Everyone should know how to make a great roast chicken. Of all the recipes in my personal repertoire, this one for roast chicken is the most special to me. This was the first “real” meal that I successfully cooked for my husband Jon when we first got married. And although it’s been over twenty-five years, my family and I still think that this recipe produces the best roast chicken we’ve ever had.
Feel free to apply the same seasoning and cooking technique to smaller Cornish hens, larger capons and big turkeys. Simply adjust the amount of seasoning, basting butter and, of course, the roasting time (more detailed information and a shopping list for roasting a turkey, see Perfect Roast Turkey). Lastly, although you might be tempted, after carving, don’t throw away the cooked carcasses or any unused skin. Instead, refrigerate them until morning and then make a wonderful pot of chicken stock.
For the chicken
- 2 cups assorted aromatic vegetables (thinly sliced carrot, yellow onion and celery)
- Vegetable spray or oil, for the roasting rack
- 2 chickens (3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds each)
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Poultry Seasoning Mix, as needed
- Flavorless vegetable oil (or pure olive oil), as needed, for the chickens
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 8 scallions trimmed and left whole (use the white and 2 inches of the tender green), if not planning to stuff the birds
- 3 to 4 cups of your favorite stuffing, at room temperature (optional)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
For the gravy
- 2 1/2 cups Chicken Stock
- Necks and gizzards from the chickens (no heart or liver)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine (or use more chicken stock)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 2 medium-sized button mushrooms, wiped clean and coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
To clean and season the chickens
First remove the giblets from each cavity, reserving only the necks and gizzards for the gravy. Save the liver and heart for another recipe or discard them.Thoroughly rinse and dry the chickens, trimming away any excess fat from the cavity openings. Place the chickens on two large overlapping sheets of aluminum foil, on your counter. Pour a cup or so of oil into a bowl and place it next to the chickens. Working with one bird at a time, sprinkle the insides of each cavity with some salt and black pepper. Sprinkle the Poultry Seasoning Mix, very generously, on both sides of each chicken. Use your hands to scoop up a liberal amount of oil and rub it onto the birds, evenly distributing the seasoning. When done, the birds should look deeply colored and glistening.
Bend the bony tips of the wings down, securing them underneath the chickens. Transfer the birds, cradled in the foil, to a tray or a large bowl and cover them with greased plastic wrap, oiled side down. Refrigerate the birds until 30 minutes before you plan to roast.
To season without pre-assembled Poultry Seasoning Mix
Take out a jar of onion powder, garlic powder, Lawry’s seasoning salt and sweet paprika, along with a pepper mill and a bottle of vegetable oil. Place a sheet of plastic wrap around the center of each bottle, including the oil, which will help keep the jars clean as you season the birds. Grind a generous amount of black pepper into a small bowl. Starting with the onion powder, sprinkle each listed seasoning liberally all over the birds, on both sides, being the least generous with the Lawry’s. Lubricate the chickens, as directed, reapplying more seasoning and oil, until satisfied with the chicken’s appearance, and follow the remaining instructions.
To make the gravy base
Bring 2 1/2 cups of the stock to a brisk simmer, over medium-high heat, in a 1-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the necks and gizzards. When the liquid comes back to a full bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer the chicken parts, covered, until the meat is tender, about 25 minutes for the necks and 45 minutes for the tougher gizzards. When each is done, remove them from the broth. Set the broth aside and let the necks and gizzards become cool enough to handle. When cool, use a fork and your fingers to pull any meat off the necks, then shred or chop it. Chop the gizzards as well, and combine both. Reserve 2 cups of the stock and wipe out the saucepan.
Melt 2 1/2 tablespoons of butter in the same saucepan, over medium heat. When bubbling, add the minced shallots and chopped mushrooms. Sauté the vegetables, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes, then stir in the flour. Cook the vegetable-roux over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, then whisk in the reserved cup of stock. Bring the liquid to a full bubble, then reduce the heat to low and let the sauce cook until thickened and rich-looking, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often. Lay a doubled paper towel over the top of the pan, then apply the lid. Set the gravy base aside for now.
To make the basting mixture
Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a small saucepan, over medium heat. When the butter is hot and bubbling, add the minced garlic. Reduce the heat to low and let the garlic sizzle for a few minutes, until it’s very fragrant. Remove the pan from the stove.
To roast the chickens
Preheat the oven to 400°F. If not using stuffing, insert the trimmed scallions into the cavity of each chicken, green ends out. Secure the legs using kitchen twine by wrapping it around the knobby ends, criss-crossing the ends, and tying a knot. If planning to stuff the birds, just before roasting, spoon the stuffing loosely into the cavity. Use about 1/2 generous cup stuffing per each pound of meat. Place any additional stuffing in a buttered baking dish, to roast along with the chickens. To truss a stuffed bird, thread a 10-inch length of kitchen twine through a trussing needle and tie a knot at the bottom end of the string. Starting at the top of the cavity, sew through both side flaps of thin fleshy skin, until you reach the bottom of the opening. Pull the string, securing the cavity shut and use the remaining string to wind around the knobby ends of the drumsticks (while pulling) to bring them together. Tie a knot to secure the legs, and snip off any loose ends of string.
