Big Little Recipes

This Roast Chicken Just Jumped to the Top of Our To-Make List

January 21, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re turning lemons into lemonade chicken.


Once you find a roast chicken recipe you like, it's safe to say you never need another one. But I always want one. Because of course I already have a Genius standby. And a spatchcock quickie. And a feta-brined wonder and on and on. But there’s a lot to be said for the jolt of something new.

Which compels me to clarify that what we’re making here—a lemon roast chicken—is both new, and not new. This concept yields millions of search results on Google, like Food & Wine’s Herb & Lemon Roast Chicken or Ina Garten’s Lemon & Garlic Roast Chicken or Bon Appétit’s Roast Chicken With Lemon & Garlic. As their titles suggest, most of these ingredient lists stretch beyond chicken and lemons, calling in guest stars such as garlic, rosemary, thyme, onion, chicken stock, bacon, white wine, yada-yada.

Who needs these things, anyway? Like Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, I wanted to find out what would happen if I stuck with just chicken and lemons. Her minimalist method has you poke a couple lemons all over, stick these inside a bird, and ta-da. This surely yields a moist, crispy, lemony chicken.


But I want the lemoniest chicken. In all the land! The Big Little strategy here is simple—just use as many lemons in as many ways possible. Let’s break it down:

  1. Lemon salt. Aka salting the chicken way in advance. Working as a baker taught me that if you massage citrus zest into granulated sugar, the essential oils release, turning the mixture sunny and puckery. The same, it turns out, applies with salt. So as the salt transforms the meat to be more tender and moist, the lemon makes it more flavorful.
  2. Lemon butter. Many roast chicken recipes ask you to rub the bird with oil or butter before sticking it in the oven. This one is no different, only we’re flavoring the butter with—can you guess it?—more lemon zest. As the chicken cooks, this lemon butter will baste it encouragingly.
  3. Roasted lemons. One goes inside the cavity, where it will steam the chicken, like a beer can or aromatherapy diffuser. The rest go right in the skillet, where they will caramelize and char. Note: If they start to color too fast, you can pull them sooner than the bird because we’ll need them later.
  4. Lemon-schmaltz vinaigrette. This is my favorite part. Instead of creating a roux-based gravy (which asks for a slew of ingredients and steps we don’t want or need), we’re taking a cue from au jus (the French term for serving meat with its own juices) and vinaigrette (the most basic dressing around). When you hear vinaigrette, you probably think oil and vinegar. But this version is fresh (and charred!) lemon juice and schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat. You can make this with your eyes closed while the chicken rests on its carving board.

You could eat this with a green salad and call it a day. But it’s even better served with something starchy, like crusty bread, warm potatoes, or creamy polenta, to sop up all the lemony goodness.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Eric K. January 21, 2020
I want to put that lemon salt on anything and everything. So good!