How to Roast a Whole Chicken Without Ruining It
There is something very homey and family oriented about a whole fried chicken site. It creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere, can feed several people, and tells guests at your table in no uncertain terms, “I can cook.” If you eat meat, it will make a good staple in your home cooking arsenal.
There is no single, definitive way to cook a whole chicken, but I have my favorites. If you are even slightly familiar with my “work”, it will not surprise you that my favorite recipes are simple, with few ingredients and a lot of manual labor. I’m sure there are a lot of good chicken recipes out there with long lists of ingredients and lots of steps, but it’s not something I cook, at least not for a week. Here’s how to get started; more ambitious efforts can wait.
customize the bird
I’m very much for stockings and against farms, and you could probably do neither and you’d be fine. Folding the chicken—removing the backbone and pressing down on the breastbone to help the bird deposit fat—helps the chicken cook more evenly. (You can watch a tutorial video here .) When roasting the thermodynamic nightmare that is turkey, roasting is absolutely necessary, but the same general principles apply to chicken:
Dark meats such as legs and thighs need to be cooked to at least 165℉ for all that connective tissue to break down, but breast meat dries out if heated much above 150℉. Traditional searing leaves the breast more exposed than the legs, which are protected by the sides of the pan, which is the exact opposite of what you want.
Flattening the bird slightly protects the breast and exposes the thighs and legs to more heat, speeding up the cooking of dark meats and slowing down whites. I highly recommend brewing if you are using a dry brine, but I find this practice less necessary with a marinade such as labneh or buttermilk, which we will discuss in a moment. (Breast won’t taste dry or overcooked, even if you cook it at 160℉, thanks to all the added moisture and a bit of fat.) Either way, make sure you carve the meat before you apply the marinade or brine – otherwise it’s all will become very dirty.
I wouldn’t bother with bridging at all. It looks beautiful, but can slow down the speed of cooking the legs and leave you with raw skin. When the legs are free to fly, they see more heat and cook a little faster than the breast, which, again, is what we want. The legs pressed against the body also hide part of their skin, making it soft and flabby, which no one needs.
Choose a brine or marinade
Without seasoning, meat is just muscle. I have two favorite seasoning methods when it comes to humble chicken: one dry and one wet.
To keep it dry
If you want to go the dry route, start with a ratio of 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of poultry to 1 teaspoon of sugar per four pounds, then add other powdered seasonings to taste if desired. You can add minced garlic and fresh herbs to the sugar and salt mixture, but be prepared to shake them off before cooking as they can burn. (I prefer to mix these fresh flavors into the oil and stuff them into the skins; more on that in a moment.)
Season the chicken inside and out with the brine, then place in a plate or skillet on the wire rack and let the bird brine for at least 12 hours, or up to three days. The salt will draw water out of the meat, creating a concentrated, moist brine with the chicken’s own moisture. This salty liquid will return back to the bird, and the meat will become juicy and flavorful. Blot excess moisture with paper towels, shove some butter (plain or herbal) under the skin , then fry.
To get wet
Nothing against salt and sugar, but I haven’t used dry brine since I started marinating birds in buttermilk and labna. Both fermented foods expose the chicken to acid, fat, and protein, making it a tender, juicy bird with gorgeous brown, shiny skin. If you want your chicken to look like something out of a magazine, use one of these.
Samyn Nosrat’s buttermilk-marinated chicken recipe is flawless, but I often choose labneh, a Middle Eastern yogurt-cheese ( recipe here ). You don’t have to worry about labne spilling into the fridge; he clings to the chicken, making sure every inch of the bird is covered in lactic acid.
Chicken salted in buttermilk and chicken smeared with labne are extremely forgiving. I’ve even cooked them without a meat thermometer with great results (although you should always use a meat thermometer; my batteries ran out). Marinades add so much moisture and fat that they come out juicy and tender even if you exceed the cooking temperature by a few degrees. Both marinades require 24 hours in the refrigerator; after that, just wipe off the excess and fry. (Want to level up? Try feta brine or miso pickle next time.)
It’s okay if you don’t have time for pickle
It is best to salt or marinate, but some evenings there is simply no time. This is fine. You can still season the chicken just before frying it. Season the bird generously inside and out with salt (and pepper if you like), then add the mayonnaise.
No, we don’t make sandwiches (yet). We brush the bird with creamy seasoning to brown it (see the photo at the top of this blog) and flavor the skin. For those of you who are not familiar with this method, let me repeat :
In terms of flavor, mayonnaise doesn’t bring in a ton, but you can easily mix all sorts of flavorful things into it. Nigella Lawson adds to her Worcestershire sauce and crumbled broth, but I chose Better Than Bouillon (mushroom flavored) because I have a lot of them. You can mix in whatever you want, although I would stay away from herbs as they tend to burn when applied to the outside of the chicken.
Season the mayonnaise as you see fit, rub it on the skin, and then roast the bird in the oven.
Let’s talk about pace
If you’ve read a lot of chicken recipes, you’ve probably noticed that they all require different cooking temperatures. Some even require multiple temperatures and start at a high temperature to get the skin crispy and then go lower to bring the meat up to temperature (or vice versa). I love monotemperature, but my temperature is affected by my brine or marinade. If I’m frying chicken marinated in something that actually promotes browning (like buttermilk or labna), I’ll fry at 375℉. If I were to use a simple dry brine of sugar and salt, I would brush this bird with olive oil or butter and then roast it at 400℉. In fact anything in the 375-400℉ range will work just fine. If the chicken skin starts to brown too much, reduce the temperature slightly. No need to overdo it.
No matter where you set your oven scale, you’ll need a meat thermometer. Seriously: Short of breaking into a bird to look at its muscles, you won’t be able to tell if your meat has been cooked to a safe temperature (or overcooked) without it. Cooking ” until the juice runs clear ” is not a reliable method.
Buy an instant read digital thermometer and aim for 155℉ in your chest and 165℉ in darker areas. If you’ve marinated your bird in buttermilk or labna, you have a little more leeway with the breast meat. Even a breast soaked in fermented milk products for 24 hours will be juicy and tender even at 160℉.