Simple, Perfect (Homegrown) Roast Chicken

September 3, 2010 § 8 Comments

Freshly-roasted chicken, fragrant and crisp and uncomplicated, is among the happiest food memories of my Soviet childhood. I remember it as a particularly special treat because my dad, who didn’t live with my mom and I, used to take me to a restaurant in Baku that specialized in rotisserie chickens each year for my birthday.

Now that I live on a farm in America, we raise and butcher chickens ourselves. But homegrown chickens are different from the storebotten ones, most notably through their size, which ranges from 7 to 9 lbs or so, and we love them that way. This also means that recipes that call for a 2 to 3-pound chicken have to be adjusted, specifically in terms of cooking time, since birds of that size take about two hours to cook fully. But I also noticed that it’s impossible to roast them at high heat (450 F, for instance) for very long without setting off a smoke alarm. In the process of modifying every standard chicken recipe I encountered, I discovered that roasting is all about the method and knowing what you are shooting for rather than actual temperatures and times (except for the internal temperature of the meat when it comes to gauging doneness).

When, a year ago, I set out to master roast chicken, I started with a basic, simple roast chicken recipe by Thomas Keller. Now, as much as I am removed from the culture of television and celebrity chefdom, I’ve got to tell you that chef Keller really knows his stuff – this recipe proved to be a real keeper because it was as tasty as it was easy, if not more so. In fact, it came into my life at the time when my baby was only a couple of months old and as I had just began making my way back into the kitchen, where, I might add, I didn’t have very much time to spend given my infant’s frequent need for attention.

In a nutshell, all you do is dry the chicken real good inside and out, sprinkle the cavity with salt and pepper, and then liberally salt the outside, after which you tie the legs together and stick it in the oven first on high, then lower, then lower yet. And that’s all – no stuffing, no herbs, no onions, no lemons, no nothin’! No basting, either! Get that? No basting at all. The idea is that the searing high seat in the beginning will rapidly crisp-up the skin and seal in the moisture, not unlike when roasting a whole hog. In the meantime, all the salt you have sprinkled on your bird flavors the meat on the inside (really, it does), and the resulting crisp, salty skin – not too salty by any means, is a treat in itself, while the flesh has a magenta tint to it almost as though the chicken has been smoked, with the breast and the dark meat both done to perfection. It’s an amazing recipe indeed.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

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Hello, lover!

The first step is to look inside the cavity. What have we there?

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If you look closer, you will see the kidneys, concealed partially by sinews, up against the back in the middle on both sides of the spine. The kidneys need to be removed to minimize the amount of bloody juices in the cavity as the chicken bakes. This is done by scraping the area pretty aggressively with your index finger before rinsing it out.

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See this? Those pools of reddish-looking water? That’s where those organs had been until I removed them.

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Now dry the chicken as well as you can with paper towels, sprinkle the cavity with salt and pepper, and then, as Mr. Keller has put it, “rain” the outside of the chicken with salt. I think this is a perfect analogy for about how much salt you will be using.

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As I am not in the habit of measuring spices, all I can offer you for the amount is the above comparison and this picture – let’s just say that I did it liberally but not too thickly. Just remember, if you don’t salt it enough, the meat will be bland for when it comes to roasting chicken, salt is your best friend. In fact, I once had an epiphany that meats (and other foods) are at their most delicious when you just about nearly over-salt them (but don’t). Seriously. Try it sometime.

When it comes to salt, I use the basic supermarket Morton table salt as I find the flavor of sea salts (as well as those muddy-looking organic sugars) a tad too strong for my liking.

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Next, we’re gonna tie this baby up.

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With this twine.

You don’t have to have a twine though if you have weeds around! When I first began making this recipe, I simply used sturdy stalks of quack grass to tie the legs together, which worked just fine. It wasn’t until later that I’ve upgraded to some proper butcher twine.

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By the way, I don’t bother with by-the-book trussing – all I do is tie the legs together, but do nothing with the wings – and there’s no need to, really – let the tips burn, that’s no big deal. Who eats the tips anyway?

After this, all you do is place it on a rack in a roasting pan, preheat your oven to 450 F, and stick your bird in.

Important note: If your oven bakes pretty hot and your chicken is really fat and the drippings from the chicken begin to burn and cause your fire alarm go-off, pour about 1/3 to 1/2″ of water on the bottom of the roasting pan to remedy this situation. This doesn’t always happen if you turn the temperature down from 450 to 375-350 after the first 20 minutes to half-hour (I am not sure if cubed bread or vegetables scattered underneath would help with this – I’ve never tried that with a chicken, and when I did it with the goose, I didn’t like it). I don’t usually make gravy to go with this particular meal, so watering down the drippings is not an issue for me.

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About this much water. Just enough to prevent it from burning. Works like a charm.

After about 20 to 30 minutes, I turn the temperature down to 375 F for a bit, then to 350, and then finish everything at 325 or so. The whole time I check on the chicken to make sure that the skin is not browning too fast, and, if does, I just turn the temp down. In other words, the color of the skin is the primary indicator of where the temperature should go next. I am not really giving any times here because the times will inevitably vary with the particular chicken you are dealing with every given time. More importantly, I want the thermometer to register the minimum of 175 F (yes, that’s right) before I call it done (I take the temperature in several places in the thigh and where the thigh meets the breast). I tolerate no pink spots in my chicken, and, granted that it’s not overdone and dry, I believe that a fully-cooked chicken is actually more moist and tender than chicken that is undercooked.

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Now isn’t this lovely?

