Thursday, January 22, 2009

Roast Chicken

In July of 2008 I published an article on chickens, their rearing, and where to find a good one. (Click on the July tab). The gist of that article focused on a discussion of factory farm raised chicken vs. local, grass fed, organic poultry, and why I favor the latter. Now let’s review how to take that fine, local bird and turn it into the quintessential chicken dish, roast chicken.

To quote Julia Child from her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “The most important aspect of chicken cooking is that you procure a good and flavorsome bird…A chicken should taste like chicken and be so good in itself that it is an absolute delight to eat as a perfectly plain, buttery roast…” Every cook is judged by the quality of their roast chicken, so let’s look at how we accomplish perfection.

Chickens are available in a variety of sizes from “broilers,” weighing 1 ½ to 2 ½ lbs, “fryers” 2 ½ to 3 ½ lbs and “roasters “ 4 to 6 ½ lbs. The roaster is the preferred size for our application, although a fryer can be used.

If your chicken is purchased fresh, meaning never frozen, great. However most locally raised poultry is only available frozen, except during selected times in the summer. Do not take a frozen chicken and leave it to thaw out on the kitchen counter. You risk disease from bacteria that will grow on the bird during the thawing process, and many of the bird’s juices will leak out, resulting in a dry bird when cooked. Better to wrap your frozen bird in a towel and place it in a container in your refrigerator. It will take two days or more to thaw out, but little, if any, of its juices will escape. Need it sooner than day after tomorrow, place the frozen bird under slow running cold water, and it will be thawed out in 4 to 5 hours or so.

In recent years, many chefs have recommended brining your bird prior to cooking. The brine includes salt and sugar with various herbs and aromatics to flavor the bird. The benefit is that the breast meat, which always cooks faster than the legs and thighs, will not dry out before the bird is thoroughly cooked. While I have tried this method on many occasions, I think the brine alters the taste of the flesh giving it a slightly cured flavor, and the drippings, the bird emits, are diluted by the extra moisture that was absorbed during the brining process. I am cooking my roast chicken without brining.

Step one is to wash your bird under cold running water, both inside and out. Dry the bird thoroughly with paper towels and allow it to air dry for up to half an hour while the oven preheats. A wet bird will not get that gorgeous crispy skin we all enjoy so much.

It is desirable to truss you bird, meaning to tie it up into a compact bundle so it will cook evenly. Many cookbooks describe the various trussing methods, so I refer you to them.

I like to put butter, salt and pepper, and some squeezed lemon, garlic and fresh herbs in the cavity of my roast chicken. Lemon and chicken have a particular affinity, so put the squeezed lemon inside, too.

You can roast your chicken on a rack, however, I scatter some diced onions and carrots over the bottom of my roasting pan to sit the chicken on, and they add taste to the drippings that are the basis for a light sauce. I take a lot of room temperature butter and smear it all over the bird, and baste the bird every 20 minutes or so.

I put the chicken in a hot oven, 450 degrees, for 15 minutes or so before turning the oven down to 375 degrees to finish it. Cook the chicken to 160-165 degrees recorded in the deep part of the thigh. Allow the bird to rest in the oven with the door ajar for 15 minutes or more before carving to allow its juices to settle, and carry over cooking to take it’s internal temperature up to 170 degrees. During this resting, you can make a light sauce from the renderings in the bottom of the pan.

Roast Chicken

½ Cup good local butter, room temperature
4 lb local free range organic chicken
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon
Several sprigs fresh thyme or tarragon or a mixture of both
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
A mixture of ¼ cup each chopped onion, carrot and celery, brunoise

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Wash the bird thoroughly and pat dry. Season the bird liberally with salt and pepper, inside and out. With your hands, smear the butter all over the chicken. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze its juices over and into the chicken. Place the herbs, garlic clove and squeezed lemon halves inside the bird. Truss, if needed.

Brunoise the onion, celery and carrot by cutting into 1/4 “ dice and sautéing in butter for 3-4 minutes. Place chicken on top of the vegetables and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 15 minutes, and then reduce the heat to 375. Baste with the pan juices every 15 to 20 minutes. Cook 40 to 50 minutes more, or until an instant read thermometer reads 160 to 165 degrees when inserted into the deepest area of the thigh, or all juices run clear when deeply pricked with a fork.

Leave chicken in turned off oven with the door ajar for 15 minutes to allow to rest. The chicken should be golden brown with a crisp skin, and the juices in the bottom of the pan will be a nut brown, buttery, lemony mix that when strained and boiled down a little and whisked will make a light sauce to accompany the bird.

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