Introduction: Roasting a Chicken to Perfection
Ah, roasted chicken. In life I find few foods to be as wonderfully simple and delicious as this flexible dish. But a lot of people I know get intimidated by the bird, and often end up with an over cooked sad affair that has little to no flavor. It's villainy I say, villainy!
Yet there is hope. Contained here in this instructable is a guide to roasting the bird that will knock your socks off. Most importantly, this is a guide for a foundation. From here, you can build into any flavor combination and still come out as the champion at any family dinner, foodie party, or Wednesday lunch.
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Step 1: The Meat of Things
Now, this instructable is going to be in depth. But, in all fairness, it may be longwinded. So let's just get the general recipe out there to start.
- 1 Chicken (approximately 3-4 lbs / 1.2-2 kg)
- 1/2 cup of salt (brine)
- Water (amount depends on your brining container)
- 1 1/2 - 1 tablespoons seasoning
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Remove head, feet, and tail from your chicken if it wasn't butchered for you
- Poke a series of small holes in the skin on both sides of the chicken
- Stir brining salt and warmed water to make the brine
- Pour brine over chicken
- Wait 24 hours
- Preheat oven to 350 F (160 C)
- Remove chicken from brine and gently rinse off the outside
- Shake dry (in your sink please)
- Place in roasting pan (high lips to keep the juices in)
- Coat evenly with seasoning
- Coat with oil
- Rub seasoning and oil into the skin, make sure to get the joints and gaps
- Roast chicken for 1 hour - 1 hour 20 minutes depending on size and oven
- Use skewer or toothpick to check doneness in the thigh
So with that, let's go deeper into each step.
Step 2: The Bird Is the Word
So it goes without saying that roasting a chicken requires, well... a chicken. But luckily there are lots of options out there for us. Back in the US, the choice can be easy. Whole chickens get classified as either roasters or friers. This is determined by size and fat content.
For us, the roaster chicken is what we want. It'll have a good amount of fat on it along with fairly even meat. You can trim if you like, but I prefer not to. The way I look at it, portion control is better than potentially ruining a meal. The fat and the skin are important to the roasting process since they help keep the meat from drying out. Which, I do want to say is a bit of an odd term. Dry meat. It has nothing really to do with water content. The juiciest and most succulent meat regardless of the animal it comes from is a combination of juices in the meat and fat. So, if you remove the skin and trim off all of the fat from your bird you pretty much take the best tools for having juicy meat away from yourself.
Now if you are the kind of person (like me) who likes to have a butcher on every block, then you might ask about the fairly broad world of 'alternative' chickens. What I mean are the different breeds of chicken we can get from our butcher or specialty shops. Should you roast them? Of course! Just be mindful of size. Above you can see the chicken I chose for this instructable. It isn't a roaster or a frier. It is also just a fairly lean chicken. Now this choice was more a matter of availability than one of taste. I currently am living in China, which means the choices aren't the same as they were back home. Luckily though, the preparation is the same. But, since this chicken does lean on the lean side, it's even more important we keep that skin on the bird.
Step 3: Prepare the Bird
With what manner of chicken we'll be cooking squared away, it's time to get her ready for cooking. Now here in China you can often see birds served 'head on'. I prefer to remove the head, but it doesn't affect things too much if you leave it on. Now, if you're buying one of the previously mentioned roaster chickens this isn't something to worry about. But, if your chicken does come with a head or a neck you should save it for soup (more on that at the end).
Something else to note is that chickens have a gland above their tails that should have been removed along with the wing tips. The tail and the gland should just be cut away, but the wing tips can stay. Just be sure to remove the little talon on them, lest someone have an unfortunate surprise at dinner.
With all the butchering required completed, it's time for some poking. Why poking? For brine of course! This is really the big secret that I've got. All chicken that I cook, I brine beforehand. It's the best way to ensure that meat inside is flavorful too. To get the bird ready for its bath, use a knife, toothpick, needle, or morningstar (some additional training may be required) and poke evenly into the meat. The pokes don't need to go deep, but you must break the skin.
Now, you may say, "Matt, you just lectured us in the last step about how important the skin is to keep the meat juicy. Wouldn't poking holes in it defeat the purpose of it keeping the juice in?"
The answer is, kind of? Some fat will leak out no matter what. In fact, we're counting on it. But the holes in the skin and meat are important to make sure the brine is able to do its work. It's a trade off, but it's much better than removing the skin entirely.
