Roast chicken is one of those recipes that makes for a simple but elegant meal that can be prepared with a minimum of fuss. The trick is getting it just right. When it’s good, it’s a mouth-watering dinner that brings forth instinctive memories of Mom’s home-cooking. But when it’s wrong, it runs the range from an under-cooked, bloody mess to over-done, so dry it dehydrates you just thinking about it. To compensate for that narrow window of perfection, I’ve tried all sorts of methods. Slathering butter on the skin to crisp the skin quickly and keep the juices intact. Pan-searing the skin in advance, followed by a quick high-heat roast. Basting the chicken with a giant eyedropper. Buying a roasting rack and rotating the chicken on each side halfway through. Each method attempted to compensate for some failing of the previous, yet the end result was either completely hit-or-miss or involved far too much effort for what should be a straightforward meal.
I came across this recipe from Thomas Keller while watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations of all things. Who says you can’t learn anything watching television? The total amount of actual work involved using Keller’s recipe is roughly the sum total of five minutes. The trick I’ve found to making this very simple recipe successful is to do everything exactly as Thomas Keller says without question. Do one step differently and it doesn’t work. I have no idea why, but I’m not going to question a guy with not one, but two Michelin 3-stars under his belt.
The first step after cleaning the chicken, is to pat dry it thoroughly – it’s very important that the chicken is dry so as to minimize the production of steam while it roasts. Then let it sit out at room temperature for about an hour. According to the master, if you don’t let the “product” warm up to room temperature, then it won’t cook evenly. Based on personal experience, the master is right.
After the hour is up, set the oven to 450. While the oven preheats, its time to truss the bird. This is a very important step – trussing the chicken keeps it compact, so that all the parts will cook at the same rate in what is a relatively high-temperature cooking method. Trussing sounds scary if you haven’t done it before, but its one of those basic cooking skills that once you learn, its like riding a bicycle, with the exception that its even easier. Rather than explain how its done, just go watch this video of Keller in action. (Warning: the video and sound are not in sync. Just watch what he does more than what he says.) Keller also shows how to remove the wishbone so as to make carving the finished roast easier. This is the only step you can skip, but again, he’s right – removing the wishbone makes is possible to slide the whole breast off the bone with one easy slice.
Then season it with cracked pepper and kosher salt – don’t be shy with your seasoning. The sharp bite of the salt on the crisp skin is fantastic. Place it in an oven-proof skillet or roasting pan, and toss it in the oven. Roasting time varies by size. A smaller 3 1/2 pound chicken will take about 45 minutes, while the more standard 4 to 4 1/2 pound chickens will take about an hour. The skin will come out golden crisp and the meat will be basted in it own juices and fat. I usually let the roast rest for about 10 minutes prior to carving.
1. Clean chicken and pat dry thoroughly. Let rest for 1 hour to bring to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3. Remove wishbone (optional). Salt & pepper inside of chicken. Stuff optional aromatics (garlic, rosemary, thyme, etc.) in chicken.
4. Truss chicken. Season outside of chicken liberally with fresh pepper & kosher salt.
5. Place chicken in oven-proof skillet or a sheet pan & roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour.