Chicken is widely considered a workaday protein. Fair enough. It’s humble, takes flavors well, can cook quickly, and manages to appeal to kids and picky eaters alike. Basically it’s good stuff. But chicken can also be magical – how else to explain how a bowl of (lovingly made) chicken soup can cure what ails you? And it can be special; chicken can easily get gussied up and served to dinner guests. It can even be complicated: You can work for years at perfecting how to cut up a whole chicken, or on your roast chicken. Do it right and it morphs from unremarkable to remarkable. Here’s how.
HOW TO ROAST CHICKEN
You could just put a whole chicken in the oven on a standard rack – with or without a rub – with a meat thermometer and set a timer. And it would be ok, especially if the rub is good (we like lemon and garlic with roast chicken). But if you want something more than ok, and you’re looking for crispy skin, moist breasts, brining, spatchcocking, or just generally making something signature, it’s time to do a little research. And we suggest you start with this amusing article on roast chicken from TasteCooking.com by cookbook author JJ Goode. Here’s a little taste of what you will find in the piece: “Roast chicken is a humble-brag of a dish. People serve it like, ‘Who, me?’ when it’s actually up there with omelets as a litmus test of skill.”
From there, if you’re new to roasting chicken, or even if you’re not, we suggest trying Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk roast chicken. You can watch her make it on her Netflix show; it’s the recipe she says sums up the lessons of her wildly popular cookbook, Salt Fat Acid Heat. Buttermilk is both fat and acid and it tenderizes the meat, and it expands the margin of error if you accidentally overcook your chicken. Get your heat right and your bird will be moist inside and roasted outside
Or you can go classic, crack open a bottle or two of wine, and watch old videos of Julia Child making roast chicken. It’s something to see. And the resulting dish is pretty tasty, too. If you’re just looking for a recipe, here’s Food & Wine’s version of Julia’s favorite roast chicken. Keep in mind that practice makes perfect. So you might want to line up a series of friends to come over for experimental Sunday birds until you hit your stride.
HOW TO CUT UP A CHICKEN
If you’re making a roast chicken dish that calls for parts, you don’t have to buy parts. You can purchase a whole chicken and cut it up. This is not rocket science, truly. Just follow the bird’s natural seams. They will be your guide. There are several ways to do it, none are wrong. Here’s one.
*Place the chicken, breast side down, on a cutting board. Grab the leg and pull it away from the body. Slice through the skin between the breast and the leg/thigh.
*Keep pulling the leg until it pops out of the socket and is exposed. Cut next to the ball severing the leg/thigh from the body. Repeat on the other side.
*Lay the bird on its side and pull the wing. Slice through the joint between the wing and the breast to remove it. Repeat on the other side.
*To separate the breast from the back, slice between the rib cage and the shoulder joints and remove. You will now have the whole breast.
*Turn the breast over so the skin side faces down. Break the backbone by hand, then cut through using a knife or poultry shears. If you want to cut the breast in half, this is the time to do so.
*To separate the leg from the thigh pick it up and break the joint with your hands. You will hear the pop. Then slice cleanly through.
ROAST CHICKEN WITH FENNEL AND GREEN OLIVES
Once you’ve cut up a chicken, invite over anyone who loves a great meal, then hurry and make this roast chicken recipe, which first appeared in The New York Times in 1989 from a place called Peter Dent Food and Catering. The mother of one of our staffers has been making it ever since. Her recipe, torn from the newspaper, is now stained and yellowed with age, but it’s just as good as ever. Though the original recipe calls for a butterflied chicken (here’s how to do that), she always does it with whole chickens cut into parts, and she usually doubles the recipe so she can feed a crowd.
The gist is you make a paste with fennel seeds, parsley, garlic, and lemon, stuff this under the skin, then roast the chicken – basting frequently – with picholine or other green olives. The recipe below doesn’t call for it, but it’s great to add thick slices of fennel to the baking dish, too. The result is incredibly flavorful and needs nothing but a good starchy side like orzo or polenta to sop up the juices.
1 3 1/2-pound roasting chicken, washed and dried well 1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon crushed or coarsely ground fennel seeds 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley 1 1/4 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 lemon, quartered 1/3 cup picholine olives (or any firm, unpitted green olive), cracked with the flat of a chef’s knife Dried fennel branches (optional).
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Split the chicken in half, slicing only through the backbone and removing it, or ask your butcher to do this.
- In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest, garlic, fennel seeds and parsley with one teaspoon of salt, a quarter teaspoon of freshly ground pepper and two tablespoons olive oil.
- Rub three-quarters of the resulting paste evenly under the skin of the chicken, including the thighs, being careful not to tear the skin. Rub the remaining paste on the underside of the chicken. Squeeze the juice of the lemon quarters on the cut surfaces and save the lemon.
- Choose a baking dish that snugly accommodates the butterflied chicken. Oil the pan lightly and scatter half of the olives, the lemon quarters and the fennel branches (if used) about the pan. Place the chicken skin-side up in the dish with the wing tips tucked under. Brush lightly with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and scatter the remaining olives over the chicken.
- Place the chicken, uncovered, on the middle rack of the oven.
- Roast the chicken, basting every 15 minutes, until it is golden brown and the joints move freely. The chicken is done when the internal temperature reads 170 degrees, about one hour.
What’s your favorite roast chicken recipe?