Four Ingredients for the perfect bird

A perfect roast chicken rests atop the stove

Story and photos by Katherine Larson
Four ingredients. That’s all you need to make a perfect roast chicken. Just four ingredients, and two of them are salt and pepper. Plus a cast-iron skillet.
Why roast a chicken at all? It’s delicious, sure, but why not just buy a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket?
Tasty though those supermarket chickens can be, they are also filled with…well, with unknowns. Supermarkets roast up chickens which passed their sell-by dates without having been sold. Don’t be spooked—sell-by dates are intended to reflect quality rather than safety, and you can count on the supermarket doing its best to keep you safe—but I myself appreciate quality.
I also appreciate knowing what I’m eating, and I’m leery of chickens that have been injected with 12% or even 15% “seasoning” liquids, which are often just sugary, salty water (which the hapless consumer pays for at the price of meat) but can also include various chemicals—again, likely quite safe—that I neither recognize nor understand and so prefer to avoid.
Besides that, roasting your own chicken is one of those things that is both highly enjoyable and, in its results, intensely gratifying. Rumor has it that Prince Harry proposed to Meghan Markle after she roasted him a chicken. My oldest daughter roasted her first chicken at the age of 12 and hasn’t looked back since; it was the start of a lifetime of skillful joy in the kitchen, uniting her whole family around the table.
Heck, I’m capable of eating most of a smallish roast chicken all by myself in a couple of days. They are that good—or, at least, when well-made they are that good.
Cookbooks abound in recipes for roast chicken, and you may be wondering why I’ve chosen to enter the fray. The reason lies in my own decades of disappointment, munching good-enough chickens that never quite measured up to the Platonic ideal of juicy, flavorful meat combined with crispy crust.
Finally, though, I solved the puzzle, and I want to share the results with you.
To begin with, those four ingredients. They are chicken, salt, pepper, and your choice: either a lemon or a small handful of your favorite fresh herb.
Quality matters. For the chicken, look for one that contains as little as possible of that injected solution—preferably, none. A chicken that lived a happy life eating bugs and greenery will taste better than one that endured factory farming. A chicken from nearby will likely be fresher, and will certainly use up fewer fossil fuels on its route to your table, than one that has been shipped from far away. And so on.
For the salt, the issue is not so much quality as saltiness. The degree of variation among salts is astounding; a quantity that would be just right if you were using “coarse kosher salt” makes a dish repellent if you substitute plain “kosher salt,” and downright inedible with ordinary “iodized salt.” In this application—and, indeed, in most applications—I strongly recommend coarse kosher salt. This doesn’t mean you have to spend an arm and a leg, or even a little finger; it’s available at reasonable rates from local stores. But you’ll notice the difference in your cooking.
For the pepper, freshly-ground is key. If you choose those bottles of pre-ground stuff, you’ll end up with vaguely peppery dust by the time the bottle is half-empty. Buying whole peppercorns from the local bulk store and then grinding them yourself results in better taste and, happily, better economy.
For the lemon or herb: suit yourself. A lemon is good and easy, especially in the winter. As the weather warms, if you have parsley or sage or thyme or rosemary or basil growing in the garden hop out and grab two or three branches; rinse them off, shake them dry, and you’re ready to go.
Here’s the sticking point: ideally, you should start this chicken the night before you roast it. Or the morning before, if that fits your hectic schedule better. But time is your ally—it’s one of the key factors in turning a good-enough roast chicken into something sublime.
So let’s assume you want to celebrate TGIF with a great chicken. On Thursday afternoon or evening, pull out a shallow pan that’s at least as large as your chicken; a rack (the kind you cool cookies on) that will fit into the pan or, in a pinch, on it; about a yard of cotton cooking twine, cut in half; and your four ingredients.
Open up the bag of chicken. (There will likely be a fair amount of moisture, so do this over the sink and then scrub out the sink with hot soapy water when you’re done.) Take out the chicken and reach into its cavity. Any giblets? Remove them and set them aside for another use.
Side note on giblets: if there’s a good-looking liver in there, hooray! Once your chicken is back in the fridge, chop that liver up and sauté it quickly in butter with some minced garlic and a big grind of pepper. Pour everything, butter and all, over a slice of toast for a wonderful hors d’oeuvre or even (in my family) Thursday night “dessert.”
Okay, back to that chicken. Check the cavity again; if there are any big globs of fat, pull them out and either discard them or, if you’re feeling pioneering and self-sufficient, set them aside to be rendered for future use.
Now the chicken is ready to go. If you’re using a lemon, cut it in half or quarters to tuck into the cavity. If you’re using herbs, just tuck them into the cavity. In either case, you’re not stuffing the bird (you won’t be eating what you put in there, and you don’t want to fill the cavity chock-full); you’re just flavoring the meat from inside.
It’s time to give the bird a simple truss. Truthfully, this isn’t essential; if the prospect scares you, skip ahead. But if you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll find it handy: it keeps the legs and wings from flopping around, and it helps hold flavorful juices in. Also, if your cast-iron skillet is a little small, trussing compacts the bird into a tidy package.
First, the legs. Center one piece of twine on the chicken’s tail, and loop it around the tail; now you have a length of twine with the tail in the middle. Grab the bird’s left leg and pull it towards the tail, securing it by wrapping the left half of your strand of twine around the ankle. Do the same thing with the right leg, this time wrapping the right half around the right ankle. Give both ends of twine a tug to pull everything together, then tie a knot at the tail-leg-leg junction.
For the wings, place the bird on its back, breast up, and tuck the wings behind it. The image here is relaxing at the beach: you lie back, you stretch your arms towards the sun, then you tuck them behind your neck as you bask… Do the same thing for your chicken, with wing-tips crisscrossing behind its neck. To keep them in place, turn the bird over and, with the second piece of twine, wrap a figure-eight around its shoulders and tie a knot; the crossing of the figure-eight will secure the wings in place.
It’s taken me longer to write these words than it will take you to do it.

