My favorite roast chicken method will always be my first love, a merit badge in confident cooking. Its notoriously high oven temperature and crisp skin are the legacies of Barbara Kafka, the pioneering cooking expert who changed how we think about roasting and much more, and who sadly passed away last week at the age of 84.
But I roast a lot of chickens, and Kafka never was one to take “enough” for an answer. For the first time since I latched onto her technique six years ago, I recently added another, very different roast chicken recipe to my any-old-night rotation (pre-requisites for any-old-night status: no advance prep required, an absolute minimum amount of fuss).
This newcomer also happens to be a boon in warm weather, because you don’t preheat the oven at a ripping 500° F as in Kafka’s recipe. In fact, you don’t preheat the oven at all.
The recipe comes from Paris Picnic Club, a lovely new cookbook by Shaheen Peerbhai and Jennie Levitt, and goes like this: You start the chicken—plopped on a twiggy bed of herb sprigs, whole garlic cloves, and lemon zest strips—in a lidded pot, in a cold oven. (Then turn it on.) As the heat rises, the flesh cooks through gently, drinking in garlicky-herby steam and staying astonishingly moist.
Then you take off the lid for the last 15 minutes to brown the skin and reduce the lemony chicken juices down to a sticky sauce. I would make this recipe just to get this sauce. The recipe was originally written primarily for bone-in, skin-on breasts, but is especially wonderful for whole chickens and thighs (more sauce).
Incidentally, the recipe has nothing to do with another famous cold-oven chicken technique from chef Joël Robuchon, which requires flipping the bird rather incessantly, and which no one seems to want to actually start in a cold oven—at least not Patricia Wells, Diana Henry, or America’s Test Kitchen.
Instead, just as Peerbhai and Levitt did every week in planning their Friday Lunch picnic series in Paris, they wove together a number of influences from across the globe.
Peerbhai was unintentionally riffing on an Indian technique for biryani, in which marinated raw meat is layered with par-cooked rice in a covered dish, then baked starting in a cold oven. Levitt had grown up with a similar method for clay-pot chicken, picked up from her aunt in Sausalito, California. Though the herbs were dried rather than fresh, everything was chucked in the clay pot, covered, and roasted starting from cold.
The technique they spun together is one that they now use for every gently cooked chicken salad or sandwich, for picnics and beyond—and it’s already become one of the most popular recipes in their book. As Priyal Chitle, one of Peerbhai’s baking students wrote to her, “We couldn't tell the breast pieces apart from the thigh pieces because everything was so tender and juicy!"
I have to confess: It took me some time—and the vocal recommendations of both of my bosses (the Amanda one and the Merrill one)—to get comfortable with the whole cold-oven idea. I learned the hard way that ovens can vary dramatically in speed and heat retention—let’s just say that Ann Seranne’s Rib Roast of Beef from 1966 behaves much differently in modern, energy-efficient models, and the ghosts of some expensive medium-well roasts haunt me to this day.
So I’ve shied away from endorsing cold-oven pound cakes and crunchy cookies that finish baking with the oven shut off—really any recipes whose success hinges on ovens uniformly doing anything other than just existing at a temperature.
But as I started making this recipe more (and more and more), I relaxed. Unlike in baking—where leaveners and other chemical processes have legitimate needs—or recipes that require you to keep the oven shut without peeking, this chicken forgives. Most importantly, you get the chance to check in on it, to account for inevitable differences in birds, pots, and—yes—ovens. This will come in handy, because you will be making it a lot.
- 8 chicken thighs (or 1 whole chicken)
- Coarse sea salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled but kept whole
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 to 5 fresh sage leaves
- Peel and juice of 1 lemon (the yellow part of the peel only, using a vegetable peeler)
- Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Photos by James Ransom
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]—thank you to my bosses Amanda & Merrill this one!