Roast Chicken: What’s Your Secret?

Omnivores, tell me something: What is it about Sunday and roast chicken? Why do they go together like peanut butter and jelly? And why does the world always seem a little safer when there’s a bird in the oven?

(AP Photo/Larry Crowe).

A thick cloud cover and an autumn chill in the air were all the reasons I needed to make it roast chicken night at Casa Appetite this past Sunday.

Anybody who eats roast chicken knows that the perfume of crackling skin, as seductive and mouth watering though it may be, does not guarantee a superlative taste sensation. In fact, we’ve all had our fair share of mediocre, underseasoned roast chicken that, based on smell alone, should have been dynamite. Most veteran cooks will tell you it’s easier to screw up a roast chicken than to do it culinary justice. And maybe the easier-said-than-done enigma about the roast chicken is why people go crazy when it’s done right -- it's like finding gold.

What follows are tips and tricks to making an out-of-this-world roast chicken, based on lessons learned along the way. Now, remember, I said tips and tricks – not rules and regs. There are lots of ways to do this dance, which is why I invite you to share your tried-and-true high-fivin’ tricks to making the world sing after eating your roast chicken. The stage is all yours.

KOD’s Roast Chicken Tricks:
Use 1 teaspoon of salt for every 1.25 pounds; I like Kosher salt or fine sea salt
Trim dangling fat around the breast
My preferred method is to butterfly (or spatchcock) the bird, which means to remove the back bone with shears, so that bird can lay flat on a roasting pan.
Season meat on top but more importantly under the skin (particularly on the breast) and on the bone side of the torso
Oven is set to 400 degrees

How long does it take? For a backbone-in chicken, estimate 22 minutes per pound. For a butterflied chicken, estimate 17-20 minutes per pound.

How do you know it’s done?
When an instant read thermometer, inserted in the inner thigh, should read 165-170 degrees. Juices will also run clear.

Favorite seasonings:
Whole unpeeled garlic cloves, placed inbetween the leg/thigh joints, around the wings and under the skin

Fresh rosemary sprigs, place under the bird and under the breast skin

A spice rub of cayenne or dried chiles, coriander seeds, black pepper and star anise, all ground, then mixed with salt

With a skinless bird (nice in the summer), I like a spice rub of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric and cayenne, lime juice and olive oil.

Does it really matter if the bird is organic or pasture raised?
If you can afford it, I strongly encourage you to buy a chicken raised on pasture with room to roam. You really can taste the difference.

Roast Chicken Video How-to

By Kim ODonnel |  October 8, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Chicken/Poultry
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I always put lemon halves and garlic cloves in cavity of chicken and roast. Turns out great.

Posted by: Momof2MD | October 8, 2008 8:21 AM

I've made roast chicken a couple of times, with good not great results. It's better than turkey for Thanksgiving, especially with our small family. I'll try butterflying the next time. The big problem is that I always end up with tons of leftovers that I never know what to do with. I get sick of chicken before I run out of leftovers.

But I have a bunch of friends coming over soon. Hmmm.....

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | October 8, 2008 8:42 AM

For leftovers:
1. Wrap up with cheese and mustard
2. Make spaghetti sauce with chopped chicken
3. Make soup - add all the bones and chopped meat to chopped onions, carrots, celery, leeks, and all the other veggies you have. Cover with water, add salt, pepper, bay leaves, rosemary, sage, garlic and simmer until the veggies are done.
4. Make tacos with chopped meat.
5. Make chicken salad (mustard, mayo, celery, onions, green peppers, celery, boiled eggs, and water chestnuts)
6. Make soup and then add mixed biscuit mix to make chicken and dumplins (add spices to the dumplin mix and use some of the stock to increase the flavor).

Posted by: LmThib | October 8, 2008 9:01 AM

Regarding the comment about having left-over chicken, which I find personally difficult to understand, I might suggest:
1-dicing the left-up chicken and freezing it for Chicken Salad or using it in the below recipe;
1 Package of Classic DuFour Puff Pastry (available at Whole Foods Freezer Section) place 2 T of Diced Chicken on a 2x2 piece of DuFour Puff Pastry, sprinkle with dry herbs and a 1/4tsp of hearty mustard. Flop the Puff Pastry together and seal the edges with egg white and brush the puff with beaten egg. Bake at 350 for 15-18 minutes. A quick savory from left-over chicken.

Posted by: David | October 8, 2008 9:47 AM

I roast mine covered for a while, then take the lid off the roasting pan toward the end to let the skin brown. Baste with it's own juices mixed with a little salt and pepper, lemon juice or white wine, garlic, and rosemary. Surround the bird with potatoes, carrots and onions in the roasting pan. Smells heavenly.

