Pity the cook at Thanksgiving. The king or queen of the kitchen is not only expected to be a gracious host or hostess, but also must cook multiple sides in an oven that only has room for a turkey while enduring constant advice from family members on everything from whether or not to cook the stuffing in the turkey (for safety reasons, the answer is no) to how to avoid lumpy mashed potatoes. After all, with talk of giving thanks aside, Thanksgiving is a house full of guests with success dependent upon a giant bird that is notorious for not defrosting in time, taking forever to cook, and then being dry. It’s no wonder that talented cooks with plenty of expertise start to lose a little sleep this time of year just thinking about the requisite turkey and…dare I mention it…the gravy.
It’s understandable that one might want to do a test-run before the big day, yet the cost and the time commitment of roasting a whole turkey is typically enough to dissuade even the most determined cook. Enter the chicken. Requiring the same culinary techniques to prepare as the larger fowl, roasting a chicken is a good way to practice for the big day, not to mention a delicious recipe to master for weekday cooking. So what follows is a step-by-step guide to roasting a chicken. It goes over the basics and, once attempted, should give you the confidence to tackle a turkey on Thanksgiving. Let’s get cooking!
Step 1 is not giving your bird a bath. In cooking classes, I inform participants that you shouldn’t rinse your chicken and you’ve never seen such looks of consternation. For all you mothers who think your children don’t remember anything you told them, you are wrong. They remember your advice to wash the chicken before cooking, they’ve been doing it for years, and thanks to your still looming presence in their lives I’m having a heck of a time convincing them to stop this practice. The FDA came out a few years ago advising cooks to stop rinsing their chickens. Cooking chicken to the proper temperature (165 degrees F) kills off any harmful bacteria; rinsing doesn’t do a thing except potentially splash salmonella around your sink and countertops. Don’t rinse your chicken and please tell your children to do the same.
For better or worse, many of you don’t cook whole birds that often and as a result, when the chicken comes out of its packaging it is hard to tell top from bottom. So how do you get your bearings? With a dance. Hold the wings of the chicken (the smaller appendages on either side of the chicken). As you hold the wings does it appear your chicken is dancing with you or doing a sad version of the funky chicken? If you are dancing with your chicken, you are looking at its breasts; if it’s doing the funky chicken, you are looking at its back. Some recipes call for cooking a chicken or turkey breast-side down to allow the juices to accumulate for the first part of cooking. The bird is then flipped which I find dangerous and difficult. I don’t flip my bird; I start it breast side up and it finishes breast side up.
For your turkey, you’ll want to use a roasting pan with a rack as air circulation is key to getting a perfectly roasted bird. Since chickens don’t take near as long to cook, I prefer to use onion wedges, carrots, and/or potato wedges to elevate my chicken instead of a wire rack (if you used vegetables with your turkey, they would burn before the turkey was done cooking). I scatter the vegetables on the bottom of the pan, drizzle them with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, and place the chicken on top. The chicken benefits from being elevated and having good air circulation and the vegetables, slow cooked in chicken drippings, make a fabulous side.
Regardless of whether you use a rack or vegetables for your chicken, be sure to use a pan that is just slightly bigger than your chicken. Too big of a pan causes the drippings to evaporate and burn. This, in turn, causes the fire alarm to go off. Avoid the chaos by choosing a properly sized pan in the beginning.
Getting a chicken ready for the oven can be as simple as sprinkling it with a little salt and pepper. Devoting a little more time yields even better results. I like to rub my chicken down with butter or olive oil mixed with some fresh herbs and garlic. Butter promotes better browning than olive oil, but the two are interchangeable. I also like to sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity and stuff the cavity with lemon halves and fresh herbs. As the chicken roasts, the lemon and herbs infuse the meat from the inside with wonderful aromas.
Trussing is optional, but when done it yields a more aesthetically pleasing product and promotes even cooking. I could describe how to truss the birds, but I find it easier to demonstrate how to do it and have included pictures of each step above.
Once the chicken goes into the oven, it’s essentially hands-off although I do like to rotate the chicken every 30 minutes for even browning and to baste it with its juices. The chicken is done when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken registers 165 degrees F. At this point, remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest while you prepare the gravy.
Resting simply involves letting meat or poultry sit before cutting into it. It couldn’t be easier and it makes a huge difference. If you cut into your chicken when it immediately comes out of the oven, you’ll notice tons of juice. Look closely and enjoy – that’s the last you’ll see of any moisture. When heated, molecules move quickly (think about boiling water) and when you cut into a piece of meat before it rests those molecules move from the meat to your cutting board. Allowing your meat or poultry to rest allows the temperature to drop and molecules to settle down and stop moving as much. When you go to cut the board, you won’t find any juices streaming out because they are staying within each slice.
While the chicken rests, make the gravy. Gravy tends to stress people out, but you shouldn’t be intimidated. The trick to avoiding lumpy gravy is to slowly add hot broth to the roux while whisking constantly. Still have some lumps? Don’t despair. Simply add the gravy to a blender and process until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh strainer if desired and bring to a simmer again over medium heat. I promise no one will complain.
And that’s it. I’ve included my favorite recipe for herb-roasted chicken with pan gravy below. Give it a whirl, email me with any questions or problems, and sleep soundly knowing that of all the things you need to worry about this Thanksgiving the turkey isn’t one of them.
Herb Roasted Chicken – Printer Friendly Recipe
While I don’t call for them in the recipe below, often times I cook potatoes and/or carrots under the chicken with my onions for an easy side dish.
1 whole (3 to 4 lb) chicken, cooking time will vary depending on size
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or softened butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, and/or flat leaf parsley)
2 sprigs each of rosemary, thyme, and flat leaf parsley
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 lemon, halved
2 yellow onions, quartered
Special Equipment: kitchen twine, small roasting pan or baking sheet
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, and minced herbs. Squeeze a little juice from one of the lemon halves into the mixture and set the herb oil and the lemon halves to the side.
Spread the onion quarters over a small roasting pan or baking sheet. Remove the chicken from its packaging. Trim any excess fat and remove the giblets from the center cavity. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Season the chicken, including the cavity, generously with salt and pepper. Place the chicken, breast side up, on the onion slices. Stuff the chicken cavity with the lemon halves and herb sprigs.
Loosen the skin of the chicken with your hands. Generously rub the olive oil and herb mixture all over the chicken. Make sure to rub the mixture under the skin of the chicken. Truss the chicken.
Bake the chicken, breast side up, for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and roast for an additional 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a thermometer registers 165 degrees. Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest for at least ten minutes before carving. While the chicken is resting, make the gravy.
Makes about 1 cup
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup homemade chicken stock or less-sodium chicken broth, more if gravy is too thick
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Remove the onions from the roasting pan and set aside. Place the roasting pan over two burners set to medium heat. Add the wine to the pan and scrape up any bits stuck to the pan with a wooden spoon. This step is called de-glazing. Add the chicken stock to the pan and bring to a simmer. Note: Don’t add the full cup of broth if it is too much liquid for the pan. Any remaining broth can be added to the saucepan later.
Carefully pour the broth and drippings from the pan into a liquid measuring cup. The fat will rise to the top. Skim off the fat and reserve 2 tablespoons of it. Discard any additional fat.
Heat the reserved fat in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to make a roux and let cook for about one minute. Whisking constantly, pour the broth in a slow stream into the pan. Add any reserved chicken broth at this point. Simmer gently, whisking constantly, until the gravy thickens. Season the gravy with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with the roasted chicken and onions (if desired).