Roast chicken is the ultimate comfort food. It warms and perfumes the kitchen on a winter afternoon. It radiates golden goodness on a platter. Is anything easier than throwing a whole chicken into the oven and taking it out when the timer sounds?
Yet, we seem to have forgotten the art of roasting a chicken. Convinced it’s too difficult, messy and time-consuming, we depend on take-out or supermarket rotisserie. So, I did an archival deep dive to discover what scared us off.
I found an early culprit in the 19th century in Eliza Leslie’s popular cookbook. Her recipe instructed country cooks to “catch a plump chicken and wring its neck.” Even city cooks in those days faced the messy job of searing off pin feathers. Catching, neck-wringing or searing would scare me out of the kitchen.
By the 20th century, the luxury of a “chicken in every pot” included lists and lists of cautions and helpful hints, cementing the fear of food. Experts could only agree on a few, including:
*cooking temperatures from 325-to-425 degrees Fahrenheit.
*washing and patting the bird dry, then rubbing it inside and out with lemon to ward off germs.
*using a rack in a roasting pan to keep hot air circulating all around.
*basting often with melted butter.
When Gertrude Stein served America’s most beloved Sunday dinner in Paris to her neighbor Ernest Hemingway “roast chicken, mashed potatoes, haricots vert (tiny green beans), apple tart and coffee,” she wisely kept out of the kitchen. Her partner, Alice B. Toklas, did the cooking. Alice got the credit 30 years later when she wrote her book. Published in Europe, “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” was banned in the US because she sneaked in a recipe for marijuana fudge.
Years later, James Beard, the acknowledged father of American cookery, wrote that roast chicken was “all too seldom perfect because the average person fears a few drops of pink juice when the chicken is tested at the joint.” He recommended killing off bacteria by washing the bird and rotating it in the pan, starting with the backbone side up, every 15 minutes. He urged testing for doneness to a point of 160 degrees Fahrenheit with a meat thermometer. Before carving, he let it “rest” on the platter, insurance that it would continue to cook out of the oven by a method chefs call “carry-over cooking.” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
It gets more complicated. Twenty years later, upscale carry-out shop pioneers Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso coached cooks to reach deep inside the cavity to remove the neck and giblets. Yuck! They also revived Julia Child’s method of “trussing” (check out YouTube videos) by tying the feet together.
By now, cooks had stopped paying attention. They discovered the skinless, boneless chicken breasts that restaurant chefs used as a blank canvas to show off innovative ingredients. Home cooks fell in love. No fishing in cavities for spare parts. No rubbing, melting butter or basting. A quick sear had everyone in and out of the kitchen fast.
Today, microbiologists recommend an initial blast of high heat in the oven rather than washing. That stops splattering salmonella and messy paper towels. Lowering the heat afterward keeps the meat juicy. Raising the oven temperature at the end crisps the skin. Healthier olive oil replaces sloppy melted butter as a basting medium. Flipping the bird around while cooking, tail-up, side-to-side etc., has become a matter of preference. Roasting chicken today is freestyle. No excuses.
ROAST WHOLE CHICKEN
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Tuck fresh herbs or lemon halves into the cavity and under the wings and skin.
One whole chicken, 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 pounds
Three tablespoons olive oil
Three teaspoons chopped fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage (1-1/2 teaspoons)
Sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, to taste, two lemons – 1 cut in halves for filling the cavity; one cut in wedges for garnish
Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut off excess fat around the neck and cavity. Remove and discard neck and gizzards. Rub the skin with cut lemon halves and add to the cavity.
Drizzle with olive oil. Rub salt and pepper over the skin.
Transfer chicken to a rack in a roasting pan, backbone side up. Set in the oven for 15 minutes. Then turn the chicken to each side for 10 minutes, ending breast-side up. Reduce heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue roasting for 45 minutes to one hour. When done, a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the thigh (do not hit bone) should read 155 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Juices will look lightly pink when wiggling the thigh.
Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Tip chicken to let juices run out of the cavity. Transfer the whole chicken to a platter and rest for 10 minutes. Pour out pan juices into a small saucepan. With a spoon, scrape off and discard fat that rises to the top. Heat pan juices just to a boil and serve separately.
Linda Bassett, a Marblehead resident, has worked as a cook, trained upcoming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book,“From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.