To carve, I remove the twine, cut off the wings, the legs, and the thighs (at this point, the legs just pop out of the joints at the slightest pull without the need for a knife – a true sign of doneness), and serve those for dinner, while leaving the breast on the carcass to make (some incredible) chicken sandwiches the next day. Seriously, just had one today – mayo, chicken, and garden-fresh brandywine slices sprinkled with salt. However, if your family enjoys white meat, or when I have a lot of people to feed, I also cut the breast in four pieces using kitchen shears. (I then often use the carcass to make stock the next day for some yogurt-chicken soup.) And don’t forget the so-called oysters – two rich morsels of dark meat nestled in the back where the thighs and the back connect.

I like to serve this with some sort of oven or skillet fries (cooked separately, in my case – check out my recipe index for a some ideas), which makes for some fantastic meal, I tell ya.

But don’t take my word for it. Let baby Cyrus tell you that…

As well as demonstrate the proper etiquette with which this meal is to be enjoyed.

No-Baste Roast Chicken

Adapted from a recipe by Thomas Keller at Epicurious.com

  • 5-9 lb homegrown chicken
  • table salt
  • pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Locate the kidneys nestled towards the bottom up against the back on both sides of the spine and scrape them out with your index finger (this is done to minimize the accumulation of bloody juices in the cavity). Sprinkle the cavity with salt and pepper, then “rain” the outside of the chicken very generously with table table. Sprinkle the outside lightly with pepper.

Tie the legs together with kitchen twine, place the chicken on a V-rack in a roasting pan, and roast at 450 degrees for the first twenty minutes, turning the heat down to 375, then to 350, then to 325 as soon as the skin begins to brown too much at each temperature. You don’t need to baste it or touch it in any way other than controlling the temperature.

To assure that the drippings don’t smoke and to facilitate the clean-up, add about 1/2″ of water to the bottom of the pan (just so it doesn’t touch the chicken) for the entire duration of the roasting. Add more water as needed to keep it at the same level (dump the drippings and the water out in the end).

Cook until the instant-read thermometer inserted into several places in the thigh registers the minimum of 175 degrees (approximately two hours). Dump out the juices that have accumulated in the cavity, let the chicken rest, remove the twine, and carve. Serve with roast potatoes and a sprinkling of lemon.

§ 8 Responses to Simple, Perfect (Homegrown) Roast Chicken

  • Foodie says:

    Mmmmm!! Since you don’t make gravy with the drippin’s, what do you do with them? Looking at the beautiful wads of fat on either side of the cavity opening, I can’t imagine a less-than-delicious fate for them. (great interior photos)

    I like to fry already-cooked potatoes in chicken fat for really crisp home fries, but years ago I ate a Mexican cookie made with schmaltz that was terrific.

    • Sofya says:

      Oh man, you didn’t see the wads of fat I removed! (Put into a bag and gave to a friend). Generally, I dump the drippings from this particular dish. However, there’s a different roast chicken that I make (and hopefully will make for the site) where I use the drippings for gravy. It’s just that I don’t particularly enjoy things cooked in poultry or pig fat. My mom used to use schmalz (does this mean lard?) to fry potatoes, and that’s my least favorite food memory.

      I also wanted to add that this particular chicken is so flavorful, that it needs no other embellishments than a sprinkling of lemon juice – really! That’s why gravy would be pretty much over the top.

      By the way – every time I fry vegetables (peppers and onions) in the pan I used to brown the meat, I think of you and your mention of “grilled onions.” (I think those were onions).

      • Foodie says:

        You’re a good friend to someone to save fat for them! Sorry potatoes like that aren’t comfort food for you. Schmaltz is Yiddish-American for rendered chicken fat, never lard. It’s also slang for a story or song that’s way too sentimental. Gravy on chicken is very regional in the U.S.; I’ve lived in much of the States and the Midwest is the only place I’ve seen it.

        Is there any version of chicken salad in your repertoire? I bet it’s good….

      • Sofya says:

        Huh! Well, when my mom used the term schmaltz in Russian, it referred specifically to lard in that particular case.

        (Gave my friend a whole big bag of those, too – 40 chickens worth).

        Anyway, gravy is something I make both for pot roast and another kind of roast chicken (a fabulous, fabulous recipe from Jacob’s grandma) – both of which I serve with mashed potatoes – and a great gravy it is. Now that we killed all of those ridiculously fat chickens, I am going to make it and take pics. That chicken is cooked differently – cut into pieces, drench in flour, brown pieces (sprinkle with seasoned salt (important) and Montreal steak seasoning (important) – salt it HEAVILY – while it’s browning) on all sides, then put everything into a dutch oven or another pan with lid (usually the one used for browning), drop sage leaves or dried sage on top, cover, and roast at 350 for 2 hrs (this is a recipe for a homegrown chicken of 6-9 lb).

        Oh yes, I make chicken salad:

        diced chicken
        red onions
        celery
        walnuts (optional)
        chives/dill – any green

        dressing: yogurt, mayo, and mustard

        Served on bread with a slice of tomato. I learned that from my friend Jen – that chicken salad – this is not something I grew up with, only learned it in the US.

      • Foodie says:

        I’m a nursing mom, and you’re killing me–most of the time I feel like I could eat a whole chicken by myself! Both of those sound great, and chicken salad quite different than I’ve had. When this becomes a cookbook, you might have to have a chapter titled “Fun with Mayonnaise”…

      • Sofya says:

        I’m a nursing mom too! How old are you, btw? I too feel like I could eat a while chicken… so I eat a lot!! Famously so, actually. I think the better title for a chapter would be “Fun with Yogurt” since it’s a more relevant ingredient. And then the other one can be “Fun with Eggplants.” And the whole thing can be called “Fun with Butter”

  • Love this post! What fabulous pictures & detailed instructions. Makes me hungry…even though I had a late dinner a couple hours ago! 🙂

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