This photo doesn't begin to do justice to the majestic roasted chicken that emerged from my oven that night. But that's only because while carving the bird, I happened to lick my fingers and they tasted so delicious that all of a sudden I was hunched over the carcass stripping leftover scraps of meat off it with my hands and popping them into my mouth like some kind of animal. So this photo is inadequate because it was taken under the influence of a frenzied need to EAT THAT CHICKEN LEG ALREADY. But at least you can get a sense of the beautiful golden-brown skin on the chicken. (The potatoes look really dark, but that's because some of them were purple and red potatoes, not Yukon Golds.)
Forget my other roasted chicken recipes.
OK, maybe don’t completely forget them, but try this one first.
Usually, I don’t like to be bothered too much with methodology when I’m cooking. I just want to know the ingredients I need and how to assemble them. I like to follow directions, but I don’t like to fuss. I find America’s Test Kitchen interesting on an academic level, but I never want to make their recipes.
Some foodies loooove to bicker about the best way to do things, comparing chocolate-chip cookie recipes or potato-mashing techniques. I tend to just find a recipe I like and stick with it. I rarely spare a glance for new potato-leek soup recipes, for instance, because I already have a potato-leek soup recipe I really like. It’s just more restful for my easily-overwhelmed brain that way. And let’s face it, I like consistency and routine. Occasionally, yes, it turns out that what I like can be improved upon—I liked this mac and cheese just fine, right up until I found my super-awesome no-white-sauce 2:1-ratio-of-cheese-to-macaroni version and promptly left the old one in the dust. But I thought I was perfectly happy with my reliable, made-dozens-of-times roasted chicken with vegetables recipe. I was wrong.
The trouble all started with the post on the Zuni Café roasted chicken and bread salad at Smitten Kitchen. I’d heard plenty of praise for the Zuni chicken before—it’s downright developed a cult—but never seen photos that made it look so droolingly good, that made me hungry for it right then and there. Reading the recipe, it became clear that it would be best achieved using a cast-iron skillet or a roasting pan, which I don’t have. (I want a cast-iron skillet at some point, but I didn’t want to have to buy one before I could have roasted chicken. Typical hunger logic.) I did a quick online search for a workaround, and while I didn’t find much information about what else I could roast the Zuni chicken in, I quickly gleaned two pieces of information: (1) To hear some people tell it, the Zuni chicken-roasting method is transcendent, possibly life-changing; (2) It is likely that the high-heat cooking will make a mess of your oven, fill the kitchen with smoke, and possibly set off your fire alarm. Then there were the people who thought Zuni was overrated and professed their allegiance to some other chicken-roasting religion, like Cook’s Illustrated or the Barefoot Contessa. I was starting to feel overwhelmed. But still hungry.
Apparently just a glutton for punishment, I straight-up Googled “best roasted chicken recipe.” Just as my head was starting to spin, I happened on this post at My Husband Hates Veggies. First of all, the chicken looked delicious (and oh wow, those perfectly browned potatoes!). Second, it seemed to be a thoughtful synthesis of several popular methods (I recognized the day-long brining and careful drying from the Zuni method, and the lemon and thyme in the cavity from the Barefoot Contessa recipe). Third, it had some intriguing-looking features that included boiling the potatoes with the lemon and garlic before roasting. Feeling adventurous, I decided to give it a try on a Sunday night.
The process wasn’t hard, and since I could boil the potatoes while preheating the oven, it didn’t take any longer than my old recipe (in fact, the bird cooked for less time because the heat was higher). And the results were completely miraculous. Unless it’s sort of emergency, I will never roast a whole chicken without rubbing salt on it 24 hours beforehand, and I will never forget to dry it thoroughly. As promised by the Zuni devotees, those two easy measures ensured the crispest skin and most flavorful meat I’ve ever eaten. Meanwhile, the hot lemon and garlic infused the whole chicken with additional flavor and kept the meat, even the breast, unbelievably moist. The higher-temperature cooking made for a perfectly cooked bird (with my old recipe, even with the help of a meat thermometer, I sometimes ended up undercooking). And the trick of boiling the potatoes before roasting them was brilliant—while with my old recipe they’d sometimes get blackened on the outside before they were soft on the inside, here we had perfectly tender interiors surrounded by an addictively crisp-fried shell (like French fries! But unlike fries, they even stayed crunchy when eaten as leftovers the next day, after being reheated in the microwave). And, to mimic my favorite part of my old recipe, other vegetables could be added to the mix—I threw in some carrots and parsnips (unboiled) that I needed to use up, and while I should have cut them into bigger pieces to prevent charring, they still turned out tasty.
This really is the perfect roasted chicken. It’s my go-to recipe for now on, and even if in the future I decide to return to my other recipes for the different flavors (smoked paprika, honey) they can offer, I will always follow some of the basic steps of this one (SALTING and DRYING, people). I may have finally learned the value of methodology.
1 whole 3-pound chicken (the best quality you can find, preferably organic and free-range)
1 large lemon
10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Plenty of coarse kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
1½ pounds small Yukon Gold potatoes
1. Prep your chicken about 24 hours ahead of time by patting it down with paper towels and covering it liberally with kosher salt. Really massage it into the skin, and inside the cavity as well. (Be sure to remove giblets or any neck pieces from the cavity first!) Place in a baking dish (not the one you’re going to use to roast the bird) in the refrigerator and cover with tin foil or plastic wrap.
2. When ready to roast, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Slice the potatoes in half, or in quarters if they are larger. Add them to a large pot and cover with cold water. Add the lemon and the garlic cloves, and cook over high heat until water boils. When it does boil, add salt to the water.
3. Remove chicken from refrigerator and wipe it off with paper towels until it is as dry as possible. Place in a roasting pan (I use a roasting rack on a heavy baking sheet).
4. Once the potatoes are tender, drain everything. Add the potatoes back to the hot pot you cooked them in to dry off. Take the lemon (use tongs and be careful; it’s hot!) and pierce it 8–10 times with the tip of a sharp knife. Stuff the lemon inside the chicken cavity, along with the hot garlic cloves and the thyme. Drizzle the bird with olive oil and rub it all over, then rub kosher salt and freshly ground pepper all over it. Place the bird breast side up to cook, and tuck the wings underneath.
5. Place the roasting pan in the oven and cook for 30 minutes.
6. Remove the pan and lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Give the cooled potatoes a quick stir in their pot, then add them to the roasting pan. Stir them around in the hot fat and juices that have accumulated, so none are dry. Position the potatoes cut side down. Return the tray to the oven and cook for another 45 minutes.
7. Chicken is done when juices run clear and a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 180 degrees. Remove pan from oven and let stand 10 minutes. Remove the potatoes to a serving dish and sprinkle with coarse salt. Remove everything from the chicken cavity (carefully, again!)—you can discard the lemon and thyme, but it’s great to serve the garlic with the potatoes. Carve the chicken and serve.
Time: 2 hours, plus 24 hours of brining
Leftover potential: Insanely high. Aside from being eaten plain the next day (with the magically still-crisp leftover potatoes), leftover chicken can be used for sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza, or anything else you like (you can freeze it for months). And once you’ve stripped off all the meat, don’t forget to use the carcass to make chicken stock. Delicious and thrifty!