Pure and simple: Roast chicken

by Terry B on January 14, 2009

Simple is often best when it comes to roasting a chicken. Here, we start with a good bird, use minimal seasonings and let heat do the rest. Recipe below.

These days, even the most hardcore carnivores [and yeah, that includes me] are thinking more about the meat they consume. Where it comes from, how it’s raised, how it’s processed—even how it’s packaged. So when I was invited to sample some Just BARE™ Chicken—all natural, minimally processed chicken raised cage-free by independent, local family farmers in the upper Midwest—I jumped at the chance.

Some home cooks are fortunate enough to have access to local farmers markets or CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture groups] that can provide them with a regular source for meat and poultry raised by small scale independent farmers. Many, however, aren’t. The challenge has been to find successful business models for translating better farming practices [better for consumers, the environment and the animals themselves] to larger scales to feed a larger market affordably and profitably.

Solutions are being found. Increasingly, terms like organic and free range are showing up in places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and even more mainstream supermarkets. Often these products carry a higher price tag, but more and more consumers are showing a willingness to pay it. And that has more and more producers looking for ways to serve this growing market.

Just BARE Chicken’s approach is a particularly interesting one. Their birds are all natural, with no antibiotics, and are vegetable fed. And while they’re not exactly free range, they’re never caged. Here’s how Julie Berling, director of brand strategy and advocacy for Just BARE, describes their farm practices:

Just BARE flocks are free to roam in modern, climate-controlled barns. The chickens are able to eat and drink whenever they want and interact as they would in the outdoors. They are provided the right amount of light and darkness to reflect natural conditions, and protected from external environmental hazards. Advanced heating and cooling systems keep barns well-ventilated and comfortable during the extreme Midwest winters and summers.

“Just bare” refers to more than the minimal processing and lack of additives in the chicken. It speaks to the overall transparency of how they do business. For starters, they package much of their chicken in transparent, recyclable plastic trays with clear film lids [whole chickens are vacuum packed in mostly clear plastic]. This gives consumers a nearly 360-degree view of the chicken inside—no hiding big globs of fat under leg quarters. Even more interesting, each package of chicken comes with a three-digit Family Farm Code. By entering this code at the Just BARE Chicken website, you can see the location of the specific family farm where the chicken was raised.

Besides whole chickens, they offer packages of drumsticks, skinless boneless breasts, breast tenders and skinless boneless thighs. Just BARE Chicken is currently sold through a number of supermarket chains in the Midwest as well as most SuperTarget stores nationwide. To see if it’s available where you are, check their retailer locator.

If you can’t stand the heat, you must be roasting

Roasting is all about heat, and the reigning champion in this regard is Barbara Kafka. In her excellent, exhaustive cookbook on the subject, Roasting—A Simple Art, she advocates roasting a chicken at 500ºF! What sounds like a recipe for an incinerated disaster actually produces a delicious, moist bird with beautifully browned, crisp skin. And it sets a land speed record for doing it—a five- to six-pound bird takes a mere 50 to 60 minutes. Unfortunately, this high-heat method is also an excellent means for testing smoke detectors and selling oven cleaner by the case. After more than a few dramatically smoke-filled evenings, we’ve decided to turn things down a bit.

But we have adopted a few of Ms. Kafka’s practices. First and foremost, after rinsing your chicken, dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Too much moisture in the bird—and therefore in the oven—and you end up steaming it, not roasting it. For that same reason, use an open roasting pan with low sides and no lid to let the heat get at the chicken from all sides. Keep your lovely, lidded roasting pans for slow braising pot roasts or osso buco.

After a lot of reading and a little experimenting, here’s my approach to roast chicken. You’ll see I keep things very simple—partly because I’m lazy, but partly because simple tastes so good, especially with a good bird.