Posted by: South of the Beltway | October 8, 2008 9:56 AM

The most important steps in roasting chicken are using the correct amount of salt and not overcooking it. Unfortunately, most people under-salt and overcook chicken. Honestly, if you can get those two things right, you will have a fabulous tasting roast chicken with no more than salt and pepper as seasoning. But, my favorite way is lemon, garlic, and fresh rosemary. Yum!

Posted by: Sweetie | October 8, 2008 9:58 AM

Oh, you are so right on about the comfort factor. Sundays every week! Love the basic Nourishing Traditions recipe, which calls for basting with butter and letting full heads of garlic soften while bird cooks. Love to put lots of onions in the pan too so they get caramelized. Must defrost bird now.

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | October 8, 2008 10:11 AM

The key to a really moist chicken is brining it in salt water for 8-12 hours in the fridge before cooking it. You will not believe how juicy and flavorful it is when you do this. I also do rosemary, thyme, and orange wedges in the cavity and seasoning on and under the skin.

Posted by: Kate | October 8, 2008 11:43 AM

I always roast a small chicken (3-4 lb.) I think that makes a difference in the moistness of the meat. Also, there's not too much in the way of leftovers for DH and I.

I oil, salt and pepper the skin, and stuff with makes amazing pan juices for gravy! I also cover the breast with slices of jowl bacon. As for temp and time, I think I roast at 350F for 15 min per lb, plus about 10. I always check the chicken package for guidelines and follow those...never had a problem with a dry bird that way. And let the bird rest before whacking into it!

Posted by: librarylady | October 8, 2008 11:49 AM

Hey Kim - I used to have your Naked Chicken recipe but seem to have lost it. Can you re-post and add to your Blog Recipe index? That would be a lifesaver!

Posted by: Washington, DC | October 8, 2008 12:02 PM

re: leftovers. think of the chicken as an accompement rather than the star when it's leftover. dice & mix with rice, polenta, quinoa or pasta with a variety of sauces either white (fat & flour based), red (tomato based), vinegrette or broth. once you have that then you can sorta mix & match. rice with tomato sauce, white sauce, vinegrette or broth. quinoa with the same choices. once you have a basic set of sauces then you can play with what seasonings go best with what.

Posted by: quark | October 8, 2008 12:11 PM

I used to have a terrible time roasting any poultry. I was given a vertical roaster as gag gift from my family who know that though I'm a good cook, I just couldn't roast a bird. Well, that vertical roaster did the trick. Since then, every roast chicken has turned out pretty good.

Better yet, I've become a convert to the Cook's Illustrated French Chicken in a Pot recipe they published a few issues back. You don't get lovely skin, but the chicken itself is out of this world moist and delicious. The ideas is that you roast a chicken in a 5- to 8-quart dutch oven or pot, with just a minimum of onion and celery, a bunch of garlic, plenty of salt rubbed under the skin, at super low temperature (250-degrees, I think) for a longer time (a five pound bird takes about 2 hours). It's consistently the best roast bird I've ever eaten.

Posted by: Steph | October 8, 2008 12:25 PM

My secret is my crockpot. Toss the bird in there whole with your favorite seasonings and a whole lemon cut up tucked into the cavity. It is so delicious. Tough to get out of the pot, but so tasty.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | October 8, 2008 12:32 PM

Naked Chicken recipe details:

I forgot to mention that the backbone can serve as your stock base -- wash thoroughly, remove skin and throw into a pot for chicken stock. No need to wait to finish up the entire bird and pick off all the meat off carcass to make stock. And if you're not in the mood to make stock right away, freeze the backbone until you're ready.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 8, 2008 12:41 PM

Julia Child's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking has always produced an amazing bird for me. Its a bit more work than just putting the chicken in the oven but is well worth the results.

Posted by: mtg | October 8, 2008 12:43 PM

Cooks Illustrated has a dynamite recipe for roast chicken in a pot. You basically put the chicken in a dutch oven with aromatics and bake. The skin doesn't get crisp, but if you're looking to pull it off anyway it doesn't matter. This is the easiest recipe I've tried and makes super-moist chicken.

Posted by: Columbia Heights | October 8, 2008 1:05 PM

My roast chicken is always moist because of the following method

Use a small (3-4lb) kosher chicken because it's already salted.

Use a dutch oven, Le Creuset is my preference. Tie the legs of the chicken together with kitchen string, ditto the tie the wings to the body. Put a whole head of garlic cloves (break apart, but leave on skin) and fresh rosemary into the pot, coat chicken with olive oil.

