Last spring I set out to write a recipe for a basic roast chicken. Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. This rather unremarkable exercise of explaining how to roast a chicken sent me into a confusing 5-month tailspin that I am only just emerging from.
At the start, I blithely set off using the system I always use for developing recipes: I cook the dish in question by instinct a few times over the course of a few days and make notes from my kitchen experiences. Then I head to my office to cross-reference a handful of reliable texts for context before typing up my final draft. Unfortunately, my system failed (or rather I failed) when it came to roast chicken. The kitchen part went well enough. I’ve roasted a lot of chickens over the years, and felt confident with my technique. It was when I turned to my library to consult what others had written that I fell headlong into the void. It’s not just that there are more pages devoted to roast chicken than to any other dish (there are), but I discovered an attitude around this simple dish that led me to question everything I thought I knew to the point where I became ultimately unsure of my own answers.
In hindsight, I realize that I had underestimated the reality that roast chicken has become an iconic dish fraught with more symbolism and cultural significance than any ordinary meal can bear. As I consulted various cookbooks, back issues of my favorite magazines, and yes, even a few web sources, I discovered countless recipes for the perfect roast chicken that made me doubt whether my simple approach was good enough. Up until this current morass, I had followed a pretty basic technique—I seasoned the chicken (ideally a day ahead) and put it into a moderately hot oven to roast—and I’d been quite happy with the results: juicy flavorful meat, glistening golden skin. But maybe I was missing something. Maybe my standards were slipping. Was it possible to improve on this reliable and satisfying dinner? Surely if my recipe was to stand up to all the other recipes out there, I have to provide more instruction than “take a chicken and put it in the oven”, so I embarked on an extensive experiment to attempt every chicken roasting technique I’d ever read or heard about.
I pre-salted and I brined, I stuffed seasonings under the skin and filled cavities with lemons and herbs, I propped the birds up on all kinds of roasting racks, I trussed and I rubbed them with butter, I blasted chickens at super-high heat, I roasted gently at moderate heat, I used convection and non-convection, I turned them side to side and up and down as they roasted, I basted and I glazed, and in the end, I can honestly say that with very few exceptions, each method turned out a tasty roast chicken.
Some were downright excellent and some were less so, but the truth is that there is no one proper way to roast a chicken. I don’t subscribe to any gospel of the ultimate or best-ever roast chicken. There are merely different ways, each with advantages and drawbacks, and this versatility only increases my appreciation for this marvelous dish.
It reminds me of one chef-friend I know who offered this on the subject “I don’t think I’ve ever roasted a chicken the same way twice”. I can’t say that I’m quite as inventive as my chef-friend, and I still prefer my reliable method simply because, to me, a simple dish needs to be just that. All the machinations of so many of the so-called “perfect” formulas were more trouble than they were worth. To me, a good roast chicken remains one of the finest meals I know how to prepare, but perfect, I don’t know. I reserve that adjective for the company, the mood and the experience as a whole.
Here’s my recipe for Basic Roast Chicken.