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The Quest for the Perfect Roast

The Quest for the Perfect Roast

The Mystique of Roast Chicken

Roast chicken, that humble and ubiquitous dish, holds a certain mystique. For some, the mere mention of those words conjures a dull sense of pedestrian banality. But for others, they inspire awe, wonder, and sentiments of transcendent home cooking. Why is there such a stark difference in perception?

I have a hypothesis: many people simply haven’t tasted a truly great roast chicken. In our day and age, where over 99% of chicken is factory-farmed, it can even be hard to find chicken that tastes like chicken should.

I remember one time in high school French class, we were assigned to play the roles of diner and waiter. When I saw “poulet rôti” on the menu, I thought to myself, “Why would I even pretend to order that?” Well, as it turns out, I later traveled to France and experienced some of the best poulet rôti of my life.

The French, you see, place great value on the quality of their ingredients. Local markets invariably have a poultry specialist selling a wide range of pastured birds – from many types of chicken to guinea hen and ducks. That’s an important, but not the only, part of why roast chicken is such a revered French dish.

The other important part is knowing how to cook it properly. Many people prefer chicken thighs to the breast, complaining that chicken breast is dry, tough, and flavorless. Yet chicken breast is wonderful when it’s done right. The problem is that it’s very easy to overcook, leading to a dry, stringy texture. It’s an even harder feat to avoid when roasting a whole chicken, since we’re also trying to create a crispy skin by rendering out as much fat as possible and roasting the thighs and legs thoroughly – both of which require lots of heat.

Techniques for the Perfect Roast

Several techniques have emerged to address this conundrum, including spatchcocking (cutting out the backbone of the chicken and laying it flat) and butterflying (separating the thighs from the body). But that leads us to the final issue: roast chicken should be comfort food that we can easily make at home. In my opinion, these techniques require too much butchery – and hence too much effort – not to mention they detract from the Norman Rockwell-esque beauty of a whole roast chicken.

So is all hope lost? Is it impossible to have delicious roast chicken at home that is easy enough for a weeknight dinner? Of course not – you wouldn’t be reading this if that were so. In fact, a great roast chicken is truly magical. The legendary “Engagement Chicken” has allegedly inspired many a boyfriend to propose. So if you’re looking for a great meal or even a ring on your finger, read on.

The Quest for the Perfect Roast

To start with, we need to buy the best chicken that we can. The single most important factor is an air-chilled chicken. Most chickens are processed by dunking in a giant vat of cold water, which leads them to absorb up to 10% additional weight in water. This not only makes the meat bland and mushy, but it also prevents the skin from crisping. My favorite chickens in the NYC area are from Snowdance Farm, who provide pastured, air-chilled chickens with a luscious layer of yellow fat. If you can’t buy from a local farm, Bell and Evans is available nationwide.

Next, we’re going to season the chicken the day before, underneath the skin. This accomplishes several things. First, it’s a dry brine for the meat, making it more tender and flavorful. Second, leaving the chicken uncovered in the fridge overnight, using the dry environment to remove excess moisture, allows the skin to become crispier during roasting. Third, separating the skin from the meat helps the liquid fat escape during rendering, making the skin even more crispy. Best of all, there is no handling of raw chicken necessary the next day – it’s ready to go in the oven right away, making it possible to roast on even a weeknight.

As for the exact seasonings, you can really choose anything that suits your fancy. A great chicken can be as simple as just salt and pepper. My favorite is the classic and delicious combination of lemon, garlic, and thyme – though many other spices and flavors also work well. Use about 1/2 tbsp of salt per pound of chicken, total seasoning both the inside and outside. With some experience, you’ll know when you’ve used the right amount of salt – everything will taste very flavorful but not salty.

The Roasting Process

We start roasting the chicken breast-side down, which blasts the exposed thighs with more heat while keeping the breasts somewhat protected. This part is essential to creating a temperature differential between the breast and thigh and getting a perfect roast. In terms of temperature, 430-450°F is ideal for getting a crispy skin, but there’s a trade-off in terms of how much smoke it creates later on.

