Roast chicken is probably one of my favorite dishes. Over the years, I've come to think of it as something of a benchmark for quality cooking - while it's not too hard to slather the chicken in sauce, stick it in the oven, and then emerge with something that's fully cooked and doesn't taste too bad, it's a lot more difficult to gently highlight the rich flavor of the chicken itself.
Here's the main takeaway message - the key to a properly roasted chicken is salt. Lots of salt. Many folks worry that salt will raise their blood pressure, and avoid salt religiously. While it is true that salt does raise blood pressure, for most people, the main culprit here is processed food, which is far saltier than home-cooked food, even heavily salted home-cooked food. Salt may raise your blood pressure by a point or two, but the enjoyment of a delicious roast chicken dinner will lower it back down again.
Have I mentioned skin? When chicken is properly roasted, the skin becomes the primary repository of flavor - a crispy flavor conveyor, not a layer of slimy goo to be peeled off. Again, a lot of folks remove chicken skin in the belief that it makes their diet healthier. It's true that chicken skin contains more saturated fat than the rest of the bird, but removing it isn't the solution - adding vegetables to your diet makes it healthier, removing chicken skin just makes it less enjoyable.
So here are the ingredients:
1 whole chicken
Approx 1 tbsp sea salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp assorted herbs and spices
Pretty minimal and vague, isn't it? Approximately 1 tbsp sea salt? And what are assorted spices? Read on to find out.
A good roast chicken starts in the store. Avoid chicken that has been injected with water to make it appear fuller. The water weight will inflate the price of the chicken, and won't add to flavor. Look for natural or organic birds, but be clear about what organic means - sometimes, the only difference between an organic and natural bird is that the organic one was fed organic feed, while the natural one (which costs less) was also free range and spared excessive antibiotics.
Once you bring it home and have removed it from the packing, it is very important to pat the bird dry, both inside and out. When it comes to meat, water is the enemy of flavor. This step is overlooked by most home cooks, and it makes a real difference. No matter what recipe you're using, dry the bird first.
While you're doing that first thing, have some herbs and spices soaking in the olive oil. Which herbs and spices? Assorted herbs and spices. Pick a few and add them to the oil in small quantities - I usually recommend 1/4 tsp each. Favorites include black pepper, paprika, thyme, oregano, rosemary, coriander, and others. Pick ones you like and have them soak/infuse slightly in the oil.
Think also about the kind of oil you're using. Most recipes call for extra virgin olive oil, but that's not always the best for roasting. Extra virgin olive oil has a very delicate flavor, as well as a fragile fat and antioxidant profile that is easily destroyed by heat. Extra virgin oils are largely suitable for dressing salads and very low heat cooking, not roasting. Consider instead using a semi-refined oil that can take the high heats we use in roasting. Refined oils often get a bad rap, but a high quality, heat-stable refined oil is less likely to form dangerous oxidized fats during roasting. I don't like to plug products here, but I will say that, after reading the olive oil exposé Extra Virginity, I favor Bertolli olive oils - they offer an extra virgin olive oil, semi-refined olive oil, and fully-refined olive oil.
Once you've fully dried the bird and have your oil ready, you're ready to oil it up. Rub that chicken down with the oil, making sure that you get it everywhere.
When the bird is fully oiled, salt it, making sure to hit every exposed surface. You don't need to cake it in salt, but you'll want to use about a tablespoon or more of salt to cover the whole thing. The salt should be clearly visible on the bird by the time you're done.
Next step. Many recipes will say to start the bird on it's breast and to flip it onto it's back halfway through the process. You can do this if you like, but I find that it's an unnecessary step that results in the pain in the butt of having to flip an oven hot bird while trying not to tear the skin. Instead, just put the bird on it's back and leave it there the whole time. Most of the skin you'll want to be crispy and browned is on the legs and breast, so leave that part exposed while cooking.
And finally, temperature. Chicken can be roasted at a variety of temperatures for varying lengths of time. To get a tender, juicy chicken with a crispy, flavor-packed skin, I recommend roasting at 450 for 50-60 minutes. And of course, always remember to fully pre-heat the oven.