Let’s get right to it. The only way to make a truly perfect roast chicken is to cut it in pieces, and then cook those pieces until each one is done. There, I said it. Call me a heretic if you like, but everything else you have tried, from Thomas Keller to Cook’s Illustrated recipes, can’t undo the basic truth. Chicken has two distinct kinds of meat and has an irregular shape. It is not meant to be cooked whole- and there is NO GOOD REASON to do it, particularly when there is a better solution.
I have been working for a while on finding the perfect metaphor for foodies’ seemingly endless quest to make a perfect whole roast chicken (and yes, I am guilty too). I am thinking “El Dorado” (never found), “Moby Dick” (ends badly, “to the last, I grapple with thee…”), “Charge of the Light Brigade” (they all died), “square peg, round hole” (just hit it harder..I swear) and even “the horror” (nothing like some Heart of Darkness to lighen the atmosphere in the kitchen…;-).
The point is, I can think of nothing more futile and fruitless than trying to successfully roast a whole chicken, and yet almost all of us try to do it, over and over and over. Even the luminaries of cuisine insist that it can be done, and we all slavishly learn multiple trussing, flipping or butterflying techniques to reach whole roast chicken Nirvana. We even convince ourselves that we succeed- but we rarely do (c’mon, you know the breast was a little dry or the legs could have been cooked a bit more, it is OK to admit it). And even if we do “succeed”, you just went through hell to get there- and there is no guarantee you can do it again.
How do I know cooking whole chickens is a futile endeavor? Let’s start with known, accepted facts: white and dark meat require different temperatures for doneness, whole chickens have an irregular shape and density, plus they have a big hole in the middle. All basics of cooking proteins suggest that these factors are not a winning formula for uniform doneness- we want uniform pieces that cook at similar temperatures and times. If we can’t have that, we should cook the pieces separately and to their desired doneness. We employ this logic for every other kind of meat, especially when roasting, but somehow we didn’t get the message with chicken.
Now there are a few suggested techniques to cook a (mostly) whole chicken successfully, and there are plenty of bloggers and chefs who say they can work. Most focus on trussing and constant flipping or butterflying the bird to alter its shape and even-out the cooking. We have tried them all, some better than others. But let me ask you a simple question- how much do you want to touch raw chicken? Are you willing to give a raw chicken a big, juicy, microbial hug? And then do you want to clean your whole kitchen, preferably with bleach and water?
Because what the “experts” forget to tell you is that if you truss or butterfly your chicken- you will be handling that bird. A lot. And did I mention raw chicken is slippery? And it is not fun to cut the backbone from a chicken (if you do go this path, get your butcher to do it). And trussing a bird gets easy after you do it ten times- great in a commercial kitchen, not so fun at home. Yet many foodies and chefs all think mutilating a whole chicken at home is some sort of “rite of passage”. It isn’t. Serving a good roast chicken is a rite of passage- so let’s employ techniques that will yield a good, consistent result.
And finally, even if you make it to Nirvana and make a perfect whole roasted chicken, what do you do next? You cut it into pieces for service- all that work, just to cut the bird into pieces anyway! And guess what? You can still present chicken pieces beautifully (see photos). And if you cut the chicken into pieces and cook it separately, the chicken will be much more likely to look and taste good. So why not just cook the chicken in pieces to start with?
So now that I’ve have my little rant, here is a recipe and some techniques that will provide a great, consistent roast chicken (in pieces). Firstly, let’s discuss the goals of a good roast chicken- most people want a good presentation, deep flavor, juicy meat and a crispy skin. Some tasty jus, as a light sauce, is nice too. Well, we can have all of that- and use chicken pieces. I will openly note that this recipe will work best if you have a meat thermometer (preferably digital), but this is true for any chicken dish.
For this version of the recipe we use a nice buttermilk marinade to boost flavor, but the same basic cooking techniques can be used with plain chicken pieces. The buttermilk marinade recipe is adapted from Nigella Lawson, Smitten Kitchen and from our friend Chad (the chef), but the cooking technique is mostly ours. The marinade is a simple combination of buttermilk, oil, garlic and spices. You can marinate the chicken at room temp for a few hours or overnight (better) in the fridge. It is easiest to combine the marinade and the chicken pieces (2 legs, 2 breasts) in a large sealable plastic bag.
As for the cooking, the process is very straightforward. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Then you build a foundation for the chicken pieces. We lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet, then add 4 “beds” of sliced onion, sliced lemons, salt, pepper and thyme. (This is basically the same stuff we would place in cavity of a whole chicken.) The onion/lemon/thyme “beds” will add flavor and moisture and also help build up some jus in the pan. We then remove the chicken pieces from the marinade, wipe off any excess, and place the chicken pieces on the onion/lemon/thyme “beds”. We add some oil, paprika, salt and pepper to the skin for flavor and extra browning. We then place the baking sheet in the oven. (Hint: if you like extra-crispy skin, place the sheet with chicken under the broiler for 2-4 minutes, then roast).
