Today: No trussing, no basting. It turns out the juiciest and speediest roast chicken is the simplest of all.
Choosing one genius roast chicken is a tall, if not impossible, order. You might as well ask a parent to pick a favorite child. They are all special and clever and equally deserving of love, which is why it's taken me this long to commit.
In the 10 months since this column launched, every time I felt the urge to roast a chicken, I knew I couldn't just freestyle, throwing in whatever wayward herb sprigs and scraps of onion I had laying around. Each time, I had to test out a new contender from the Roast Chicken Hall of Fame. You'll probably recognize most of them.
With Judy Rodgers, I pre-salted my bird 2 days ahead. Its flesh was seasoned through to its middle; its juices poured over crusty bread salad. Jamie Oliver had me truss, then slash a chicken's thighs, and they crisped up impressively. With Julia Child, I dutifully flipped and basted, flipped and basted. Simon Hopkinson and I smoothed a whole stick of butter over the top.
With Thomas Keller, I added almost nothing at all, on the premise that any ingredient, even butter, would introduce steam and wilt the skin. Indeed its skin was crackly as wrapping paper. But I had to grumble: this recipe (the #1 Google hit for roast chicken) simply told me and all the internet: "Roast it until it's done -- 50-60 minutes." No internal temperature, no advice to check the juices or wiggle the legs, nothing. Next.
Gradually, just as dating around gives way to comfortable commitment, this experimental time for the chickens and me started to feature a lot of repeat visits from one bird in particular.
The juiciest, speediest, most bewitchingly golden roast chicken also happened to be the one with the recipe I could remember without googling. Just 10 minutes a pound at 500°F. That's right, 500°F. The whole time.
Be sure to let it come down to room temperature and put it in the oven bum-first, so the slower-cooking legs are nearer the heat at the back of the oven. That's about it. You can stick a lemon, some garlic, or other odds and ends in there, but you don't have to.
There's no basting, and no trussing. You needn't remember to turn the heat up or down after so many minutes; nor flip the creature awkwardly halfway through. No snipping of spines or slashing of limbs; no stuffing butter deep into loose corners of skin.
The method is as no-nonsense and fearless as Barbara Kafka herself (her second most famous recipe is microwave risotto). Kafka famously developed her ultra-high heat technique in Roasting: A Simple Art -- not just for chicken and turkey, but everything from strip steak to mackerel to cucumbers. Cucumbers!
Today, it seems we want most everything singed and caramelized at 450-500°F, but in 1995 when Kafka wrote the book, people were suspicious. Fewer foods were roasted then, and when they were, the standard oven temperatures ran 100 degrees cooler.
Kafka changed that. For a while, her high-heat roast chicken was all the rage, but inevitably other techniques caught our attention -- spatchcocking! vertical roasting! wet brining! dry brining! -- and we moved on. I recommend we briefly return to 1995. Let's smile fondly at the budget deficit, look away from the all the flannel and ill-fitting jeans, and take back our roast chicken.
Some naysayers have complained about the wild heat, that there's too much spattering or smoke. To them, Kafka just calmly advises (temporarily) unplugging their smoke detectors and setting their ovens to self-clean before they go to bed. I've never had these issues, though I do enjoy the sounds and smells of a sputtering chicken roasting its little heart out. Don't let the timid out there keep you from tasting this bird -- of all the chickens I've loved, I've never found one better. But shh, don't tell the others.
Adapted from Roasting: A Simple Art(William Morrow, 1995)
5- to 6-pound chicken at room temperature, wing tips removed
1 lemon, halved
4 whole garlic cloves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup chicken stock, water, fruit juice, or wine for optional deglazing
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by Nicole Franzen