The Best Roast Chicken You'll Ever Make

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that while I feel quite confident in my cooking prowess, for years I avoided... chicken. Oh sure, I'd throw a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the oven once in a great while but you know what? Boneless, skinless chicken breasts often taste like sawdust. Affordable, virtuous, protein-filled sawdust. There is so much more out there, chicken eaters. So much more.

Mainly: Judy Rogers. I worship at the mighty church of Judy Rogers' Zuni Cafe (and it's bible). If you've been around the foodie blogosphere for a while, you've likely heard about Judy's infamous Zuni Roast Chicken recipe. In her book, the recipe is four pages long but a good chunk of that is dedicated to prep work and the accompanying bread salad. The whole dish looks effortless and tastes divine but for our purposes, we'll just focus on the chicken.

Some tips:

  • Plan ahead. If you're like me, you're not roasting a whole chicken on a daily basis anyway, so this won't be too hard. This chicken makes will make your Sunday night-- you just have to start it on Friday. More on that later.
  • Contrary to what you might think, a smaller chicken will work better. Judy recommends you shoot for a bird between 2.75-3.5lb instead of getting a big "roaster" which will be too lean and not be happy in the high heat we'll be using. At the meat counter, ask for a "whole fryer" and you'll be more likely to get a bird that will roast quickly, evenly and stay juicy. As always, I encourage you to shop responsibly for animal protein...
  • Pick a pan that's just a bit bigger than your bird. For me, that's a 10" cast iron skillet that cost me around $20 but you might have a frying pan, tin pie plate... whatever works for you as long as there is no plastic involved-- this baby's going into a high heat oven.
  • The salting thing is *not* crazy. It will *not* dry out your bird, contrary to popular belief. Essentially, you're brining or curing the meat. Giving the bird a couple of days in a salt rub helps the seasoning move all the way through the food (osmosis for the win!), helps to dissolve some of the proteins and other nasty tough stuff which is not good eats and makes the meat more uniformly moist and succulent (reverse osmosis for the win!).
  • When I say preheat the pan and dry the chicken well, I mean it. Take the time to let the pan preheat and be sure the chicken is dry to the touch before placing it in the pan. This will serve you well later on when it comes time to flip it. Hot pan + dry chicken = easy to flip bird without ripped skin.
  • If carving a chicken intimidates you, check out this video. It does take practice but really? It's going to be delicious even if you totally botch the cutting of the thing.

Have I convinced you yet? You want to try this chicken. You need to try this chicken. You can absolutely cook this chicken and amaze your friends and family.

2012: the year you learn to roast a whole bird.

Zuni Roast Chicken

One small chicken, 2.75-3.5 pounds small handful of herbs: thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage salt black pepper

Seasoning the chicken

(1-3 days before serving. The bigger the bird, the more time this will take.)

Check out your chicken. If there's a lump of fat inside of it, remove and discard it. Thoroughly dry the chicken with paper towels inside and out (this will help ensure it gets golden brown and delicious instead of steaming later). Place the chicken on a board with the cavity facing you. Slide a finger just under the skin but over the meat of each breast to make two little pockets. Very gently, do the same on each thigh, making a little pocket on the outside of the thickest part of each. Shove a sprig or two of the herb of your choice into each pocket, taking care not to rip the skin.

Wash your hands and then do the math: measure out 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt per pound of chicken. Place this salt in a small bowl near your board. Grind a good amount of black pepper into this small bowl (I used about a teaspoon, but I'm a pepper girl). Mix the salt and pepper together then season the chicken all over with the mix. Make sure to give the thick sections more salt than the skinny bits (wings, bony tips, etc.). Toss just a bit on the inside. When finished, twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders as if your bird were kickin' back and relaxing poolside. Cover the bird loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

Roasting the chicken: Preheat the oven to 475. Preheat a shallow flameproof roasting pan/dish barely larger than the bird (or use a 10" skillet with an all metal handle) over medium heat for a minute or two. Wipe the chicken really, really dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Well done, you.

Carefully, place the pan in the middle of the oven. Hang out and listen, it should sizzle and start to brown within 20 minutes or so (if not, raise the temperature bit by bit until it does).  If the chicken looks like it is charring or the fat starts to smoke, lower the oven temp by 25 degrees or so. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over and roast for another 10-20 minutes. Then flip the chicken over again, breast side down, just to crisp it up for 5-10 minutes. Total process should take between 45-60 minutes.  When ready, remove the chicken and let it rest for a few minutes so the meat can become more tender and uniformly delicious while it cools. Cut and enjoy!