There’s lemony roast chicken and then there’s the lemoniest roast chicken. For this Big Little Recipe, we’ll use lemons not one, not two, not three, but four different ways. Here’s how: First, a lemon-zested dry brine, which not only makes the meat more tender and moist when you roast it, but more brightly flavorful, too. (This step takes a day or two in the fridge, so make sure you plan in advance. Try starting it on a sleepy Saturday morning, then reward yourself with a proper Sunday supper.) Second, a lemon-zested butter to rub all over the bird before it goes in the oven. Third, lemon halves: One of these goes right in the cavity, where it leisurely steams. The rest go in the skillet, where they char and caramelize. (As noted below, you can pull these before the chicken if they seem to be coloring too fast.) The fourth and final way is arguably the most fun: the “gravy.” In quotes because it’s halfway between a pan sauce and salad dressing—full of golden, schmaltzy richness, with the ease of shaking up a basic vinaigrette. Now, all of that said, do find organic lemons if you can, since we’re using every part. When it comes to serving, the world is your chicken. I like a pared-down, crunchy green salad, plus something starchy to soak up all the lemony sauce (say, a crusty baguette, boiled new potatoes, fluffy couscous, or cheesy polenta). Cold white wine is very good, too, but you knew that already. —Emma Laperruque
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Lemoniest Roast Chicken
1 hour 15 minutes
Lemony brine for chicken
4 to 5 teaspoons
kosher salt (corresponding to chicken weight, below)
Brine the chicken: Combine the salt and lemon in a small bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the salt is lemony yellow and super fragrant. Massage this lemon salt all over the chicken (sprinkle a bit inside the empty cavity, too). Stick on a wire rack set over a sheet pan (or in a large bowl or baking dish) and stick in the fridge, uncovered, for at least 1 day or up to 2. (You can truss the chicken if you want, or not.)
When you’re ready to roast the chicken, remove it from the fridge, and heat the oven to 425°F. Pat the chicken all over with towels until it’s totally dry.
Add the butter and lemon zest to a small bowl and mix together until combined. Use a pastry brush or your hands to rub the lemon butter all over the chicken, then evenly season with salt and black pepper (you can go pretty light on the salt since it’s already dry-brined).
Transfer the chicken to a baking dish of your choice (I like a large cast-iron skillet). Stick one lemon half in the chicken’s cavity, then place the remaining halves, cut side-down, in the pan around the chicken. Roast for 65 to 75 minutes, or until the juices run clear when you cut between the thigh and leg.
Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the chicken and charred lemons to a cutting board with a deep juice groove (you can discard the lemon half inside the chicken). While that rests, pour the pan juices into a measuring cup or gravy boat, making sure to get all those crispy, golden bits stuck to the bottom of the pan (they’re ultra-concentrated in flavor). Squeeze in a few drops of juice from one of the charred lemon halves on the cutting board, then add the 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and stir with a fork or tiny whisk. By now, some chickeny broth has probably accumulated on the cutting board—pour all of that in (for me, this was about ¼ cup). Stir again and give it a taste. More fresh lemon juice, more charred lemon juice, both? Adjust the fat, acid, salt, and pepper until it’s good enough to drink by the spoonful.
Carve the chicken and serve with the charred lemons alongside and lemony gravy for pouring and dunking.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.