I don’t have an exact, or even vague, timeline of when roast chickens became all the rage for celebrity chefs. When food media began writing Very Serious Articles about whose technique was superior. I also don’t exactly know when Roast Chicken became some sort of home cook litmus test to determine skill, or seriousness, or whatever amorphous thing the bird was supposed to reveal about us. On the one hand, it’s pretty damn arbitrary and you have my full support to sit this one out; on the other hand, it forced me, an inexperienced but eager home cook at the time, to realize I had no clue how to roast chicken and that maybe I should learn. A good ten years later, I have roasted too many whole chickens to count – not because I have anything to prove or a faux-legitimacy contest to win, but because I just fucking love them.
We never roasted whole chickens growing up. I’m an 80’s child from upper-middle-class suburbia. It was the land of working moms and fatphobia, so boneless, skinless chicken breasts ruled the day. I’m very fortunate in one respect: my mother worked a lot and stayed busy, sure, but what she liked to cook she cooked very well. We had plenty of grilled, baked, and pan-seared chicken breasts, but they were always seasoned well and cooked properly. My young palate never knew to dislike them. I’ve since realized how rare that was. When I ate dinner at friends’ or relatives’ homes and guzzled water or iced tea to wash that sawdust texture of an overcooked breast out of my mouth, I always thought they were the exceptions. Actually, we were.
Despite my pleasant formative experience with white meat, I’m now firmly on Team Chicken Thigh, at least if you’re talking about which individual parts of the chicken you’d prefer to cook and eat. Drumsticks are a close second. But what I really always want is a roasted whole bird.
If you only listened to the cheffy conventional wisdom on the subject, you’re likely to surmise that whole roast chickens are a sign of class and taste. Inherently simple, yet difficult to get just right because they’re so simple, or so we’re constantly lectured. Supposedly, anyone who can properly roast a whole bird must be a fine mind, a superb technician indeed, a talented sophisticate. You might think roast chickens belong only to special occasions with fine china and the desire to impress. I personally find a roast chicken to be none of that.
To me, a roast chicken is a cooking project you make for yourself for any or no reason whatsoever, purely to savor every moment of the process. There’s something primal about it. You start by smearing soft butter all over raw meat, then spend the next hour or so hearing light cracking noises as the skin crisps up in the hot oven. The sight of golden, crisped skin, the heavenly aroma emanating, grabbing a giant chef’s knife to rip its joints apart; a juicy, messy, sublime nearly whole animal waiting to be devoured. I won’t order roast chicken at restaurants. I might make an exception at Barbuto; but otherwise, no. It’s not just because I don’t trust them to get it right (I don’t). It’s also, perhaps moreso, that I don’t want to eat my roast chicken politely. I prefer to grab the wings with my hands, dive bar style, and pick up the leg and gnaw the last bits of meat like a Neanderthal. I love to bring the cutting board with the carcass to the table, so I can reach over and drag my forkfuls of white meat through the drippings that pooled on the board. I want to take an ostensibly healthy protein and slather her with flavored butter and let her sizzle in her own schmaltz (unless I’m designating the drippings to coat and cook vegetables or bread underneath, of course).
I will confidently put my roast chicken up against anyone’s, so I hope it’s not contradictory to state that I have zero desire to engage in Roast Chicken Wars. The only real rules to roasting chicken are to season properly and cook it to the proper temperature. Oh, and to rest it for a few minutes afterward. I know I would love yours, I know you would love mine, and of course we all love Ina’s. Roast chickens deserve love letters, not snootiness or lines drawn in the sand.
I believe chicken to be a blank canvass for any flavor profile you wish to project onto her, so I would never say any one recipe is definitive, including the one I’m sharing today. But damn if this one isn’t excellent. This flavor combination and method, sublime though they are, are hardly alone in their ability to make a whole chicken delectable; but if the interwebs decided this was to be my signature dish, I’d be honored.
Lemon, Oregano, and Black Pepper Roast Chicken
- 1 stick (8 tbs) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- Zest of 1 large lemon
- 1 tbs dried oregano
- 1 tsp cracked black pepper
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs, innards removed and patted dry
- 2 lemons
- 3 sprigs fresh oregano
- 2 garlic cloves (no need to peel them)
- 2 tbs unsalted butter, cold
- Preheat your oven to 425 F.
- In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the softened stick of butter, the lemon zest, dried oregano, black pepper, and kosher salt. I use a fork. Gently use your fingertips to loosen the skin on the chicken breasts. Don’t tear it. Using your hands, stuff a gob of butter under the skin of each breast. Massage the top of the skin to spread the butter to the entirety of the breast under the skin. Take the rest of the butter and rub it onto the outside of the legs, wings, and tops of the breasts. Cut 1 lemon into 4 wedges (this can be the lemon you zested previously) and stuff those into the bird’s cavity, along with the fresh oregano and garlic cloves. Place the chicken in a 12-inch cast iron skillet. Use kitchen twine to tie the legs together. Tuck the wing tips behind the breast, like your bird is relaxing on a beach chair.
- Roast the chicken at 425 F for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the skillet. Lower the oven temperature to 350 F. Cut the remaining lemon in half crosswise. Place the lemon halves, cut side down, on either side of the chicken. Return the chicken to the oven and roast until the internal temperature reads 160 F (I will always use a meat thermometer here, and I highly recommend it.) I say 160 F after much experimentation over the years - chicken needs to be cooked to 165 F as per FDA standards for safe consumption, but unless you live in an igloo, carryover cooking will always take care of those last five degrees, and this way, the white meat doesn’t dry out during resting.
- When your chicken is done, remove the skillet from the oven and carefully transfer the chicken to a cutting board. Use tongs to squeeze the juice out of each lemon half (careful, as they are very hot!). You can use a spoon to fish out any seeds, but leave any lemon flesh that slips out. Place the skillet over medium heat and bring to a light simmer. Adjust the heat down as necessary. Cut the cold butter into small chunks and add them, a few at a time, to the simmering fat and juices. Once the last of the butter has melted, shut off the heat and transfer this delicious jus-like dipping sauce to small condiment bowls. Use a spoon or other implement to scrape every last bit from the bottom of the pan (flavor!).
- Make sure the chicken has rested for at least five minutes, but probably no more than ten minutes, then carve up the chicken as you wish. (This is actually quite subjective; I like to keep the thigh and drumstick together, then take off each breast, after which I extract the wings and thickly slice the breasts. You can do as you please.)
- Serve with a little condiment bowl of the buttery juices and dip each bite of chicken into it for otherworldly deliciousness.