Friends, I’m getting married in a few days! In honor of this exciting occasion, I’m dedicating this post to my soon-to-be husband, Ben. Roast chicken is on the menu and I have a tale of love and Sunday Dinner for you.
Roast chicken is, without a doubt, my favorite meal in the world. Give me a juicy, well-seasoned, golden-skinned chicken thigh and you might catch me dancing in my seat. To me, there is no other comfort food quite like it.
My mom made a mean roast chicken when I was growing up. She roasted it low and slow. One of my favorite ways to eat it was alongside pasta with peas and onions. I would set my chicken on top of my pasta and drizzle the whole dish with some of its savory roasting juices. I’d take a bite of chicken, followed by a few bites of pasta, mixing everything along the way. My fork would get greasy, but it didn’t matter—it was a beautiful balance of sweet, savory and belly-warming flavors. If I came home from school on a Monday (my mom’s “Sunday”) and saw a roast chicken on the table, I knew I was in for a great meal.
It wasn’t until the summer before my last year of college in Philadelphia that I learned to roast my own chicken. I moved to an apartment that was a couple blocks away from a Thursday Farmers Market that sold fresh organic chickens. I picked one up and began a weekly journey of practice and research. One of the recipes that helped me get started was Judy Rodgers’s legendary roast chicken recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. She has written pages on the subject and she is the reason I blast my chickens at high heat in a cast iron pan. Judy’s lessons, along with those of Julia Child and Ina Garten, gave me the confidence to experiment and develop a few key rules that led to my favorite roast chicken (though don’t get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for my mom’s chicken):
- Salting the bird several hours before roasting is the key to a juicy and flavorful chicken. It will flavor the meat and skin, as well as the fats and juices that render during cooking.
- Drying the bird thoroughly before roasting ensures a brown and crispy skin.
- Kosher salt is my favorite and only seasoning. Something magical happens to the flavor of a chicken when the salt has a chance to penetrate the meat and skin, and I don’t like anything standing in the way of that pure chicken flavor.
- Leaving the skin intact helps keep the meat juicy and flavorful. I like to think of the skin as a protective cloak that bastes and flavors the meat as it cooks. While a lot of recipes will tuck herbs, butters and marinades under the skin, I skip it for the sake of timing and my own preference for flavor.
- Roasting at high heat yields a crispy and juicy bird.
- Flipping the bird a few times during roasting allows for even cooking and crisping.
- Leaving the chicken cavity open (as in, untied and untrussed) allows for more thorough cooking and crisping since the heat can move in and around the bird more freely.
The process of perfecting my favorite roast chicken holds a lot of sentimental value for me. This chicken was one of the first meals I ever cooked for my fiancé when we were just two friends who were secretly after each other’s hearts. It helped me say things I couldn’t say out loud—things like, I like you…no, I really like you..can’t you taste it in this chicken?
Now, just days before our wedding, I look back at this meal and all the other Sunday roast chicken dinners we have shared. I look back at how much has changed, and yet how much has stayed the same since the day my fiancé, my roommate and I sat on the living room floor and ate this chicken. Sharing my favorite meal felt special and important—it was messy, comforting, and full of love.
I hope you make this chicken and I hope that it sparks some warm and happy memories at your table! Since it’s spring, let’s eat it with pasta, peas and onions. Let’s also eat it with our fingers because it’s Sunday Dinner and it’s just too good not to! This meal is about love, warmth and comfort so we’re going to get messy and sop up those chicken juices!
In order to get your bird on the table, you will need about 5 hours including prep, resting, and cooking time. It sounds like a huge time commitment, but it’s really worth it.
The most important thing about getting a crispy skin or crust on any meat is drying it out. Moisture generates steam, and steam inhibits browning. So the more you dry your bird, the more your skin will crisp.
The best way to assist in drying your bird is by leaving it uncovered in the refrigerator for about 4 hours. I wouldn’t leave it much longer because the legs tend to get a little dried out. As you preheat your cast iron pan, you can finish drying off any last-minute moisture with paper towels.
The chicken begins roasting on its back in a sizzling hot cast iron pan for about 15 minutes in a 500º oven. I like to face the legs toward the back of the oven since the dark meat usually takes more time to cook. This helps keep the faster-cooking breast from drying out.
Pull the chicken from the oven and prepare to flip it onto its breast.
Sometimes I have great success, others I don’t. Don’t beat yourself up if you lose a little skin along the way. Crank down the heat to 475° and put the chicken back in the oven for 20 more minutes. Don’t be afraid to turn the oven down to 450º if it gets too smoky.
Remove the chicken from the oven and flip it one last time onto its back.
In it goes for about 15-20 more minutes.
Look at that crispy skin!
I have been known to set off a fire alarm or two when making this chicken. If you notice your chicken getting a little smoky after your first or second flip, feel free to turn the oven down to 450°. When possible, keep your windows open and your range fan on!
3 1/2-lb whole chicken
2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 to 1/2 cup of water, white wine, apple cider, or favorite deglazing liquid
Pasta with Peas and Onions:
1/2 lb spaghetti (I used whole wheat spaghetti)
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas
1 large onion, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter or rendered chicken grease
handful of parsley leaves
freshly ground salt and black pepper, to taste
cast iron pan large enough to hold a chicken
baking sheet with rack
- Pull your chicken out of the bag. Remove liver, gizzard, heart and neck from the cavity and place in a bowl. Do not throw these away!