Cook chicken on its side for 20 minutes, then turn chicken and roast on the other side for 20 minutes, then turn chicken breast side down and roast for 40 minutes, one more turn with breast side up to brown top for 20 minutes. use a meat thermometer to check temp between body/thigh.

deglaze pan with white wine and press out roasted garlic gloves for a great sauce.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | October 8, 2008 2:46 PM

Love roast chicken - and I just did it on the grill last week. I mix the spice rub with butter and rub it under the skin, to infuse the meat with flavor (rather than leaving it on the skin) and keep it moist. I also like to put herbs, garlic and lemon in the cavity.

Posted by: Colleen/FoodieTots | October 8, 2008 2:54 PM

About 10 years ago, NPR ran a story about roasting a whole chicken in an hour. It involved heavily salting and peppering a 2-3 pound bird the night before. When ready to prepare, heat the oven up to 550+ degrees (not broiling), put bird in roasing pan with rack and into the oven for 40 minutes. Then flip bird over, breast side down for the remaining 20 minutes.

It sounded like a crock and it consistently set off my smoke detector, but it was delicious! The small size was what made the recipe work and it was also perfect for two people... we rarely had leftovers.

Now I prefer butterflying the bird and roasting it in a pan, on a rack covered with root vegetables and mushrooms - an idea that I picked up here, from one of the posters or from Kim herself. Guess that I know what I'm doing for dinner on Sunday.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | October 8, 2008 3:13 PM

For the most basic roast chicken, I usually use salt and pepper with a bit of thyme. Easy easy easy. Sometimes I do a chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and then we slather the roasted garlic with brie on french bread YUM.

We did a taste test not long ago with a poulet au something-or-other free range, organic, hand fed, whatever chicken from Whole Foods, and your basic Gold Kist fryer from Harris Teeter. When we removed the birds from the packaging, the organic french bird got dubbed "the heroin chicken" because it was heroin thin compared to the grocery store one. But my God, it was better than I would ever have believed. Two chickens, cooked the same way, and the $10 3-pounder won, hands down. We couldn't stop eating it, it didn't even make it to a plate. I think most of us were moaning with delight, and this is not normally how we react to roasted chicken.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 8, 2008 3:32 PM

My "secret" ingredient was always sesame oil for the skin. You get a nice, nutty flavor and a beautiful bird. I'm also fond of brining if I have time and flipping the bird midway so that the breast starts out on bottom and finishes up on top.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | October 8, 2008 4:10 PM

Julia Child's method has always worked for me. I'll roast a purposefully large chicken so I have left overs. My two secret ingredients are: (1) a pastured organic chicken that has been foraging some of its own food (2) basting with white wine.

For 2 people, a 5 to 6 lb chicken will yield a nice Sunday dinner and tasty meals for the rest of the week - as I explained in one of my recent posts:
* Sunday: Roast Chicken
* Monday: Tomatillo-chicken Soup
* Tuesday: Fall Rainbow Stir Fry
* Wednesday: Tex-Mex Chowder
* Thursday: Fajitas
* Friday: Pizza
* Saturday:… oh well, you are on your own!

Find the initial post at:


Posted by: Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener | October 8, 2008 5:24 PM

Another variation for cooking chicken that's super easy and super moist, even if not technically roasted -- clay pot.

We cook a whole chicken in a clay pot in the oven. Best recipe from our cookbook is "Thyme Honored Chicken." Take a whole chicken (kosher really does taste better to us), stuff with 1/2 teaspoon thyme or oregano and put the other half around the bird in the soaked clay pot, 1 cup broth and one diced apple and cook. I think it's 2 hours at 400 degrees. We often to this on a weekend when we have time for it to cook and then enjoy leftovers during the week. When there are any!

Posted by: clay pot fan | October 8, 2008 10:04 PM

I have no comment on the roast chicken but wanted to complement you on the use of "omnivore". It's a peeve of mine that the scientific term "carnivore" is used to described people who include mean in their diets. Nobody calls vegetarians "herbivores", do they? :)

Anyhow, to say something kind of on topic, while in college 20 years ago my mother showed me how to roast a turkey "roll". I'm not sure what to call this thing. It was bought from the store (Wegmans in Rochester) the shape of a small meatloaf and tied up? Pierce and insert some garlic cloves, brush with oil and pat on minced rosemary, sage, salt, pepper. Roast (at 350?). A good item for a single person and the leftovers were excellent for sandwiches. Anyone know what this turkey product is officially called? I'm a vegetarian now and don't want it myself, but occasionally want to recommend this to friends and cannot tell them what to ask for at the store. Thanks!

Posted by: Arlington, VA S | October 9, 2008 9:17 AM

Arlington- Your turkey "roll" sounds like it could just be a deboned, rolled, and tied turkey breast.

Posted by: Sweetie | October 9, 2008 9:46 AM

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