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Chat Leftovers: Roast chicken basics

It's that time again: Free Range chat day, time to toss your food-related questions at Food section staffers and see what comes back. Whether you want to know more about food-and-cocktail pairings, or homemade personal pizzas, or sandwiches for a crowd, or if you just want to talk about Easter recipe ideas, the chat -- from 1 to 2 p.m. -- is the place to be.

No question is too basic. Here's one we couldn't get to in last week's chat:

My question is about chicken: specifically, roasting and serving a whole one. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never done it. This is one of those things that’s probably ridiculously easy but for some reason terrifies me!

I’ve seen recipes or articles that say I can just toss a quartered lemon and some herbs into the cavity, while others say to rub various flavory items under the skin. Some say both. Have you got a favorite method or recipe?

Second, what sort of chicken should I look for at the grocery store? There are only two of us; leftovers are fine, of course, but I don’t need to cook a ginormous bird.

Finally, how should I portion/serve it? Is there a particular way to carve, or do I just cut it up?

Recipe Included

In fact, "ridiculously easy" is about right. Roasting a chicken is practically magic. You basically stick a bird in the oven, and what comes out is a golden masterpiece that fills your house with delicious smells. Either flavoring method you've read about -- in the cavity or under the skin -- works fine. Personally, I'm not a fan of putting a lemon into the cavity; I think it makes the meat too citrusy. But a lot of people like it, so clearly it's a matter of taste. I always put herb butter under the skin, but then I like butter in almost everything. The herbs I use are frequently just what I have in the refrigerator or what's growing in the garden: thyme, rosemary, parsley.

At the store, look for a whole chicken; you'll commonly find them at between 3 and 4 pounds, and that's a good size for two people who want a modest amount of leftovers.

After roasting, cut the bird up into quarters or into the basic serving-portion components of breast, thigh, leg. (You've bought whole ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens from the grocery store, right? Same idea.) You can carve it at the table (pretend it's just a small Thanksgiving turkey), but there's no shame in doing the cutting in the kitchen and bringing out the pieces nicely arranged on a platter.

To start you off, here's Nourish columnist Stephanie Witt Sedgwick's really basic recipe, perfect for newbies, that we ran several years ago. And after that, a slightly more complicated (but still easy) version from Gastronomer columnist Andreas Viestad that comes with its own side dish of potatoes. Try them both; with a good instant-read or meat thermometer, you won't go wrong.

-- Jane Touzalin

Basic Roast Chicken
4 servings

Here's the basic technique; the flavoring we leave up to you. Some cooks stuff the cavity with halved lemons or sprigs of fresh herbs, others combine butter or oil with citrus zest, garlic and/or chopped herbs and spread it under the skin and over the meat. Suit yourself.

3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken
4 tablespoons vegetable oil or salted butter, or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter plus 1/4 teaspoons salt, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Remove the giblets from the cavity of the chicken. Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Fold the wing tips back behind the neck end. Transfer the chicken to a small roasting pan. Using your fingers, spread the oil or butter evenly over the skin of the chicken.

Roast the chicken in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Roast for another 15 minutes. Then cover it loosely with aluminum foil. When the chicken has roasted for a total of about 30 minutes, begin checking the temperature. The chicken is done when the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh registers 180 degrees. The total cooking time will be about 60 minutes.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the oven and set aside to rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the pan juices into a fat separator cup or a measuring cup. After 1 to 2 minutes, the fat will rise to the surface and the juices will be on the bottom. Remove and discard the fat. Cut the chicken into quarters or carve as desired. Serve the chicken with the defatted pan juices spooned over.

Gastronomer Roast Chicken and Potatoes
2 or 3 servings

This is one of the simplest roast chicken recipes you can find, inspired by chef Thomas Keller. The only small technical step is to truss the legs, but that is not crucial; one might even argue that the result can be better with no trussing. (But a trussed bird will look nicer.) Because the recipe is so simple, the quality of the chicken is important.

In roasting the potato slices, use a small to medium ovenproof dish that will not block the chicken from the heat. It will require stacking the potatoes, which will cook more slowly that way, so it's best to precook them (see NOTE).

(Mette Randem for The Washington Post)

For the chicken:
2 1/2- to 3-pound chicken, gizzard packet removed (reserve for another use, if desired)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika or chopped thyme leaves (optional)
2 to 4 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the potatoes:
5 to 6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, then precooked (see NOTE)
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 1 sprig of thyme
1 tablespoon cold salted or unsalted butter, cut into very thin slices (optional; preferably using a mandoline or V-slicer)

For the chicken: If necessary, slightly lower the middle oven rack so the chicken will be situated in the middle of the oven as it roasts; preheat to 425 degrees.

Rinse the chicken and dry with paper towels inside and outside. Rub it with a generous amount of salt and pepper on the inside and outside, plus paprika, if using. Rub with the butter. If you want a more attractive result, use kitchen twine to truss (tie together) the legs.

Rub a little butter or canola oil on a roasting rack; place the bird on it.

Prepare the potatoes: Season the partially cooked potatoes lightly with salt and pepper and place them in a small or medium ovenproof baking dish, arranging the thyme leaves between the slices. Place the slices of butter over the potatoes, if desired.

When ready to roast, place the roasting rack with the chicken directly on the middle oven rack, with the potatoes positioned directly below to catch the chicken's juices, making sure there is enough headspace so the heat is not blocked from circulating under the bird.

Roast for 50 to 60 minutes, looking through the oven window to make sure the chicken does not burn. Test for doneness by piercing the bird where the leg is at its thickest. If the juices run clear, the chicken is done. If they are still pinkish, roast for 10 minutes and check again. If the potatoes are turning dry or becoming too brown, cover loosely with aluminum foil.

Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before serving. Carve the chicken and divide the pieces, along with the potatoes, among individual plates. If using the thyme, season just before serving. Serve hot.

NOTE: Precook the sliced potatoes by placing them in a large saute pan; cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 10 to 15 minutes; they will not be cooked through. Transfer to a small or medium ovenproof casserole dish.

By Jane Touzalin  |  March 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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Next: Real Entertaining bonus recipe


Roast Chicken? I use my own version of Thomas Keller's method, too. I don't even put anything on it or in it except a little salt -- just let the chicken shine. It's important to get a really good bird though. The best I ever made was from a local farmer who talked me into chicken for a dinner party (I was going to do steak) because she had just killed them the day before.

Make sure to toss the carcass in the slow cooker covered with water for broth afterwards.

Posted by: SeeJennRun | March 3, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Roasting a chicken is probably intimidating because it looks and tastes so good when you are done, seems like it must have been complicated.
Actually, you can do it without oil or salt or anything. I don't truss it.
Carving it can be more of an issue. The first few times, it might be better to do it in the kitchen, before serving. As with a turkey, probably best to disjoint the thighs (or at least one) and the wings (or the one on the side you started with) and then slice the breast meat. Disjoint the leg from the thigh and you'll have plenty for two. You can carve the rest after dinner or the next day.

Posted by: eatingout | March 3, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

this could be a great easter dinner recipe. I found an awesome recipe for dessert.. Cake Balls.. go easy and can decorate for Easter.
recipe is here:
they are bite sized cakes dipped in melted chocolate.. so delicious.. kids love them and best of all you can make and freeze!

Posted by: amy3e | March 3, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

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