Roast Chicken with Rosemary

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds [you can do larger or smaller, of course—just adjust the time]
canola oil [or other high smoke point, neutral-flavored oil]
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
fresh rosemary—two teaspoons coarsely chopped leaves, plus one sprig
butter

Place oven rack in bottom third of oven. Preheat oven to 450ºF [give it a good 20 to 25 minutes to get there—you want to start out good and hot to produce nicely browned, crisp skin].

Rinse chicken inside and out [after removing neck and giblets, he said from experience] and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Salt cavity of chicken. Using your hands, rub canola oil over the outside of the bird. Season generously with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with chopped rosemary [some recipes would have you place it under the skin—see Kitchen Notes for my thoughts on this]. Place rosemary sprig inside cavity.

Grease large roasting pan with a little canola oil for easier clean-up. Place chicken on rack in pan breast side up. [Kafka advocates no rack, but I think it helps the bird roast more evenly—your call.] Roast chicken for 20 minutes at 450ºF, then reduce heat to 375º. Roast until juices run clear, about 40 to 60 minutes [times are very approximate—see Kitchen Notes for details]. Meanwhile, melt a little butter into a little canola oil in a small sauce pan. Use this to baste chicken a few times as it roasts. When you baste the chicken, remove the pan from the oven and close the oven door to avoid too much heat loss.

When chicken is done, transfer it to a platter or carving board and tent with foil. Let it rest for about 10 minutes before carving. At this point you can deglaze the roasting pan over burners on the stovetop, or you can be lazy like I was the other night and skip that part.

Kitchen Notes

Seasoning the bird. A search for “roast chicken” turned up more than 500 recipes on epicurious.com. Lots of them have you “carefully slide hand under skin, loosening skin over breast, thighs, and top of drumsticks” in order to insert herbs, spices, olive paste, butter or whatever. Lots of them don’t. But you know, in my admittedly limited experience [and according to at least one famous chef whose name escapes me right now], it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Okay, if you’re using cumin or some other heavy-duty spice, it does, but with most flavorings, not so much. Roasted chicken pretty much tastes like roasted chicken—which, when done right, tastes pretty wonderful. In fact, we sometimes use nothing but salt and pepper when we roast chicken. I added the rosemary here for the visual appeal as much as anything.

Is it done yet? Many recipes tell you to roast a chicken until a thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180°F. That’s one indicator. But for us, the truest test of doneness is whether the juices run clear. Use a long-handled spoon to spoon some out from the cavity, or tip the bird forward so some pours out from the cavity. If there’s any pinkness to the juices, it’s not done yet, whatever your thermometer claims.

And finally, how was the Just BARE Chicken? Delicious! Flavorful and juicy, wonderfully fresh tasting. Marion has also cooked an Asian noodle dish with the boneless skinless thigh meat, with equally satisfying results. Definitely worth looking for.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Margaret January 14, 2009 at 2:58 am

Hi, Terry,
I’ve followed your blog for a while but never commented, so first off: thanks!
Barbara Kafka’s extreme heat chicken cookery makes me very curious — what’s her method for roasting potatoes? I religiously parboil them, then roast them on the bottom rack at 425. Just wondering how the expert does it.

Randi January 14, 2009 at 4:09 am

Nothing like a good roast chicken. It’s timeless. We’ve just discovered an organic butcher nearby. I’ve already tried his fabulous thick short ribs (your amazing wine braised ribs), stew meat and beef roasts and will get a chicken next. Free range chicken definitely tastes better.

Rita January 14, 2009 at 4:22 am

As a vegetarian, I just cooked my first roast chicken this week. It actually turned out very nice (according to my husband), I added some citrus and garlic in the cavity too. Nice photo.

Donald January 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I agree Terry, when it comes to a roast chicken, simpler is indeed better. I do like to butter the bird all over though, I like the flavor left over in the crisped skin. And as with Rita, I like to put a cut lemon and other aromatics in the cavity.

Mike January 14, 2009 at 2:21 pm

First off, I love the composition on the photo!

Second, the chicken sounds delicious. I’ve tried a variety of approaches to roasting chicken, and like you’ve said, simpler is better, and done right, its all you need.