Strew the carrot, onion and celery on a large shallow baking sheet. Spray a large roasting rack (if not nonstick) with vegetable spray and place it over the vegetables. Place the seasoned birds (breast-side up) side by side, on the prepared roasting rack with a 2-inch space between the birds. Spoon the garlic butter over each bird.
Put the chickens into the preheated oven and reduce the temperature to 375°F. Roast the birds until golden and crisp, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours for unstuffed birds (about 15 minutes longer if stuffed), basting occasionally with pan juices using a bulb baster. As the chicken skin becomes crisp and golden, check frequently for signs of doneness (wings and legs should wiggle freely at the joints and an instant thermometer will read 170°F when inserted into the thigh and 165°F (no higher) when inserted into the breast meat). Baste a stuffed bird often during the last 15 minutes of cooking and cook until an instant thermometer inserted deep into the cavity reads 165°F. When done, remove the chickens from the oven and lift out the roasting rack holding them. Let the birds rest (loosely tented with aluminum foil) over a platter or a carving surface, for 10 minutes, so the juices can be reabsorbed. (To bake additional stuffing, place the dish in a 375°F oven and cook, covered, for 30 minutes and uncovered for 15 minutes more, or until piping hot throughout and the top is golden and crusty.)
To finish the gravy
Reheat your gravy base over low heat, until simmering. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the drippings from the baking sheet. (Keep all those vegetables and browned bits clinging to the bottom of the pan.) Set the baking sheet on the stove, directly over medium-high heat and, when things start to sizzle, pour in the wine. Using a gravy whisk or the flat edge of a wooden spatula, combine the vegetables, drippings and wine. Simmer the liquid, until reduced by half, occasionally pressing on the vegetables to extract any remaining flavor. Position a fine-mesh sieve over the simmering sauce base and carefully pour the contents of the baking sheet into the sieve, mashing down on the vegetables to push all of their goodness through the sieve and into the sauce. Discard the contents of the sieve, and stir the thyme, along with the reserved minced neck and gizzard meat into the gravy. Season the gravy with some salt and pepper and let it simmer, over low heat, for 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the gravy warm, over low heat, while you carve the chickens.
To carve the birds
Cut the twine that binds the leg tips and, if stuffed, cut and remove the string that secures the cavity shut. Use tongs to remove the scallions and place them on a platter or use a spoon to scoop out the stuffing and place it into a warmed serving bowl. Cover the stuffing loosely with foil, to keep it warm. Position one chicken, so the cavity is in front of you.
To remove the legs, first making an incision in the skin, where one of the thighs meets the breast. Use your nonworking hand to grasp the leg tip, while you use the knife to separate the leg from the body. When you reach the hip joint, use the tip of the knife to nudge a final separation. To detach the drumstick from the thigh, lay the leg on your cutting board (skin side up) and place your index finger on the top of the drumstick, just where it meets the thigh. Use your fingertip to locate the small empty space, indicating the joint. Place the knife blade in this spot and drive the blade through. Place the drumstick and thigh on a serving platter and do the same thing on the other side.
To slice the breast meat, first lift off the top skin (covering the breast) in one piece and place it to the side, keeping it dry. Use the knife to cut each breast-half off the carcass in one piece, driving the blade in from the top, to one side of the chest bone. Depending on how chubby the breast is, slice the slab of meat into two or three pieces and put them on the platter. Do this on the other side. Slice the skin into crisp strips and drape them over the breast meat.
To remove the wings, cut them off where they meet the carcass, then turn each carcass over and run your thumb under the two nuggets of dark meat that sit to either side of the backbone, releasing them. Put these on the platter. Repeat this with the remaining chicken.
Timing is Everything
If impeccably fresh, the chickens can be seasoned (not stuffed) two days ahead and kept refrigerated, well covered with oiled plastic wrap. Always stuff poultry minutes before you plan to cook. If not using stuffing, however, the scallions can be inserted ahead, when you apply your seasoning.
All of the vegetables to roast underneath the birds can be assembled the day before and kept together in the refrigerator, well covered.
The stock, for the gravy, can (and should) be made days, weeks or months ahead and kept in the freezer in sealed plastic containers.
If you don’t have a reserve of chicken stock ready-to-go or tucked away in the freezer, “doctor” canned chicken broth by simmering some sliced aromatic vegetables such as carrots, celery, onion and parsley in the broth for 1 to 2 hours. Strain, discard the solids and use as directed in the recipe. Doing this will substantially perk up both the flavor and color of canned broth.
The gravy base can be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator, well covered.
The garlic butter can be assembled a few hours ahead and kept at a comfortable room temperature. Reheat just before using.