After 20-25 minutes, check the doneness of each piece of chicken with your thermometer. You want 170-175 degrees for the legs and 160 degrees for the breast, but remember that the chicken keeps cooking after it is removed from the oven, so you may want to pull the pieces 5-10 degrees before their target temperature. When the pieces are at desired temperature, pull them from the heat and place on a cutting board to rest. Let other pieces cook until desired temperature is reached and then pull them from the oven as well. We found that the legs will usually finish first by about 5-7 minutes, but this will vary by the size and shape of the chicken pieces. And this is the key- chicken parts are irregularly shaped (even 2 sides of a breast from the same bird), by checking each separate piece we can get uniform doneness. This may sound like a “fussy” extra step- but it is a lot easier than trussing or butterflying a bird, and it has the extra benefit of giving you a perfectly done piece of chicken, every time.
Let the chicken pieces rest at least ten minutes and then serve. You can arrange the pieces as a full bird, if you like, and have a very pretty presentation. You can also garnish with the onion and lemon slices from the “beds”- some fresh herbs are a nice touch as well. Finally, you may have a little jus in the baking sheet and/or on the cutting board- simply combine the liquid and serve as a sauce or drizzle over the chicken before service.
And once you serve this chicken, you will not go back. The chicken is sooo good, particularly if you use the buttermilk marinade. The dish will be pretty, flavorful, juicy and with a crispy skin (and just a touch of lemony jus- nice!). And everyone at your table will be happy, the dark meat and white meat will be perfect. You will reach roast chicken Nirvana…by arriving in pieces.
Roast Chicken (in pieces):
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson, Smitten Kitchen and Chad Callahan)
Notes Before You Start:
- If you can buy right and left side breast and leg pieces, you will get a better presentation- more like a whole chicken. Certainly not necessary, but kinda cool.
What You Get: A great roast chicken where all the pieces are all perfectly cooked. A consistent cooking method.
What You Need: A digital thermometer. With poultry you need to be precise to gauge doneness. Kitchen chefs will tell you they can do it by eye or with experience, but they are clearly wrong. Just think how many bad chickens are served at restaurants every day. Get a digital thermometer- be right and be happy.
How Long? If using the marinade, 1-24 hours of marination time. Expect about 45 minutes of active cooking time. With planning, this roast chicken can be an anytime dish.
- 2 Cups buttermilk
- ¼ Cup olive oil
- 1 Teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 Teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
- ½ Teaspoon chili powder
- 1 and ½ Tablespoons salt
- ½ Tablespoon black pepper
- 2 Garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 Medium onion, thinly sliced (about 8 slices)
- 1 Lemon, thinly sliced (about 8 slices)
- 8-10 sprigs of fresh thyme (or substitute 1 tablespoon dried thyme)
- 2 Bone-in chicken breasts, about 2 pounds
- 2 Whole chicken legs (thigh and drumstick), about 1.5- 2 pounds
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 Teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
- Salt and pepper
- Combine all the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Stir to combine.
- Place chicken pieces in a large ziptop bag, Slowly pour in marinade. Close bag, move around the chicken to coat. Place the bag in the fridge (good to still place the bag in a bowl, the bag may leak) for 12-24 hours. Or allow chicken to marinate for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature. (Overnight in the fridge is better).
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Have a rack set in the middle of the oven.
- Grease a rimmed baking sheet with a cooking spray or a few drops of vegetable oil. Create 4 “beds” of onion and lemon slices on the baking sheet. Add thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the onion/lemon “beds”.
- Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and shake/wipe away as much excess marinade as possible. Place chicken pieces on the onion/lemon beds. Drizzle each chicken piece with olive oil and spread out the oil to cover as much surface as possible. Dust each chicken piece with paprika and a liberal dose of salt and pepper.
- Optional Step: Turn on your broiler and, when hot, place the chicken under the broiler for 2-4 minutes- just until the skin dries and begins to brown. This will accelerate browning, and provide crispier skin. Now proceed to the next step with oven at 425 degrees.
- Place chicken in oven. After 25 minutes, check temperature of chicken pieces with a digital thermometer. Legs are ready at 170-175 degrees and breasts at 160 degrees (pull pieces from oven a few degrees before reaching desired temp). Check every few minutes and pull chicken pieces when they reached desired temperature. (Note: if not using a thermometer, expect 30 minutes for legs and 35-40 minutes for breasts). Once removed from oven, allow chicken pieces to rest at least ten minutes.
- After the chicken has rested, collect any jus from the baking sheet and/or cutting board. Reserve for use as a sauce, if you like. Arrange the chicken on a platter for service. Garnish with lemon and onion slices from the baking pan and add fresh herbs. Serve. Enjoy. And relax knowing you can repeat your success anytime…