Saturday, October 13, 2012

Xan's guide to roasting a chicken

Summary:  Here is a roast chicken for people who are having trouble achieving browning without simultaneously drying out the chicken.  Salt a chicken with 1 TBS kosher salt, place on a plate uncovered in the fridge for 1-2 days.  Stuff with a quartered lemon and a halved head of garlic.  Coat with 1 TBS melted butter, sprinkle with pepper and thyme, surround with vegetables, and roast at 425 F (or, Lin, as close as you can get in your oven) until breast is 150 and thigh is 170. Let rest 15 minutes, continuing to cook the vegetables.  Carve and serve.


I have lately been roasting a chicken at least once a week, refining my approach to the point where I'm pretty happy with the results.

My personal criteria are as follows: The chicken should be impressive yet easy.  It should be flavorful, not at all dry, and have browned, crispy skin.  The chicken should not be too much work to prepare or clean up, although I don't mind if it takes some foresight.  The approach should ideally scale up from a 2-3 lb bird to a 7 lb bird so I can use it for feeding 2 to 6 people.

And here is a chicken that satisfies all of those criteria:

If you would like to achieve this, I will dispense my secrets now.

Here is the same chicken moments before going in the oven:

This is a regular 6.5 lb unfancy supermarket roasting chicken, which I bought two days earlier for about $12.

Step 1: Salt.  Brining is a great way to keep a chicken moist and give it flavor.  But in my opinion, it's a pain in the neck.  You need to make the brine, find a container big enough to hold the brining chicken, and find a space in the fridge big enough to hold the brining container!  So instead, I will salt (or "dry brine") a chicken by sprinkling a tablespoon of kosher salt (or 1/2 TBS table salt) all over the chicken, and setting it on a plate in the fridge for 1-2 days.  The salt will initially draw out moisture, dissolve, and then migrate inside the chicken, drawn continually inward by the magic of osmotic pressure.  You'll know it worked because the meat will taste salty; of course, you can adjust the amount of salt to your liking.

It couldn't be easier, and furthermore this method produces superior results to wet brining.  Both dry and wet brining will solve the problem of dry chicken meat, but for crispy browned skin, we actually want the outside of the chicken to be dry.  As the dry brining chicken sits uncovered in the fridge, the surface of the chicken has a chance to dry out.

If you are roasting a chicken and you don't have time for the above, consider at least patting down your chicken with paper towels.  In fact, if you are cooking any meat and you're having trouble browning it, the problem can often be solved by drying it as much as possible with paper towels before cooking.

Step 2: Once the chicken is brined, I stick it in a roasting pan and coat it with 1 TBS melted butter.  I ate my way through many inferior chickens on the path to perfection, and a few weeks ago I did a not-particularly-well-controlled experiment and found that butter browned much better than olive oil or nothing:

The right (from our POV) breast had butter, the left breast and leg had olive oil, and the right leg had nothing.
Butter also tastes good.  And 1 TBS is not an unhealthy amount of butter on a 6 lb chicken.

From this point, you can do whatever you like. I like to sprinkle the buttered chicken with pepper and thyme.  I will stuff the cavity with a quartered lemon and a head of garlic cut in half (so that each clove is cut in half).  It surprises me, but somehow this actually does get garlic and lemon flavor into the chicken.  Once I used two large heads of garlic and it was almost overpowering.

Then scatter whatever vegetables around the chicken -- potatoes, carrots, onions, butternut squash -- with some salt and pepper, and roast the whole thing at 425 F.  Stir the veggies occasionally, and cook till the breast is about 150 and the thigh about 170.  It should take about 1.5 hours.  Depending on the cooking time and your veggies, you will probably need to put them back in for another 15 minutes, which is great since the chicken should rest for at least that long before being carved anyway.

The result will be a moist and flavorful and beautiful chicken!  How To Carve It!

The brining keeps the chicken moist whatever the size and cooking time.  And the veggies make this a one-pot meal, which covers easy clean up.  My only problem is the unfortunate tradeoff between number of vegetables and how well they brown.

mega-veg = poor browning

semi-veg=excellent browning
But truth be told, it is impossible for chickeny vegetables not to be delicious, so I'm happy.

If you are still having trouble with browning and your oven doesn't go up any farther, another thing you can do is sprinkle a little baking powder over the chicken.  This raises the pH and will help the skin get shatteringly crisp.

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