- If you notice an extra flap of skin hanging near the cavity, cut it back a bit and place it in the bowl with the liver, gizzard, heart and neck. Remove tail if still attached, and place in the same bowl. The gizzard, neck, tail and excess skin can be frozen and reserved for chicken stock, while the liver and heart can be eaten within a day or two. See below for recipe.
- Give the bird a quick rinse, inside and out. Now sprinkle it all over the (including the cavity) with 1 tablespoon of salt, and give it a little exfoliating rub. Rinse the chicken, drain it, and dry it really well with paper towels. Make sure to dry within the creases that form below the wings and between the legs and breast.
- Set the rack over the baking sheet and place your dried bird over the rack. Sprinkle the chicken all over with the remaining tablespoon of kosher salt, rotating it, as necessary for even coverage. Throw a little salt into the cavity, as well, and set the chicken on its back. You will start to notice little beads of “sweat” forming on the skin of the chicken. This is good!
- Put the uncovered chicken, rack and baking sheet on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination with other refrigerator items. After 3 hours, take a peak. You will notice that the skin will have tightened and dried out. If the back seems a little moist, flip the chicken over onto its breast for the remaining hour.
- Put the cast iron pan into the oven and preheat to 500° for at least 45 minutes to an hour. A well-heated pan will help keep the skin from sticking to it. Make sure the pan is on a rack that’s low enough to accommodate the bird and its splattering.
- Remove your chicken from the refrigerator and pat off any residual moisture with paper towels. Try to work quickly as the chicken will start to sweat as it sits out. Pull the hot cast iron pan from the oven and drop the chicken on its back into the pan. It will sizzle. Throw the pan immediately back into the oven (legs first) so the skin does not have a chance to stick to the pan.
- After 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven. You will notice that the skin will have dried out and browned a little. Carefully glide a spatula under the bird to make sure it isn’t sticking. Once it’s nice and loose, use your spatula and tongs to flip the bird onto its breast. Immediately throw the chicken back into the oven. Crank the oven down to 475° and leave it in there for 20 more minutes.
- If at any point things get too smoky, turn down the heat to 450°. You can go as low as 425° as an absolute last resort, but keep in mind that you will need to increase your cooking time by at least a few minutes.
- Pull the chicken out of the oven and prepare to flip it one last time onto its back. The chicken is a lot less likely to stick at this point, but glide the spatula underneath, just in case. Flip the chicken and place it back into the oven for about 15 more minutes. If your bird is slightly larger than 3 1/2 lbs, allow 20 minutes of cooking time for this last step. If it’s smaller, you may only need about 10 minutes. The chicken is done when the skin is golden brown and the juices run clear.
- Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the chicken to a platter.
Preparing the Juices
You may notice a pool of chicken grease and juices in your cast iron pan. Carefully pour them into a glass measuring cup and set aside. Place your cast iron pan over a burner on medium-low heat. Pour 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water, white wine, apple cider, or favorite deglazing liquid into the cast iron pan, and use a plastic or rubber spatula to scrape up any brown bits from the pan (also called the fond). Allow the juice to cook down for a minute or two, tasting and adjusting the seasoning as you go. We’ll call this a light gravy.
Return to the measuring cup of chicken grease and juices. By now the grease should have risen to the top. Pour off as much of the grease as you can into a separate bowl or glass container. Save this grease for roasting and frying—it’s absolutely delicious.
Slash the skin of the chicken between the leg and the breast and allow the juices to run out. Carve around the thigh area and bend the leg/thigh piece back to expose the joint where the thigh meets the carcass. Cut through the joint and set on the platter. Repeat for the other leg/thigh piece. Remove the wings by cutting around the area where the wing meets the breast. You may bend the wing back a bit to expose the joint for a cleaner cut. Place the wings on the platter. Use your knife to expose and remove the wishbone from the “neck” area of the bird. Dry it out and save it for a wish! To cut the breast, use your knife to score through the breastplate of the chicken. Then score along the ribcage on either side of the bird, leaving you with two breast pieces and the full back. You can eat the meat and skin from the back, or you can also set it aside and reserve it for stock.
Arrange the chicken pieces on the platter and pour the measuring cup of reserved chicken juices over the meat. You can eat the chicken with your favorite side dish, or with the following pasta recipe. Drizzle the meat with the light gravy, as desired.
*To reheat chicken, arrange bone-in, skin-on pieces in a baking dish, cover loosely with foil, and warm in a 275° oven for 20-25 minutes. The meat will be juicy and flavorful.
Fried Chicken Liver & Heart
Heat 1/2 tbsp olive oil and 1/2 tbsp butter or rendered chicken grease in a small frying pan. Pat the liver and heart dry with a paper towel, and slice the heart lengthwise in half to keep it from rolling around the pan. Add the liver to the hot pan and cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side, or until the edges are crispy and brown with a slight rosy pink center. Transfer the liver to a small plate. Add the two heart halves to the pan and fry for about 2 minutes total. Rotate the pieces around the pan as necessary. Serve the liver and heart alongside chicken and the following pasta recipe.
Pasta with Peas and Onions
While the chicken is roasting, bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, set a frying pan over medium-low heat and add 1 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tbsp of butter or chicken grease. When the fats begin to sizzle, add the sliced onions to the pan and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
When the pasta water comes to a boil, throw in the pasta and cook according to the instructions on the box. About 2 minutes before the pasta is done, pour the peas into the boiling water. Reserve about 1 cup of pasta water and drain the rest. Toss the pasta and peas with the onions and a small pat of butter or chicken grease. Add pasta water to loosen, as necessary. Garnish with parsley and black pepper. Serve with chicken and its juices.