Tips & Techniques

This Genius, Crazy-Good Roast Chicken Has a Funny Little Secret

April 12, 2017

There are many of us—most famously Julia Child—who would call a simply roasted chicken a perfect food, one that’s hard to imagine improving upon. How many superlatives can we heap on one meal—a perfect roast chicken, made ... perfecter?

But, like most things in life, roast chickens don’t only exist in a linear hierarchy from good to best, and while sometimes you want the simply-seasoned perfect bird like Julia did—“Even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.”—sometimes instead you want an herb-crusted, crackly-skinned, salty-briny-juicy pop-in-the-mouth perfect bird. This week’s genius recipe is the latter. And it comes together in five-ish ingredients, in a surprisingly simple, brilliant way.

Melissa Clark, whose most recent cookbook (her 38th!) is Dinner: Changing the Game, also publishes smart, usually weeknight-friendly recipes in her column in The New York Times every week. When she launched this feta-brined roast chicken recipe there in January 2015, it stirred up even more than the usual praise and intrigue around the internet. In this thread on the Food52 Hotline, there was a small frenzy.

The recipe's most memorable quality is announced right in the name: Clark soaks the chicken in a feta-flavored brine. As in any wet brine, this seasons the meat and helps keep it juicy, but here it draws the rich, brightly feisty flavors of feta inward, too. This technique was inspired by the chicken served at Souvla* in San Francisco, where the kitchen makes use of the actual leftover brine drained from wholesale-sized tubs of feta. But since feta brine supplies in most households are less consistent, Clark simply blends some crumbled feta up into a standard salt and water brine. Ta-da! Feta-brined chicken.

“Although the idea for it came from feta brine, any brine would work,” Clark told me. “I have a recipe I've been meaning to try where you stuff a chicken with sauerkraut and let that brine work its way into the flesh. And I've been thinking about doing a variation using the brine from pickled jalapeños. Or any pickles would work!”

This is a brilliant move, and it will change your behavior around the brine dregs in your fridge—but it's not where the genius of this recipe ends. Clark also starts the chicken in a searing-hot skillet before sending it ovenward, for a browner, crispier underside, and a jump-start on the cooking time. And while I’m usually anti-trussing, thanks to the no-nonsense training of Barbara Kafka, here it works well to corral several lemon halves in the cavity (though if you don’t have twine, or don’t feel like trussing—or if, say, you tried to jimmy the legs together with toothpicks like I did one time and they forced themselves open partway through cooking anyway—your chicken will also be fine).

But most of all, it’s Clark’s alchemy of assertive Greek flavors that gets me: the lemon zest, piney dried oregano, and a ton (up to two tablespoons!) of craggy black pepper caked onto the bird before roasting, plus more lemon juice and crumbled feta that softens a bit as it hits the hot, chickeny pan juices. I could drink this elixir, but instead it gets spooned warm over a pile of greens to become the best salad dressing you could imagine. Clark recommends serving with a side of roasted potatoes. There, for Julia, you can keep it simple.

*Souvla's chicken appears to be served on sandwiches and salads with something called "Granch" dressing.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I've made Melissa's version a few times and we all loved it, but a few days ago I wanted to make it again & didn't have time to make a grocery store run for feta. So I substituted some of the whey I always have in the fridge left over from making greek yogurt...Divine! Not the same as Melissa's recipe, but absolutely wonderful. Had to fiddle with the seasonings a bit, mostly the salt, but it was a tremendous hit.”
— cookinalong

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to the many people who lauded this recipe, in particular the fans on this Food52 Hotline thread.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • thomas falconer
    thomas falconer
  • Rachel Fremmer
    Rachel Fremmer
  • cookinalong
  • Steven Williamson
    Steven Williamson
  • Twinsx2mom
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


