Monday, October 21, 2013

foolproof roast chicken

Since I just spent a whole post talking about how vegetables are the next cool crowd, I should probably explain that this roast chicken post is not a retraction of that thought--it's just a byproduct of my stubbornness.  I am a stubborn person, and right now I am stubbornly refusing to turn on the heat, be it 64 or 61 or even an obscene 59 degrees in my apartment, because it's October and too early to turn on the heat.  NO.  I will NOT.  But this means that sometimes, the only comfortable place to be is in the kitchen with the oven on full blast.  It's been working out so far.  Plum and flax seed muffins?  Check.  Roasted butternut squash?  Check.  Foolproof roast chicken?  Double check.

This recipe has two ingredients: chicken, and salt.  That's what makes it foolproof.  There's no futzing around with lemon, no rosemary, not even black pepper--those things are scrumptious and I have nothing against them, but the secret to this chicken is that it doesn't need them.  Truly.  It stands on its own, both in deliciousness and in ease.

The only way in which this recipe is not entirely proofed against fools is in the preparation.  You'll need time, at least a full day's worth, which means that this chicken cannot be an afterthought meal, or a just-got-home-from-work-and-am-starving meal.  It must, by necessity, be something even better: a dinner you're looking forward to for days, a special-occasion meal, an indulgence that shines in its simplicity.

I've been roasting chickens this way for years, originally using the famous Zuni roast chicken recipe, and watching it gradually become my own.  It's absolutely the best thing to serve for company, because it looks so much more impressive than it is, and it needs almost no attention, which leaves you free to chat with a glass of wine in hand.  The original recipe comes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, where Judy Rogers writes:

"The Zuni Roast Chicken depends on three things, beginning with the small size of the bird.  Don't substitute a jumbo roaster-- it will be too lean and won't tolerate high heat, which is the second requirement of the method.  Small chickens, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds, flourish at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly, and, with lots of skin per ounce of meat, they are virtually designed to stay succulent... The third requirement is salting the bird at least 24 hours in advance.  This improves flavor, keeps it moist, and makes it tender."

That's it: one small, excellent-quality chicken, plus high heat, plus plenty of salt.  Works every time.

Foolproof Roast Chicken
One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
2 tablespoons flaky sea salt
Baking sheet and wire rack

Here's what to do: salt the chicken liberally, both inside the cavity, and out.  Focus your salt more on the thick back, legs, and breasts than on the skinnier wings and ankles.  Tie the ankles together (I use dental floss cause I'm classy like that), and twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders.  Cover loosely and refrigerate for at least a day, but up to two if you like.

When you're ready to roast, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and pat it dry, both inside and out.  Take a lot of care to get the bird as dry as possible, because, as Judy notes, "a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown."

Set oven rack in the middle, and heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the wire rack on top of the baking sheet, and the chicken breast-side up on top of that.  Place the chicken in the oven.  You may see a bit of steam coming from your oven, which usually means that the chicken wasn't quite dry.

After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over to breast-side down.  Roast for another 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to regain crispness in the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.  The total roasting time will be 45 minutes to an hour.  Use a meat thermometer to confirm the temperature of the breast meat at 155, and the dark meat at 175.  (The temperature should raise another few degrees as the bird rests; do a second check with the thermometer after resting to confirm.)

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat.  Transfer the chicken from the roasting pan to a plate, and let it rest for 10 minutes.  It will be difficult not to dig in right away, but the resting lets the juices redistribute.

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