Laura January 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Terry, you are back with a vengeance. What a beautiful bird! I too am a huge fan of Barbara Kafka, but after a certain point I also couldn’t take the high temps and associated smoke alarm incidents (nor could my neighbors). I have been feeling like a little bit of a wimp about it, so I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone!

Roast chicken is one of those staple Sunday dinners for me, and instead of the rosemary I always, always stuff the chicken with a lemon. And I’ve found the 15-minutes-per-pound-plus-10-minutes-at-400-degrees rule works without fail. I’m curious to try the rosemary now though.

I actually just realized that my first ever blog post was about roast chicken…it clearly is a bigger part of my life than I thought.

Terry B January 14, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Margaret—Thanks so much for stopping by! Ms. Kafka takes the same take-no-prisoners approach to roasting potatoes as she does with chicken: 500ºF [makes you wonder if perhaps her oven dial is broken and that's the only setting she can use]. And she doesn’t do any parboiling. Just make sure whatever you’re roasting is coated in oil or butter—fat is what gives stuff a nice crisp, browned exterior while keeping the inside moist and tender. That’s the approach I take, albeit at a more modest 400ºF, with my spicy roasted potatoes. But I say that if parboiling produces delicious results for you, stick with what works!

Thanks, Randi! It’s interesting—we’ve become such a mass marketing culture that the idea of having a good butcher has all but disappeared. I’m glad to see it’s making a comeback.

Rita—On behalf of all omnivores, let me applaud you for roasting a chicken for your husband, even though you’re a vegetarian. Yes, citrus and garlic are very popular treatments for roast chicken—I’ve often seen both of them included along with rosemary too.

Donald—What’s not to like about butter, right?

Thanks, Mike! You know, one way to get the most bang for your aromatic buck is to use them when you make the sauce with the pan juices. Pass that around the table when you serve the chicken and you’ll definitely taste them.

Hi, Laura—Yeah, the smoke detector is a wonderful, lifesaving invention, but it can play hell with adventurous home cooks. One we had was so sensitive, I would disable it before undertaking major projects in the kitchen. And thanks for the timing tip—think I’ll give that a shot next time I roast a chicken!

Nick January 15, 2009 at 4:19 am

Oh! I do love Kafka, and I’m glad other people find her so interesting. Though I’ve tried many different techniques her high heat method is still my favorite. There is something about that extreme heat that produces the best flavor in the chicken. As for the smoke…that I haven’t quite figured out yet. I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. I need one of those heavy industrial hoods. That would make a lot of the high heat adventures a little more practical.

Toni January 15, 2009 at 4:32 am

Hi Terry,

Even Marcella Hazan emphasizes simplicity in a roast chicken. And isn’t roast chicken perhaps the number 1 comfort food? I don’t know about 500 degrees, but I’ve been reading recently about high heat roasting, even though I have yet to try it. I think I’ll stick to your 400 degree version. I don’t know where my fire extinguisher is!

We cannot get Just Bare chicken here in San Diego. But we can (and I do) buy organic, free range birds. They are so much better than the anemic ones found in most conventional grocery stores!

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet January 15, 2009 at 11:05 pm

He’s back!!!!!! First, I’m so glad you’re feeling better Terry and second, that roasted chicken looked so good I almost forgot it was just a photo! I want to reach in and grab it so I won’t have to cook tonite! LOL Thanks for sharing it! ;)

Audax Artifex January 16, 2009 at 2:26 am

I love your simple and thoughtfull posting – I’m a bit of a roasting freak and I have done roast chicken loads of times. I pretty much do as you advise. Have you ever brined a chicken it really improves the moistness and flavour and cooks the white and dark meats evenly, See posting below for more info. Lovely picture of the roast bird,
http://audaxartifex.blogspot.com/2008/12/brined-roast-chicken.html

Terry B January 16, 2009 at 4:53 am

Hi, Nick. I have a sneaking suspicion that your adventurous kitchen has seen its share of smoke.

