Intimidated by whole chicken? Learn to roast that bird
Roast chicken just might be the quintessential dinner at home. The aroma, the luxurious flavor and the warmth of the oven draw family and friends to the table like magic. Perhaps that's the reason so many food writers and cookbook authors go on and on about the topic. My take: Roast chickens often enough that you no longer rely on recipes.
Start by buying the right chicken.
Size: I far prefer a small chicken for roasting. Commonly known as broiler/fryers, they weigh about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds. Sadly, it can be difficult to find small birds at the supermarket. The National Chicken Council says that just 40 years ago more than 60 percent of all chickens were sold whole. Today, that number hovers around 11 percent.
Instead, we can easily find packages of extra-large breasts, thighs and drumsticks. Not to mention boneless, skinless everything. Whole chickens sold in today's supermarkets tend to be ginormous roasters weighing in around 5 pounds.
In my experience, smaller birds don't need brines to keep them moist, they cook quickly and they stay juicy. Roasters need brining to prevent dry breast meat, they cook unevenly and they take a long time to cook.
Fortunately, my local butcher regularly stocks the broiler/fryer size I prefer. I use these young birds for everything from grilling to skillet-frying and roasting. I buy antibiotic-free chicken that's been fed a vegetarian diet whenever possible.
Cut: Before roasting, to save cooking time and make carving easy, I cut the chickens in half and remove the backbone. These half chickens will roast in 35 to 40 minutes — speedy enough for weeknight enjoyment. Beautiful presentation is a bonus.
Handling and cutting chicken intimidates many. No need — especially if you own a pair of kitchen shears, which prove much safer than wielding a knife. Whichever tool you choose, keep your hands clean and dry for a firm, nonslip grip.
First, place the chicken on the cutting board breast side down. Use the shears to cut along either side of the backbone and remove it. (Freeze it for broth-making if you wish.) Then flip the bird breast side up. Use your shears (or a large chef's knife) to cut it in half smack down the middle, right through the breastbone. Rinse the chicken so no shards of bone remain.
Season: I don't oil these small chickens or otherwise fuss with the skin; simply pat it very dry with paper towels, then sprinkle it generously with salt, pepper and dry herbs. Roasting the chickens on a rack, which allows the oven air to circulate around it, will yield golden, crisp skin every time.
I take advantage of all the wonderful juices the chicken gives off by setting a pile of vegetables underneath the chicken. The mixture of apples, kale and leeks in the recipe below, seasoned with sage, marjoram and thyme, will remind you a bit of holiday stuffing — minus the bread.
I love the delicious balance of sweet and crunch in the Honeycrisp apples here paired with deeply flavored kale. Other apple options include the sweet Sweetango, tart Granny Smith or quite-sweet, but nicely crunchy, Golden Delicious. Tuscan kale, aka lacinato kale, looks and tastes great here, but the readily available bags of chopped kale make a fine sub. If kale's not your thing, use roughly chopped Swiss chard leaves (ribs removed) or baby bok choy. I even like savoy cabbage in this dish. Leeks are a mild addition to the mixture; sweet onions can be used instead.
I set up a makeshift rack so the chicken hovers above the vegetables. My 7-quart French oven came with a wire rack that sits about 1/2 inch off the bottom of the pan. Inverted, the rack sits nearer the top of the pan. You can fashion a makeshift roasting setup with a deep baking pan and a wire cooling rack set over it — just be sure the rack is ovenproof. Of course, you can always just set the chicken on top of the vegetables — you just may lose a bit of crispness on the skin. The apple-vegetable mix will be just as tasty.
Roast chicken and vegetables in about 1 hour. Accompany the two with small sweet potatoes baked alongside the chicken. Dinner at home indeed.
Herby, Golden Roast Chicken With Apples, Leeks and Kale
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
2 teaspoons each, dried: ground sage and marjoram (or basil)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 whole broiler/fryer chicken, about 3 1/2 pounds
1 large leek, ends trimmed, split lengthwise, well rinsed
4 to 5 cups roughly chopped lacinato or other tender kale, about 6 ounces total
2 medium-large Honeycrisp apples, cored, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the sage, marjoram, salt, thyme and pepper in a small dish.
Place chicken on cutting board, breast side down. Use sharp kitchen shears to cut out the backbone. Flip chicken over; split the chicken in half through the breastbone. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Rub it all over with half of the seasoning blend.
Cut the rinsed leek crosswise into 1/2-inch slices. Mix the leek, kale and apples in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Sprinkle with the remaining seasoning blend; toss to mix well. Add the oil; toss again to coat with oil.
Set a wire rack over the vegetable mixture in the pan. Arrange the chicken halves on the rack. Roast, stirring the vegetables once, (be careful moving the chicken while you do this), until chicken juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a fork and vegetables are fork-tender, 35 to 40 minutes.
Carefully move the chicken halves to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Meanwhile, spoon the vegetables and all the pan juices into a serving bowl.
Cut the chicken halves into 2 pieces. Serve with the roasted vegetables.