A WHOLE ROASTED CHICKEN
According to some television commercials, or the market research that created them, women are afraid to roast a whole chicken. I can’t imagine why. Standing over a pot of boiling oil to fry your chicken could be scary on a number of fronts, but dropping a bird into a roasting pan for a period of unsupervised sizzle in the oven seems pretty tame. And the resulting nicely browned, juicy fowl is not only easy to prepare, but inexpensive, low in calories and versatile. That’s probably why some version of roasted chicken is found in almost every cuisine.
Roast a chicken on the weekend and any leftovers can be transformed into pastas, salads, soups or sandwiches all week long. Better still, if you want to be assured of plenty of leftovers, two chickens can be roasted as easily as one. Here are some tips on roasting a whole bird:
- Truss the bird. Trussing isn’t difficult and it keeps the wings from flapping and the legs demurely crossed, protecting the breast from drying out. It helps the bird cook evenly, keeps any stuffing in the cavity and improves presentation at table.
- Choose a baking pan that is only slightly larger than the bird. In a large pan, the roasting juices are more likely to spread out and evaporate or burn.
- Use a roasting rack. It allows air and heat to circulate below the bird, roasting it more evenly and quickly.
White meat cooks more quickly than dark and may dry out waiting for the dark meat to finish roasting. Your grandmother therefore roasted chicken breast side down (so the juices run into the breast and keep it moist) for part of the cooking period. This runs the risk that the breast skin will stick to the rack or pan, resulting in a sad, skinned bird you won’t want to bring to the table. (If this happens, carve it in the kitchen.) With a rack, even if the skin doesn’t stick, the breast may have indented stripes from the pressure of the rack ribs.
- For your purposes (putting something tasty on the table with a minimum of fuss) my advice is to put the bird in the oven breast side up and leave it that way.
Some say that the ultimate glory of chicken-roasting, crisp skin and juicy meat, is best achieved by dry, high temperature roasting. But high-heat roasting can smoke up your kitchen and, for recipes with a glaze or marinade, burn ingredients. In search of compromise, I like to:
- Pre-heat the oven to 450*, put the bird in and turn the oven down to 400* after about 30 minutes of roasting. This sears the chicken, helps it retain moisture, and starts crisping the skin. If you are using a glaze that burns easily, apply it later in the roasting, after the heat has been lowered. (See Claudia Roden’s recipe for Moroccan roasted chicken with cinnamon honey glaze).
Other cultures have invented various techniques intended to crisp the skin. After the bird is rinsed and excess fat is removed, but before it’s trussed, the French sometimes place it in a sink and pour 6 cups of boiling water over it to tighten the skin and help it retain moisture while roasting. The Chinese apply a marinade and then let the bird dry, uncovered, for several hours in a cool, breezy place (even in front of a fan), or overnight, covered, in the refrigerator (See Millie Chan’s recipe for Chinese roasted chicken with five-spice lacquer). In The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda Hesser reports on a visit to Manhattan’s Cafe Boulud where “raw birds (are) cleaned, trussed and hung on meat hooks in the walk-in refrigerator for a few days. The uncovered skin dries out and firms up. When it hits a hot pan, it crisps like a potato chip, yet the meat stays moist.”
- Calculate between 20 and 25 minutes (depending on the heat of your oven) total cooking time for each pound, or until a meat thermometer registers 170* in the thickest part of the breast (do not touch the bone) and 185* in the thigh meat. A stuffed chicken will take longer to roast.
- When the bird is done, let it rest and collect its juices for about ten minutes before carving. If you carve immediately the juices will run out onto the cutting board and your chicken will be less moist.
I’ve adapted the following recipes using these rules and, in case you’re roasting two birds, suggested recipes for feasting on the remains.