Step 4: A Delightful Salt Bath, Singles Only Please.
So let's talk brine. Practically speaking, brines tend to mixtures of salt, sugar, and vinegar. However, this shouldn't limit our world. The key part of the process here is that we want to impart flavors into the chicken. So we can add all sorts of things to our brine. Now what size container will determine your brine volume. I found a tupperware that perfectly fits my chicken, but a gallon sized ziplock bag will be fine too.
To make the brine, mix the ingredients together in a pot and add water. Warm it up until all of the salt dissolves. You don't want to cook the chicken when it goes in to it's bath. This time will also help to extract flavors from any herbs or spices you're adding in.
I prefer to only brine once in the mixture, saving any large solids for stuffing inside of the chicken while it's in the oven. As for time, the longer the chicken is in the brine the more of that flavor it will absorb. I tend towards 1 day of brining, so take the above recommendations with a grain of salt. If you want to brine for less time, you can. But, be sure to adjust the salinity of the brine accordingly.
Now, of course, these are also to my personal preference. I don't like particularly salty food, so play around with the proportions and find what you like best.
Want to make an Asian style chicken? Forgo salt and use soy sauce. Want the best lemon pepper chicken you've ever had? Throw in lemon rind (not lemon juice as the acidity will start breaking down the proteins in ways we don't want for a roast). The possibilities are endless. Here are a few combinations to whet your imagination:
- Basic Chicken: 1 crushed head of garlic, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 cup of salt
- Lemon Pepper Chicken: 1 lemon's rind, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 cup of salt
- Chinese Chicken: 1 crushed head of garlic, 1 tablespoon grated ginger, 3/4 cup of light soy sauce, 1/4 cup red vinegar (balsamic can work as a substitute)
- Italian Chicken: 1 tablespoon basil, 1 tablespoon oregano, 1 tablespoon thyme, 1/2 cup of salt
Step 5: Rubbing It in Isn't Nice, Unless We're Talking Spice
Now the brine has worked its magic and our chicken is just brimming with flavor. But is this the end? Oh no, not at all. With the meat inside given the once over, we can now go back over the top of the chicken with some additional seasoning and oil to really make this bird sing. But before we do that, let's go ahead and preheat the oven to 350 F (160 C)
Before you worry about overly salty chicken, hear this. The brine is just a flavor enhancer. Thanks to osmosis (the way that the salt and other goodies travel from the brine into the chicken) being limited by time and quantity, we can still safely season the outside of the chicken without compromising the bird.
Should you just pour the seasoning on then? No. In the pictures above I used a creole seasoning called Tony Chacheries. It's got a mix of salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and some other secret stuff. It does well as an example for how heavily a good pass of seasoning is necessary. If I quantified it, I'd say total it was a tablespoon and a half for my chicken. How much seasoning you really need to use is largely decided by how large your bird is and your personal preference.
Regardless of salty preferences, you must give your bird a nice massage to distribute your seasoning evenly. Make sure to get under the wings and around the folds of the thighs. Once you've gone over both sides, make sure the bird is breast-side down. Then, dislocate the thigh joints. This ensures your bird will lay evenly in the pan while also allowing the drumsticks and thighs to cook at the same rate.
Keeping the bird breast-side down will help keep the white meat from drying out. The juices coming out the chicken will pool underneath, effectively braising the breasts while the rest of the chicken roasts.
Step 6: A Photo Finish
And there we have it folks, our chicken is roasted. But is this the end? Oh no, not at all. See I love roasting chicken because it's an excellent starting point for quite a few other dishes too. To be honest, I make this for myself all the time just so that I can eat the skin. Then once it's cool, I carve up the pieces for other dishes. Naturally I could have butchered the chicken before to do this, but I've found that the best results come from a whole roasted bird.
So what can you do with a roast chicken? Here are a few of my favorite things:
- Rice with cardamom and paprika, sear the breasts and serve on top for a delightful Mediterranean meal
- Throw the thighs in a pot with some butter, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Let it simmer for an hour. Just pull the bones out (and they should easily slide right out) and add a pair of over-easy eggs for an awesome breakfast
- Save all the bones and roast them off to use as the base of an amazing chicken soup. I usually add the drippings to this instead of using them for gravy. How dark you roast the bones can also complement certain flavors. Like a pepper and onion soup goes great with some nice and dark bones. A quick and light roast is great for creamy soups like cream of cauliflower..