Placing the chicken in a truss isn’t essential, but it keeps wings and legs in place, holds juices in and helps keep the bird in a tidy package.

You’re almost done! Sprinkle the back half and sides all over with coarse kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Flip the bird. Sprinkle the front half and sides all over with coarse kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Put the chicken on the rack, breasts up; put the rack in the shallow pan; and put the whole shebang in the refrigerator, uncovered.
Yes, uncovered. That’s the point of the exercise. Those 24 salty hours in the fridge will not just subtly flavor the meat but also dry and tighten up the skin all over, top and bottom. By the time you take it out, it will have an odd-looking slightly roseate hue. Don’t worry—all’s good. What you’re accomplishing through the use of salt, time, and open air is skin: crispy, crackly, salty, juicy, luscious skin, the reason so many of us love roast chicken so much.
Enjoy your chicken liver on toast. Wait until Friday.
When you get home from work, take the chicken out of the fridge, put an empty cast-iron skillet into the oven, and preheat it to 450 degrees. If you like, pour yourself a glass of wine.
Why is the skillet going into the oven empty? Here’s another reason why this recipe is so effective. Modern chickens are awkward creatures: their breasts cook at a different rate than their thighs. Getting thighs right can turn the breasts into cardboard; getting the breasts right can leave thighs underdone.
But when we first get the skillet hot, 450 degrees hot, we’re giving the two halves of the bird the radically different treatment they demand. Because we’ll put the whole chicken thighs-down into that blazing-hot skillet, the thighs—but not the breasts—will immediately be blasted with scorching heat. Problem solved. As a side benefit, even the skin under the chicken will end up nice and crispy.
So when the oven and its skillet get up to temperature, whip the piping-hot skillet out of the oven. Plop the bird in, breasts up, and whip the skillet briskly right back into the oven. (If you don’t want to get raw chicken on your oven mitts, a helper is handy.)
If you just let the chicken roast as is, unless you have a commercial-grade exhaust fan you’ll end up with a delicious bird to share with the firefighters who come help you out when smoke billows from the kitchen windows. So a little tinkering helps. About ten minutes into the process, turn the oven down to 425 degrees. About ten more minutes later, turn it down again to 400 degrees. Let the chicken finish out its time—for your average 3-1/2 pound bird, a total of about 70-75 minutes—at that temperature.
So there you are, less than an hour and a half after your workweek drew to its close, ready to celebrate with your perfect roast chicken. Let it sit on the stovetop relaxing for a few minutes while you assemble a green salad and pour another glass of wine, then scoop it onto a platter and carve. TGIF indeed.

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