicken. Arrange the lemon or onion slices in a single layer in the center of a large ovenproof skillet or a gratin dish (11- to 12-inch works well; you can also use a small, low-sided roasting pan). Place the chicken on top of the lemon or onion, and tuck the wing tips back so they are secure under the neck bone. Rub the olive oil or butter evenly over the breast and legs, and roast, with the legs facing the rear of the oven until the juices run clear with only a trace of pink when you prick the thigh, and a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh (without touching bone) registers 170 degrees, for a total of 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken and the strength of your oven. Lift the chicken with a meat fork or sturdy tongs inserted in the cavity, and carefully tilt to pour the juices from the cavity into the roasting pan.
4. Rest and carve. Transfer the chicken to a carving board (preferably one with a trough to catch the drippings) and let the chicken rest for 10 to 20 minutes before caring and serving