A simple roasted chicken may be one of the greatest, most satisfying things a home cook can master, but I’m not sure there’s anything that can send me into such a dizzying tailspin of questions. To brine or not to brine? If yes to brine, then a dry or wet one? And if a wet brine, what ratio of salt to liquid, what type of liquid, and for how long to soak? Should I marinate instead? Or go super simple with salt and pepper? Should I roast high and fast or low and slow? Truss? Spatchcock? Sear first on the stovetop? Just order pizza?
At some point, these questions are not a productive way to get dinner on the table. As much as I adore roasted chicken, I realized a while back that I was roasting fewer birds because of my tendency to overthink every single detail. To get back to weekly roast chicken dinners, I needed a preparation so simple, foolproof, and flexible that I’d turn to it again and again without second-guessing anything.
I found that preparation in this buttermilk roast chicken. It relies on a super-simple brine: 1 cup buttermilk, 1 cup pickle juice, 1 teaspoon salt. It’s so easy to remember; I can have a chicken soaking in the brine and all of the mess cleaned up in the time it typically takes me to find my phone to look up a recipe. From there, I like to rub a little olive oil on the chicken, then give it a blast of high heat. I haven’t found a better, simpler way to get a beautifully bronzed, crackly-skinned, well-seasoned bird every time.
If submerging a whole bird in buttermilk and pickle juice seems a little odd, consider fried chicken. Many fried chicken recipes start with a buttermilk marinade for its tenderizing effect (or a quick buttermilk dunk before the chicken is dredged in flour or crumbs), and many others call for a pickle juice brine for even seasoning and insurance against dry meat. Some recipes call for combining buttermilk and pickle juice to get the best of both worlds: tender, juicy, well-seasoned meat. So I figured, why not give roast chicken the same treatment? Like with fried chicken, the pickle juice imparts an ever-so-subtle, tangy flavor to the surface of the roasted bird.
With this roasted chicken, I always take the opportunity to tuck as many potatoes around the bird as possible so they’ll soak up the delicious pan drippings. To make the potatoes even more delicious, I toss them in cornichon butter and parsley while the chicken is resting. The idea for smashing chopped cornichons and softened butter together comes from Paula Wolfert’s Pan Seared Pork Chops with Cornichon Butter, a recipe in Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life. The cornichons brighten up the rich potatoes and lend a nice crunch (like a warm, buttery potato salad).
I will never stop experimenting with roasted chicken—new flavor combinations, new techniques—but this preparation will be my go-to for all of the times in between when I want a delicious dinner that requires no decisions beyond what bottle of wine to serve.
- 1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup pickle juice, from any type of pickles (dill, bread and butter, spicy garlic, etc.)
- kosher salt, to taste
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds baby potatoes, halved, or small golden potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
- olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter, softened
- 4 cornichons, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
What's your go-to roast chicken method? Let us know in the comments!