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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

How To Cook The Perfect Roast Chicken

The thought of roast chicken is enough to get your gastric juices flowing; the reality sometimes doesn’t come up to scratch.  No-one wants undercooked chicken; even if we could ignore the health implications (which of course we shouldn’t), raw or semi-cooked chicken doesn’t have the appeal of a pink slice of beef or lamb.  So, knowing that chicken must be thoroughly cooked, far too many people overcook it, ending up with dry slices of breast and legs burned at the extremities.

There is a method, though, that ensures that the bird is properly cooked for safety and taste, while remaining juicy, moist and downright chicken-ey.  I’ll take you through it, step by step.  Don’t worry, it’s pretty simple.

You will, of course, start with a good chicken; at least free-range and preferably organically reared.  Yes, this will cost you two to three times the price of an intensively reared chicken, and so it should.  But my view is that the cheap chicken is actually not chicken at all, and if you buy one of these you are actually being conned out of your hard-earned cash.  Good chicken is a treat, if not a luxury; far better to have the real thing now and again, rather than a rubbery, tasteless one every week.  I explore the subject in more depth here.

Now, I don’t know how many people you need to feed, and therefore how big your chicken will be: that’s why I won’t give you exact timings, but I will tell you how to know when it is right.

As well as your good chicken, you will need:
Some soft butter, say a couple of ounces/55g
Chopped herbs (tarragon is great with chicken, but you could even use that pack of dried mixed herbs you have in the back of your cupboard, provided they haven’t gone too stale)
Freshly ground black pepper
A few quarters or chunks of lemon or orange (optional)


Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7/220C/425F.  Have ready an oven tray or pan, preferably with a grid, trivet, or even a suitable sized cake rack, so the chicken won’t steep in it’s juices as it cooks.  If you don’t have a suitable grid, don’t worry too much; it’s a nice touch but not essential.

Here’s the crucial bit: you need to separate the legs from the rest of the chicken.  To do this,  remove any string or trussing from the chicken, pull a leg away from the body, make a slit in the skin with a sharp knife, and continue to pull back and twist the leg until you feel the joint start to give way.  Go down with your knife and cut through the joint, then through any flesh or skin until you can pull the leg away completely.  Repeat with the other leg.  If you are not confident, or a little squeamish, you could ask your butcher to do this for you.

This trick is the secret to the perfect roast chicken: by separating the legs, it ensures that the heat can get where it's needed, and all parts will cook evenly.  Leaving the legs on means that by the time the heat has penetrated to the thick part of the thigh and the breast, the rest will be overcooked and dried out.

Mix the herbs, salt and pepper with the softened butter and rub all over the chicken body and legs.  Place a couple of citrus quarters (if using) in the cavity.  This adds moisture and a subtle flavour to the finished roast.  You are not stuffing the bird in any other way, and it is important that the hot air can get into the bird, so the citrus should be loose and leave plenty of gaps.

Now, place the chicken, breast side down, on the grid, if using, or directly in the pan.  Put the legs alongside, but preferably not touching.  Cover the whole thing with a layer or two of kitchen foil, sealed tightly at the edges of the pan, and pop into the preheated oven.

Now, this is where the size of your bird enters into the equation; obviously, a big chicken will take longer to cook than a small one.

After about an hour, remove the foil, and turn the chicken breast side up.  This rotation of the chicken allows the juices to flow through the bird.  Now put the tray back into the oven, so the chicken can finish cooking, and the skin become a lovely golden brown.  The aromas of roasting, herby, buttery chicken will have you wishing the clock forward so that you can tuck in.  You must be patient.

Test the chicken for done-ness after perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes.  Use a probe thermometer, and make sure that the “coldest” spot you can find is at 75C/170F.  The sooner you can catch the chicken after it has reached that temperature, the moister and juicier it will be.  If you don’t have a probe thermometer, poke into the thickest parts with a skewer or sharp knife, right down to the bone: the juices should run clear – if there is any trace of blood, put it back in the oven for a while.  The legs may be done by now, so remove them to a warm place if necessary.

Once the chicken is cooked, you have to restrain yourself from immediately carving into it.  Put it in a warm place to rest for at least twenty minutes.  This resting period again allows the juices to flow back through the chicken, and really does make a difference.

While it is resting, you can be making a gravy with the pan juices, and adding the finishing touches to the rest of the meal.

A nice addition to the above is to scatter some unpeeled garlic cloves (as few or as many as you like) both into the pan and inside the bird with the citrus.  They can be discarded after cooking, or squeezed out of their papery skins and either added to the gravy, or used as a condiment for the meal; they will have developed a lovely toasty, almost toffee-like, flavour and consistency – any harsh raw garlic taste will be long gone.

Do remember to keep the carcass and any odd bones from the plates to make a stock.  You may also like to have a look at my recipe and method for the perfect roast potato here.

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