Julia Child used to say that you can judge the quality of a restaurant by its roast chicken.
Her point: It’s so simple, with just a few ingredients. But there are endless ways to do it. How well you can execute that one dish shows a lot about what kind of cook you are.
A fast, minimalist cook just wants to throw a chicken in a pan and shove it in an oven. A fusser needs to baste, brush and turn. An artist slides herbs under the skin just so. A control nut ties that chicken up tight.
To see what the masters can teach us about something so simple, we took three famous roast chicken recipes: chef Thomas Keller’s brined, roasted chicken, San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers’ salt-rubbed chicken from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” and Julia Child’s butter-brushed version from “The Way to Cook.”
We followed their recipes with just one change in the choice of our chickens.
While Child called for a larger chicken, sometimes called a roaster, both Keller and Rodgers suggested smaller, 2 ½-pound chickens. In her classic 2002 book, Rodgers, who died in December, wrote that smaller chickens have more skin per ounce of meat, so they roast quickly and evenly while staying succulent.
You used to see that size frequently in stores, labeled “broiler-fryers.” But these days, most of those are cut into parts. Whole chickens, labeled fryers, usually are larger, around 4½ to 5 pounds. That’s what we went with. While you can get smaller chickens from local farms, we wanted to conduct our test with supermarket chickens that anyone could find.
The result of our test? All three methods resulted in good chickens. Keller’s sweet brine resulted in a chicken with very dark skin, Child’s butter-basted chicken had delicious skin but slightly less flavorful meat, while Rodgers’ salt-rubbed chicken took the most time but had the moistest meat.
The main difference was in time, which is a good way to make your choice: If you have a couple of days, go with the Zuni Cafe chicken. If you have a day, try Keller’s version. And if you’re in a hurry and just need to get on with it, try Child’s recipe.
The main thing to remember is this thought, from Nigella Lawson:
“You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?”
Thomas Keller’s Roast Chicken
From “Bouchon,” by Thomas Keller (Artisan, 2004). It’s best to make the brine the night before so it can chill.
The brining time would be 6 hours for a 2½-pound chicken to 8 to 10 hours for a 4½-pound chicken.
1 whole fryer (we used a 4.86-pound whole fryer)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves
½ gallon (8 cups) water
½ cup kosher salt
3 tablespoons honey
6 bay leaves
¼ cup skin-on, smashed garlic cloves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
1 bunch thyme sprigs
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
Combine the brine ingredients (water, salt, honey, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, parsley, lemon zest and juice) in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute, until salt is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool, then refrigerate until ready to use.
Remove any large lumps of fat around the cavity of the chicken. Place in a 2-gallon resealable bag and add the brine. Seal back, pressing out air, so brine fully covers the chicken, then refrigerate 6 to 10 hours (6 hours for a smaller, 2½- to 3-pound chicken, 8 to 10 for a larger, 4½- to 5-pound chicken).
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Remove chicken from the brine, discarding brine. Rinse and pat completely dry with paper towels. Season the inside with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Truss chicken, tying legs and neck skin down and tucking wing tips under the back. Chicken can be refrigerated for several hours at this point. Let stand at room temperature 20 to 30 minutes before roasting.
Place a heavy ovenproof skillet on the stove over high heat for about 10 minutes, or until hot. (Preheating the skillet will keep the skin from sticking.) Add the canola oil, then place the chicken in the skillet breast up and move the skillet to the oven with the legs facing toward the back.
Roast for 40 to 50 minutes, checking every 15 minutes and rotating skillet or reducing heat to 425 if the skin is browning unevenly or too fast. After 40 minutes, use an instant-read thermometer to check between the leg and thigh; the temperature should be 155 degrees.
Remove from oven, add thyme leaves to skillet and baste several times with the pan juices and thyme. Let stand about 10 minutes. Cut and remove the twine and cut the chicken into serving pieces to serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken
From “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” by Judy Rodgers (W.W. Norton, 2002). This method, sometimes called dry brining, also makes a great roasted turkey.
1 whole chicken (we used a 4.7-pound chicken, although Rodgers prefers a 3-pound bird)
4 (½-inch-long) herb sprigs (thyme, marjo- ram, rosemary or sage)
¾ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt per pound (3½ teaspoons for 4.7 pounds)
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
Two to three days before cooking, remove any lumps of fat around the opening of the cavity. Pat very dry with paper towels inside and out. Gently slide your finger under the skin on both sides of the breasts and the thickest part of the thigh, making pockets. Slide the herbs under the skin.
Season chicken with salt and pepper, seasoning more heavily around the thicker sections like the breast than the skinny wings and leg tips. Sprinkle a little just inside the cavity, along the backbone. Tuck the wing tips under the back. Cover loosely and refrigerate two to three days.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Choose a shallow roasting pan, a 10-inch skillet or an ovenproof baking dish that’s barely larger than the chicken. Preheat over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and place it, breast up, in the pan; it should sizzle.
Place in the center of the oven. After 20 minutes, it should be sizzling and browning; if it isn’t, increase the heat 25 degrees (if it’s browning too fast or smoking, reduce the heat by 25 degrees).
After 30 minutes, turn the chicken breast-down. Roast 10 to 20 minutes longer, depending on size. Turn breast-up and roast 5 to 10 minutes, or until the thickest part of the thigh is 155 degrees.
Remove from oven and let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Carefully pour off the clear fat from the pan, leaving the drippings. Add about 1 tablespoon water to the hot pan and swirl it. Add any juices from the chicken, bring to a boil, then serve with the chicken.
Makes 4 servings.
Julia Child’s Roast Chicken
From “The Way to Cook,” by Julia Child (Alfred Knopf, 1989). Why truss? By keeping the legs and wings tight to the body, the chicken cooks more easily and loses less of the cooking juices.
1 large chicken (we used a 4.95-pound bird, but you can go up to 7)
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle a little salt inside the cavity. Truss the chicken, using kitchen string to tie the legs together and tie the neck skin and tuck the wing tips under the back. Rub the chicken with the butter and place breast-up on the rack of a roasting pan.
Place the roasting pan with the chicken on the lower-middle rack in the oven. Roast 10 minutes. Turn the chicken on one side and continue roasting 10 minutes. Baste with accumulated pan juices (a heatproof brush is faster than a bulb baster), turn the chicken over and continue roasting for 10 minutes.
Reduce oven to 350 degrees. Baste again quickly. After 10 minutes, turn the chicken on its other side, sprinkle lightly with salt, strew the carrots and onions in the pan and baste again.
After 10 minutes, turn the chicken breast-side up and continue roasting, basting occasionally, until the thickest part of the thigh reaches 155 degrees.
Remove from oven and let stand 20 minutes. Spoon off all but about a tablespoon of fat from the roasting pan. Place over high heat and stir about ½ cup of chicken stock and ½ cup dry white wine into the drippings. Bring to a boil until it is reduced and syrupy, then stir in a tablespoon of butter. Serve with the sliced chicken.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.