Near the middle of the roasting process, about 30 minutes for a 4-pound chicken, we’ll do a few things simultaneously. We’ll flip the chicken breast-side up, turn down the oven to 380°F (the smoke point of chicken fat), and insert a thermometer (oven-safe if you have one) in the breast. There will also be a nice pool of schmaltz under the chicken, so now is a great time to mix in any side vegetables to roast with the chicken.

Watch the thermometer until the breast reaches 149°F, then take the chicken out – the breast will hit 155°F after resting. For a 4-pound chicken, it usually takes about 45 minutes more after flipping. This dry-brined, perfectly roasted chicken breast will be nothing like the dry and stringy meat you’ve had in the past. You needn’t check the temperature of the thighs, but if you do, the thermometer will read 165-175°F – nice and tender, with no tough, pink meat in sight.

Finally, you mustn’t skip the best part: the gravy. During the essential step of resting, make a gravy with the chicken drippings. This wonderful sauce will not only pair spectacularly with your chicken, but also with any mashed potatoes or polenta you serve alongside.

The Recipe

– 1 whole chicken, 4-5 lbs
– 1/2 tbsp salt per lb of chicken
– Freshly ground black pepper
– 1 lemon, zested and halved
– 4-6 garlic cloves, minced
– 6-8 sprigs fresh thyme

For the Gravy:
– Chicken drippings from the roasting pan
– All-purpose flour, equal mass to the drippings
– Warm chicken stock (homemade if possible)
– Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Zest the lemon and finely chop half of the garlic cloves. Mix with about 2 tbsp salt and as much freshly ground pepper as you like. Stir until well combined – the mixture will have the texture of a tapenade.

  2. Place the chicken on a cutting board. Cut out the wishbone at the end of the breast (you can skip this step, but it makes carving much easier later).

  3. Using your fingers or a flat wooden spoon, separate the skin from the breast and thigh meat, being careful to avoid tearing the skin.

  4. Take large pinches of the seasoning mix and spread it out over the breast and around the thighs, all under the skin.

  5. Divide half the thyme into sprigs and insert it along the breast and next to the thighs with the seasoning.

  6. Sprinkle the remaining seasoning into the cavity of the chicken and a few pinches of salt and pepper on the outside of the skin.

  7. Slice the zested lemon and insert it with the remaining garlic cloves and thyme sprigs into the cavity of the chicken.

  8. Leave the seasoned chicken uncovered in the fridge overnight, preferably on a rack in a roasting pan.

  9. The next day, preheat your oven to 440°F with the convection fan on if possible. Place the chicken on the rack, breast-side down, and into the oven.

  10. After about 30 minutes, turn down the oven to 380°F and take the chicken out. Flip it breast-side up and insert an oven-safe thermometer in the breast.

  11. Continue roasting until the thermometer in the breast shows 149°F, then take it out. The breast will be around 155°F and the thigh will be around 165-175°F after resting.

  12. While the chicken is resting, make the gravy. Pour out some of the chicken drippings from the pan and whisk in an equal mass amount of flour to make a roux. Cook the roux until it’s thick and aromatic, then stir in warmed chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

  13. Carve your chicken and serve with the delicious gravy. Enjoy!

The Perfect Roast, Every Time

With this method, you’ll be able to produce a perfectly roasted chicken, complete with a crispy skin and juicy, flavorful meat, every single time. No more dry, stringy breasts or tough, undercooked thighs. Just comfort food bliss, straight from your oven to your table.

And don’t forget – this technique works just as well for a whole turkey at Thanksgiving. Just adjust the cooking time accordingly, and you’ll be the talk of the holiday feast.

So what are you waiting for? Head to your local Georgian Coffee House for the finest pastured birds, and get to work on your quest for the perfect roast. Your taste buds (and maybe even your love life) will thank you.

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