One Step to a Better Roast Chicken

November  4, 2015

We've paired up with McCormick Gourmet to show how a freshly-stocked spice cabinet makes on-the-fly cooking and holiday meal planning easier (and more flavorful). Today: A legendary roast chicken method, and five ways to riff off of it.

As someone interested in the history of things—art, cities, household objects, wine—it’s not surprising that one of the most rewarding things I’ve found about working in food is learning about the field’s legends, the people who have influenced a way of cooking, developed a new style, created a signature recipe. Their cuisines span the globe and they differ in many ways, but what they do have in common is making the simplest techniques seem profound. 

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Such is the case with the late Judy Rodgers and Zuni Café, the beloved San Francisco restaurant she cooked at the helm of for over 20 years. Her dry-brined roast chicken is just about as famous as she, with it’s crisp, somehow-not-fried skin and tender meat.

For a roast chicken to be à la Zuni, there must be three things at play: a smallish bird, high heat, and a good salting 24 hours in advance of cooking. With salt, a few sprigs of herbs, and nothing more, you will eat well; your roast chicken will stand tall, proud in its own crackly skin.

But, if you'd like some variation (you'll want to make this over and over again), you can also dry-brine with different spices, tailored to where your mind is wandering. All you have to do is mix the spices with the salt that you're brining your chicken with. Try Cajun spices, as we've done with this version, or one of these other 4 mixes, the next time you roast a bird:

For when you want something that transports you to Mexico (and maybe the next day, too, during a #notsaddesklunch): 

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander 
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika 
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Zest of one lime

If you want your guests to feel like they just arrived at a Moroccan market: 

  • 1 tablespoon whole dried coriander
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon

For a meal that brings to mind southeast Asia: 

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced lemongrass
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Zest of one lime

If you’d like to feel like you're walking through a spice market in Marrakesh:

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice 
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Cajun Dry-Brined Roast Chicken Inspired by Zuni Café

Adapted slightly from The Zuni Café Cookbook

Serves 2 to 4

For the Cajun spice mix:

1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne

For the dry-brined roast chicken: 

One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
Cajun spice mix

See the full recipe (and print and save it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

We've paired up with McCormick Gourmet to share everyday dishes (and snacks) that will look just as good on your holiday table. See all of their herbs and spices here

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The Dynamite Chicken cookbook is here! Get ready for 60 brand-new ways to love your favorite bird. Inside this clever collection by Food52 and chef Tyler Kord, you'll find everything from lightning-quick weeknight dinners to the coziest of comfort foods.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gregory Stroud
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  • 702551
I love oysters and unfussy sandwiches.


Gregory S. November 6, 2015
seems like FOOD52 has devolved into spam.
miamineymo November 5, 2015
This seems, sounds, and smells like an ad...not what I expected from my 52 foodster.
702551 November 4, 2015
It should be noted that Judy Rodgers herself back off on the salt quantities that originally appeared in the cookbook. The cookbook recipe recommends 3/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of chicken, so today's home cook should consider using less, maybe 1/2 teaspoon per pound.

The size of the bird is indeed very important and it's almost impossible to get a three-pound bird at a grocery store or butcher. I've found the most success in obtaining smaller birds at my local farmers market.

Also, at Zuni Cafe, the roast chickens are cooked in a wood-fired brick oven. If you use a regular electric oven, it is very difficult to get a similar result. The wood-fired oven provides a convection current which is key. A home cook should consider roasting the chicken on a covered grill (my propane one works fine).