thomas F. April 8, 2018
This recipe is a direct descendant of Judy Rogers’ astonishingly delicious roast chicken from Zuni in San Francisco. Everything from the brining to the start in a hot skillet comes from Judy. Just sayin.
Deborah A. October 26, 2021
In other words, Ms Clark's recipe is not HER original? Plagiarism?
[email protected] January 17, 2022
you know IF I YELLED PLAGIARISM for every recipe copied and copied again, I am afraid that we would all die of little to eat. Your comments, Deborah A, are laughable. Offensive to me. I have used many renditions of this recipe and am always delighted to see the twist other cooks make to this recipe. Please don't plagarize your Grandmother's and Mother's recipes. God forbid!
Rachel F. June 5, 2017
Any suggestions for those of us who keep kosher and therefore do not mix dairy with chicken?
Kristen M. October 7, 2019
Hi Rachel, apologies for the very late response to say—pickle brine! (Or olive brine, etc.)
cookinalong June 3, 2017
I've made Melissa's version a few times and we all loved it, but a few days ago I wanted to make it again & didn't have time to make a grocery store run for feta. So I substituted some of the whey I always have in the fridge left over from making greek yogurt...Divine! Not the same as Melissa's recipe, but absolutely wonderful. Had to fiddle with the seasonings a bit, mostly the salt, but it was a tremendous hit.
Steven W. April 16, 2017
I often feel bad that I do not have any love for feta---it's used so often in s many things that seem rather delicious. But I just can't handle the taste! It's not the strong flavor ( I love all the strong cheese and such) it's just ----shudder. Oh well, I will take the suggestions to brine in pickle juice or the old idea of buttermilk! The rest of this sounds terrific.
Lynnie April 17, 2017
Hmmm...not all feta is equal. I am in a middle eastern extended family and we eat a lot of feta. There are many varieties heralding from fifferent countries (Greek, Bulgarian, Israeli, French and more...) and types of milk (cow, goat, sheep). They vary greatly in how salty and how sour/strong they are. French feta is awesome: goat milk, low salt, smooth texture, creamy flavor. Valbraiso is the llading French brand and the best value for it is at Costco. Maybe this or other varieties might be appealing...
Steven W. April 17, 2017
Thank you very much. I am a grown up man and I suppose I should let go of my impression! I will take your advice about embracing other types---it never really occurred to ne that there were that many different kinds, but of course there are---there more than cheddar, right? I will begin with French, if I can find it (I am quite rural.)
tastysweet June 23, 2017
I have been searching for French Feta for so long I have given up. I have never seen it at Costco here in SW Florida. Naples/Fort Myers has two Costcos to boot. Any suggestions as to other places to locate?
jane February 13, 2019
Bill’s Imported Foods in Mpls carries all the different Fetas. They are on Lake Street. Great place for Greek and other Mediterranean foods.
Twinsx2mom April 16, 2017
Any non-dairy sggestions? Thanks
Rhonda35 April 16, 2017
Use a regular salt and herbs brine - you can do a search for a brine that meets your needs. I use leftover pickle and olive brine for my oven-fried, as well as roasted, chicken. Works great and tastes delicious!
Susanna April 16, 2017
Melissa's idea of brining in sauerkraut has led me to wonder about trying a kimchi brine. I love the tang *and* the heat.
Rhonda35 April 16, 2017
Great idea!!
Lynnie April 17, 2017
Love it! Sounds like it could work!
Susan W. April 16, 2017
I've been using a feta brine since the first article came out. I have a fabulous grocery store that gives me feta brine for free.

I heard that Chick Fil-A brines their chicken in pickle brine. I've never been to one, but I was intrigued. It's fabulous. I brine tenders in pickle brine, coat them in almond meal and pan fry them for my granddaughter. She eats them like there's no tomorrow.
Lynnie April 17, 2017 cool! Both the feta brine experience AND the pickle brine.
tastysweet June 23, 2017
I found a recipe for pickle brining chicken wings. Pretty good.
Bruce69 October 6, 2019
How or where can I find this recipe? I’m new to what food52 so please excuse my lack of knowledge. I tried to do it online but got nothing. 😢
[email protected]
Kristen M. October 7, 2019
Hi Bruce, if you're looking for the recipe this article talks about, it's linked at the bottom of the article (look for the "View Recipe" button) and I'll paste the link here, too!
AntoniaJames April 12, 2017
Frankly, I think it's the dairy in the brine that creates the magic here, though I have not tried this recipe. I'd be interested in seeing a comparison of soaking in a feta-enhanced brine vs. brining in a non-dairy solution, like pickle juice. (Food52 Editors, are you listening? I'm not sure anyone else has ever addressed this.)
Just an idea . . . . ;o)
littleBeachKitchen April 16, 2017 usual, spot on. I'm also thinking casein working here vs.the vinegar/salt combo. LBK
Rhonda35 April 16, 2017
I haven't tried this recipe yet, so I can't make a comparison. However, I've been using leftover pickle and olive brine for my roasted/oven-fried chicken for years. I keep a jar in the fridge and add to it whenever we've used up the pickles, etc. from other jars. In this vinegar-and-salt-loving house, it doesn't take long to have enough brine for a bird! The flavor is fabulous!
Lynnie April 17, 2017
Sounds right...not unlike buttermilk soak for fried chicken or yogurt-based marinades for tandoori... the lactic acid thing works wonders on proteins (same reason epic beauties likeMrie Antoinette legendarily took milk softening.)