Friday, December 24, 2010

Roast Chicken

rIt is tradition to have a roast bird of some sort around the holidays. The only one most people make at other times of the year, is usually chicken. While a very common thing to make, It can also be intimidating for many cooks.

The difficulty is that chicken, to be safe, must be cooked almost to the point of being overdone - there is very little margin for error. To make things more difficult, a chicken has an irregular shape, with a cavity in the middle and the breast and legs cook at different rates. Proper roasting of birds requires technique and I will share it with you. I will give the instructions based on roasting a chicken, but the general technique is similar for most poultry.

Roast Chicken

1 roasting chicken - 2 kg or larger
1 stick butter
salt and pepper
1 apple, quartered
1 lemon, quartered
dried thyme
1/3 cup orange marmalade

Obviously, the first step is to choose a quality chicken. Organic and free range is ideal, but do what your budget allows. If you are cooking for a small group of people, a slightly different suggestion is to use a capon. Capons are male chickens (castrated) and are larger than regular chickens, usually about 3-5 kilos. The bird you will see in the photos is actually a small capon. Some people will tell you to wash chicken before cooking. I don’t think it is completely necessary. If the bird smells a little, it is probably a good idea to give it a rinse, otherwise I wouldn’t bother - this will be in the oven for a long time and will be cooked to a high temperature. If you do wash it, make sure to thoroughly dry it before continuing. One optional thing you can do which may help with carving later on is to remove the wishbone before cooking. This will allow you to easily slice down the entire length of the breast. The wishbone is located just above the neck (opposite side from the cavity). You can make a little slit alongside each part of the bone and scrape along the length of the bone. As long as you just use the tip of your knife this will not damage the cooked meat. It will work best to work with your fingers. Follow each bone up to where they meet and use your fingers to tear meat away from the bone and pull the bone out. It may not come out all in one piece. If it doesn’t, find the remaining piece and pull that out.

Season the bird with salt and pepper on both sides. Toss the apple and lemon with salt, pepper and thyme and put them inside the cavity. This is the only form of stuffing you should be adding to your bird. That instruction goes double for turkey. If you stuff a turkey, there are only two possible results: horribly overcooked and dry breast meat or food poisoning from undercooked stuffing (which will contain undercooked turkey juices). Make your stuffing or dressing in a separate cooking vessel. There are ways to incorporate turkey flavour or drippings without running the risks of directly stuffing the bird. You can stuff small birds and still get a good result, but I personally wouldn’t stuff anything larger than a cornish hen. Melt the butter and brush it all over both sides of the bird. If you want to use a little less butter it can be diluted with a bit of chicken stock. I don’t do this, but my mom does and it works just fine. Place a roasting rack in a foil-lined roasting pan and place the bird breast side down in the pan and put in a 325 degree oven.

After about 20 minutes, remove the bird, flip it over so it is breast side up, and baste this side with butter and put it back in the oven. Don’t worry if there are marks in the skin from the roasting rack - the cooking process will get rid of these indentations. Return it to the oven and cook for 40 -60 minutes, or until almost cooked. It is almost impossible to give you a time frame, as this will depend on the size of the bird. Roasting chickens should take about 1 - 1 ½ hours total, a capon 2-2 ½ hours and a turkey 2 ½ to 4 hours.

The biggest challenge for most cooks is determining when a chicken is cooked. Unlike other meats, undercooking chicken and turkey even a little bit can be dangerous. To me, cutting into a bird (or any other piece of meat) during cooking is an unpardonable offense - do not do this under any circumstances. A common technique is to wiggle the drumstick - if the drumstick moves freely the bird is cooked. The problem is this technique is not accurate enough. The bird may be overcooked or parts of the bird may even not be cooked yet. The best method is to use a meat thermometer. Take the temperature of the breast and the thigh. It should read 160 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh. If the temps are a few degrees below where you want - pull them out anyway - the bird will continue cooking as it rests (by at least 5 degrees). This is also a good way to decide when to glaze. As you will need another 10-20 minutes of high heat cooking, start glazing when the breast reaches 130 degrees. That should give you enough time. Always test the thickest part of the meat in both areas, and be careful not to hit a bone, or an air pocket (especially in the thigh) as that will not give you an accurate reading.

Meanwhile combine the marmalade with remaining butter and warm it up so it remains liquid. Make sure to select a high-quality marmalade, preferably made from Seville oranges and with no ingredients other than oranges, sugar, water and pectin. I actually use kumquat preserves, which is very difficult to find (I only know of one company that produces this). In my family, we always used to use orange marmalade, and that is what I suggest.

Remove the chicken, raise the heat to 400 degrees, flip the bird again, and baste with the marmalade mixture. Return it to the oven for 5-10 minutes or until the skin is nicely caramelized. Then take the chicken out again flip one last time and baste the breast side with the marmalade. Return it for another 5-10 minutes.

When the bird is done, take the chicken out cover it in foil, and rest for 10-15 minutes before carving. The easiest way to carve is to first remove the legs, then remove the breast as two whole pieces, by cutting down alongside the keel bone (the keel bone runs along the middle of the breast) and cut inwards following along the ribcage. The breasts will come off easier if you removed the wishbone beforehand. You can then split the legs into thighs and drumsticks and slice the breasts. Serve chicken, turkey, capon or whatever bird you are cooking with whatever holiday or other sides you want. Throughout the year, I usually eat roast chicken accompanied by baked sweet potatoes. Bake them in the oven just like potatoes (I usually find it helps to give each sweet potato a 5 minute head start in the microwave before foil wrapping them and putting them in the oven).

Enjoy and to all my readers, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


  1. Happy Holidays Evan! Thank you for all of the recipes and cooking techniques you have posted this year. Have a very Happy New Year!!! Hugs, JR

  2. /Base slander there, Evan - I never dilute the butter with water, only with chicken stock

  3. So very sorry - forgot. I'll change it in the text.