Have you ever cooked through a recipe with absolute anticipation only to find at the end that it didn’t yield anything close to the results that you had hoped for? That something, somehow was missing.
For years the humble roast chicken was a real source of frustration for me. It should be so simple: a chicken (or two), some herbs, maybe an onion and/or a lemon, some salt and pepper and a roasting pan that was neither too large nor too small. Put all this in a preheated oven for an hour and a half or so and a delicious, juicy, flavourful chicken should emerge.
Except for the most part it didn’t. The skin would look anemic or blackened, the breast meat would be dry but the legs undercooked. I tried trussing and then not trussing, seasoning the cavity or putting herbs and butter under the skin of the breasts, I basted and brined and then I decided to check in online to see if anyone else was frustrated like me.
I came across a lot of recipes for “the best roast chicken” but there was one that caught my eye from Judy Rodgers who is the chef at the San Francisco restaurant Zuni Cafe. I bought her cookbook years ago but had forgotten about her recipe for Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad. Pulling out and re-reading this cookbook I am reminded of how thoughtful and inquisitive a chef Judy Rodgers is. Doing her own culinary research leads her to promote some unorthodox cooking practises such as not skimming her stock and always salting her proteins far in advance of cooking them. Her writing style is amazingly eloquent and her recipes are so inspiring they provide even the most advanced cook something new to think about and something new to try.
The people online who had cooked this roast chicken were absolutely passionate about it and, as I came to understand, for good reason.
This is the only method you will ever need to achieve a perfect roast chicken. Ever.
The recipe in the cookbook is long, covering almost 5 pages. A couple of those pages are devoted to the bread salad which is amazing but for this post I am going to concentrate on the chicken itself. I’m going to boil it down to the basics but feel free to hunt down the original recipe, it really is a great read!
Zuni Roast Chicken
The only change I made was to roast the chicken on a bed of thickly sliced onions which are delicious served alongside the chicken. I also always roast two chickens at a time to serve 4 to 6 people with leftovers for sandwiches, salads or soup.
The success of this method for roast chicken is dependent upon 4 things:
1. Ensure that the size of your bird(s) is between 2-3/4 and 3-1/2 pounds as these stay moist when roasted at high heat for a short time. I am able to find organic “fryer” chickens at my grocery store that work perfectly.
2. High heat is the second requirement, between 450 degrees F and 500 degrees F.
3. Make sure your chicken is very dry before cooking so that you end up with a roasted bird and not a steamed one.
4. Salt your chicken(s) at least 24 hours (and up to 3 days) before roasting. Use 3/4 teaspoon per pound of chicken.
For the chicken:
2 small chickens weighing 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 pounds
8 sprigs of thyme or rosemary
3 yellow onions peeled and thickly sliced to act as a base for the chicken to sit on
Season the chickens at least 1 day and up to 3 days before roasting.
Remove the lump of fat or piece of neck that may be present inside the cavity of each chicken. Rinse the chickens and then pat them very, very dry inside and out.
Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts to loosen and form a little pocket and do the same on the thickest part of each of the thighs. Put one of the sprigs of your chosen herb into each one of these loosened pockets.
In a small bowl measure out 3/4 of a teaspoon per pound of chicken and add some freshly ground pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon per bird). Season the chicken all over with the salt and pepper mixture including the inside cavity. Season the thick sections like the breast a little more heavily than the wings, ankles and cavity.
Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
To roast the chicken:
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Choose a roasting dish that is just barely larger than your two chickens.
Peel and slice the onions and place in the bottom of your roasting dish. Pat the chickens dry and place them breast side up on the onion slices. Do not truss the chickens as this will allow even more of the skin to become crispy and blistered.
Place the roasting pan in the centre of the preheated oven and listen to ensure that the chickens are starting to sizzle and brown during the first 20 minutes of roasting. If this does not occur increase the temperature progressively until it does. It your chickens are smoking and the skin is beginning to char reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. If you have a convection setting on your oven you can use it for the first 30 minutes of roasting. This may help to reduce the overall cooking time by 5 to 10 minutes.
Roast the birds for 30 minutes breast side up and then flip them over and roast for another 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size. Flip them back over to breast side up for a final 5 to 10 minutes to crisp up the skin. Total roasting time should be between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
Allow the chicken to rest for a few minutes before serving.
Serves 4 to 6 with some very coveted leftovers.