Toni—After tasting Just BARE Chicken, I think we’re intrigued by exploring other non-mass market chicken.

Thanks, Kim!

Audax—I’ve brined pork chops with great results in the past, but not chicken. Sounds quite intriguing!

altadenahiker January 16, 2009 at 4:58 pm

I thought I didn’t like chicken until I tasted one that truly was free range (there are degrees of free range, apparently, and some producers play fast and loose with the definition). But this all sounds very good, although I may take fate in my hands and try the 500 degree method.

Terry B January 16, 2009 at 5:15 pm

By all means, altadenahiker, fire it up. The chicken turned out beautifully when we did. Just know that you will have to clean your oven afterward—and probably air out your house during and after.

James January 17, 2009 at 1:12 am

Terry,

It is like you are reading my mind. I have been doing a bunch of looking around for local sources of free range chicken and grass fed meats. The more I learn of the differences between that and the average grocery store cut of meat, the more freaked out I get about what I’ve been eating all these years.

I bought a free range chicken today, before I logged onto your page, and was jazzed to see such a mouth watering pic of a beautiful roast chicken. Definitely giving that a go this weekend.

I love this site. Keep up the great work.

diva January 17, 2009 at 3:04 pm

great looking bird terry! i agree. simple is best when it comes to roast chicken. i only eat free range chicken and eggs and find it to taste better and look better in general. :)

Sam January 17, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I just discovered Just Bare about a month ago at my grocery store and have been buying it ever since. I roasted a chicken a few weeks back and actually just bought another one to do this weekend. It is so, so good. Glad to see you’re blogging about it.

Tomorrow I’ll make stock with the two carcasses…I roast chicken as much for the great meal as I do for the great stock that comes afterward.

Mimi January 19, 2009 at 4:15 am

I buy an Amish chicken that claims to be hormone and additive free and organic and all that. It seems to have a milder taste than other chickens. I like to make stock, too, and find myself roasting a chicken every 10 days or so. Nothing like it!

Terry B January 20, 2009 at 12:11 am

Thanks so much, James!

diva—I’ll admit I’m a late adopter on the whole free range issue. Interestingly, after I wrote this post, I came across something in the current Bon Appétit that shows we have a ways to go in defining exactly what various green practices mean. In an article entitled “50 Easy Ways to Eat Green,” I stumbled on this somewhat disturbing statement about free-range: ” Sounds more bucolic than it is. Free-range chickens are given “access” to the outdoors, but they still tend to stay inside an overcrowded and dirty pen.”

Sam—Making stock with the leftover carcasses is definitely eating green!

Hi, Mimi! One local supermarket chain here features chickens from Amish farmers. I need to explore that avenue too, I think.

Pham Fatale (Jackie) February 5, 2009 at 4:15 am

I agree. Free-range is the best.
Nothing can beat a good roast chicken. It reminds me of my mom’s cooking.
http://www.phamfatale.com/id_44/title_Mon-Poulet-Roti-Roast-Chicken-wih-a-citrus-butter-marinade/

Jen August 19, 2009 at 1:51 am

Thank you! I read so many recipes that were just too much work. And it’s very confusing to have every one of them list different cooking times/temps. Your temperature settings produced a PERFECT roast chicken. Yum!

Terry B August 19, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Pham Fatale—Thanks for stopping by!

Jen—I’m glad it worked out so well for you! And now I want some roast chicken too. Dang.

altadenahiker October 18, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Oh, don’t mind me, you two just go about your business. I’m rifling through your files for tonight’s chicken recipe.

Terry B October 19, 2009 at 1:24 am

We were wondering what those sounds coming from the kitchen were, altadenahiker. Rifle away. Hope something catches your eye.

altadenahiker April 20, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Back again. It’s raining, so was time for my favorite roast chicken.

Terry B April 21, 2010 at 4:39 am

Hi, Altadenahiker! Sorry it’s raining, but roast chicken is the perfect antidote. Well, that and some really bad vintage TV shows.

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