A roast chicken is a lot like a chocolate chip cookie. Both are obviously prepared in an oven, but aside from that, both are one of the most popular subjects tackled by food writers, alongside other classics like the perfect pie crust or chicken noodle soup. Just like every pastry cookbook promises to deliver the very best recipe for a chocolate chip cookie, every comprehensive cookbook features a different take on the perfect roast chicken.
The obsession is completely reasonable. After all, simple preparations are the ones that truly define great cooks. André Soltner, dean of classic studies at the International Culinary Center in New York, has been known to judge cooks by their omelet, vinaigrette and roast chicken. And a roast chicken wouldn't be the subject of endless cookbook pages if it weren't a completely dignified, and justified, obsession.
So we decided to quiz three of Miami's top chefs -- Jeff McInnis, Andrew Carmellini and Michael Schwartz -- for their insider tips on cooking a perfect bird.
Still, most recipes are fussy and time-consuming. Who has the patience to replay an instructional YouTube video on trussing a bird? There just aren't enough Clorox wipes in my kitchen to banish my fear of salmonella if a violent spray of chicken juice should happen to land near my keyboard.
The perfect roast chicken recipe must be simple in both its method and its flavor. All it takes is a basic understanding of priorities.
First, always start with a free-range bird. Jeff McInnis, executive chef of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, told me in a recent interview, "The meat [of free-range chicken] contains less fat and a better, deeper chickeny flavor, because the bird's muscles are worked a little more, and it's healthier and better nourished, since chickens allowed outdoors also have access to insects and grass, which they're naturally meant to eat. The dark meat tends to be buttery and the white a bit firmer."
Then, forget the overnight night marinade, or six-hour brine. Instead, invest your time in a much simpler do-ahead step. After rinsing the chicken under cold water, and drying thoroughly with paper towels, Andrew Carmellini, James Beard award-winning chef of The Dutch in New York and Miami, recommends, "Place it on a plate in the refrigerator overnight, uncovered. This helps dry the skin out." Water creates steam in the oven, making it difficult to achieve a crisp skin.
Also, warn the rest of your household. This prep step involves leaving a chicken out in the open, and my boyfriend was not too pleased when a chicken's cavity greeted him as he reached for the early morning milk.
The next day, after explaining to said boyfriend why there is a bare chicken doing the split in the fridge, season and prep the chicken by stuffing the cavity with lemon, garlic and thyme. And don't skimp on the salt. My most successful roast chickens have benefited from almost a tablespoon of salt -- for about a three-pound bird -- sprinkled atop the back, legs, and breasts of the chicken like steady streams of rain.
Adding butter under the skin, however, is completely unnecessary. After all, butter is composed of butterfat and water (also a small amount of milk solids). Carmellini stresses the importance of drying out the skin, and adding butter would be counterproductive to preventing steam. Michael Schwartz, James Beard award-winning chef of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, also pointed out that the skin on the chicken already has enough fat to garner a moist meat.
Schwartz also knows a great way to protect the breasts from drying out. He suggests first placing the seasoned bird atop a hot oven-proof skillet on a stove, breast side down, before setting it in the oven. This protect the meat from the harsh oven heat, and also allows all of the juices to gather in the breasts, keeping them moist. Halfway through the roasting, set the chicken breast side up.
Lastly, Carmellini recommends ten minutes of resting prior to carving the bird, so all of the juices can redistribute within the meat. Otherwise, all the lovely juices could end up on the cutting board. And that's certainly not where you want them.
As for accompaniments, I think Carmellini has got that covered too: "My go-to Sunday meal is roast chicken with a local green salad and bottle of wine ... Heaven".
The Real Perfect Roast Chicken
A recipe created with special insights by Andrew Carmellini & Michael Schwartz
One 3 1/2-pound free-range chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 head of garlic
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1. Buy the chicken the day before you plan on roasting it, and remove the neck and giblets from the cavity. Rinse under cold water and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Move the chicken to a plate and place it in the refrigerator uncovered overnight.
2. The next day, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and insert the garlic, lemon and thyme inside the cavity. Season the chicken generously with kosher salt and pepper. Be sure to season the legs and the back of the chicken, too.
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3. Put a 10-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat and add the canola oil. Once the oil is hot, add the untrussed chicken breast side down, tucking the wings underneath the chicken. Place the skillet inside the oven and roast until the chicken starts to brown, for about 35 minutes.
4. Carefully take the pan out of the oven and lift the chicken out of the skillet using sturdy tongs or a wooden spoon. Place on a plate. Discard all of the pan juices, since they will practically all be fat. Place the chicken back in the pan -- this time, breast side up -- and continue to roast for about 30 minutes until juices run clear or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
5. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes before carving.