It occurred to me recently that there are people on this earth who don't know how to roast a chicken.
I find that remarkable because of all the many different things that I've cooked over the years, nothing is more simple or more satisfying than a roast chicken dinner. There are so many good reasons to know how to roast a chicken, I'm compelled to list them with little bullet points:
- If you took a whole chicken out of the plastic, removed the organs (if they're in there), patted it dry with paper towels, sprinkled it generously with salt and pepper, stuck it in an oven-proof skillet (preferably cast iron) and popped it into a 425 degree oven, you would have a beautiful, bronzed bird ready for dinner in one hour. That's all you have to do to roast a chicken. Of course you can do more, but that alone would be enough. (Though it's nice with some spicy French mustard on the side.)
If you want to do more, there's so much you can do. For starters, you can sprinkle the bird with a mixture of fennel seeds, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper (a recipe from Chez Panisse Cooking), stuff it with fresh thyme, before popping it into the oven. You can watch me do this on video here in my post, "How To Roast a Chicken." Another option is to stuff the bird, Barefoot Contessa style, with a lemon (sliced in half), a head of garlic (also sliced in half, along its equator) and another bunch of thyme. In both cases, season well with salt and you will have a flavorful bird.
In case you're wondering: "What about fat? No butter? Or olive oil?" Of course you can rub the chicken with softened butter or drizzle on olive oil, but one of the best reasons to roast a chicken is: you don't have to. The chicken has enough fat on it to stay moist and for the skin to crisp. You'll even find, when you lift the chicken up at the end, a pool of drippings on the bottom of the pan. Which brings us to our next point...
With those pan drippings, you can make a spectacular sauce (or "gravy") that takes 45 seconds and is jam-packed with chickeny flavor. Simply add enough flour to the pan to soak up the fat that's there (a spoonful or two), put it on the stove and turn up the heat. Cook, stirring, until the roux (that's what you're making, a roux) just begins to toast a little. At this point you can add a spoonful of spicy mustard, but it's not necessary. What is necessary is liquid, and you have your choice here. My preference is a big glass of white wine but you can use chicken stock too. Add the liquid (about one or two cups), turn up the heat and whisk until you have a thick, flavorful gravy to drizzle over your chicken. (If you go the chicken stock route, add a squeeze of lemon or a splash of white wine vinegar to give it a needed jolt of acid.) Taste and adjust.
If you don't care for gravy, though, there's another way to utilize the fat that comes out of the chicken while it cooks: throw some vegetables in there with it. Try, for example, Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables from Ad Hoc at Home, and you will be dazzled by what happens to the carrots, turnips, leeks and onions that go in there with the chicken. They start out crunchy, raw and stiff and they come out golden, soft and positively bursting with chickeny flavor. On a cold winter's night, there's nothing more comforting.
In the summer, you can cut the backbone out of the chicken, flatten it (this is called spatchcocking) and roast it on a cookie sheet. The chicken will come out crisper and though you won't be utilizing the fat, that's ok: it's summer and things should be lighter. Serve with some potato salad and salsa verde and you're good to go.
The best reason to roast a chicken, though, is if you roast a big bird, there's so much you can do with the leftovers! You can use the leftover meat for salads, sandwiches, pastas and, my personal favorite, burritos. The possibilities are endless.
I hope these bullet points have inspired those of you who've never roasted a chicken to give it a try. When you do, buy the best bird you can: preferably a free-range, organic one (not only is it better for the bird, it tastes better too.)
Once you start roasting chickens, you won't be able to stop. It's a weekly ritual that just makes life better.
Adam Roberts is the creator of the award-winning food blog, The Amateur Gourmet, now in its 7th year. In addition to hosting three web shows for Food Network online, Roberts is the author of "The Amateur Gourmet" (Bantam/Dell) and is currently writing a cookbook for Artisan Books. You can find him on Twitter at @amateurgourmet.