Few dishes are as beloved as a golden roast chicken. It’s hard to go wrong with the basic method, but there are some recipes that rise above the rest, yielding a delicious bird that is crisp-skinned and tender-fleshed without any more work. Here’s our guide to get you there.
Before You Start
- You’ll need a pan in which to roast the chicken. A roasting pan with a rack is nice, particularly one with upright handles, which is easy to move around in the oven. But a rimmed sheet pan or oven-proof skillet (like cast-iron) works just as well.
- Kitchen shears are very useful for trimming excess fat from the chicken’s cavity. They also come in handy if you want to spatchcock the chicken.
- If you can, leave at least one hour for the seasoned chicken to rest in the refrigerator, uncovered, before it’s time to cook. Longer is even better, up to 24 hours. The result is noticeably crispier skin.
- An instant-read thermometer isn’t the only way to determine whether your chicken is done, but it is the most accurate way. It’s worth buying one.
Preparing the Chicken
There is no consensus on the best way to prep a chicken for roasting; it’s all a matter of personal preference and tried-and-true experience. But here are some suggestions for where to start. Try each and then pick your go-to method. And note that there’s nothing wrong with leaving the bird as is, salting it and just putting it in the oven.
Spatchcocking, also known as butterflying, is an extremely simple move that delivers a gorgeously cooked chicken with crisp skin, and it does so quickly — usually in less than 45 minutes.
To spatchcock a chicken, take a pair of kitchen shears or a very sharp knife and cut along one side of the chicken’s backbone. Open up the bird so it lies flat. Cut along the other side of the backbone to remove it entirely. Then cook the chicken breast-side up.
The only disadvantage to this method is that you’ll lose the classic Norman Rockwell presentation of the whole bird. But the speediness and great flavor make up for it.
A tip: Don’t toss that backbone! A roasted backbone will add more flavor to stock than using a raw backbone. Roast it alongside the chicken, and either serve with the bird (delicious to gnaw on), or save for stock. (You could also just leave the backbone attached, rather than removing it from the bird altogether. Cut along the backbone on only one side of the bird, then open the chicken and roast as is. This doesn’t affect cooking time and saves you some knife work.)
Splaying yields a chicken with succulent white meat and perfectly roasted dark meat. The thighs, usually the slowest part of the bird to cook through, get a head start by being positioned directly on the burning hot pan. And the technique is quicker and easier than spatchcocking.
To splay the chicken, use a sharp knife to cut the skin along the thigh on each side, where the legs connect to the body. Then splay the thighs open until you feel the joint pop on each side. Spread out the thighs out so they can lie flat in a preheated skillet.
Some people like the nice, compact shape of a trussed chicken, and argue that it helps keep the white meat moist. If you want to try it, the classic method is demonstrated in the video above.
For a shortcut trussing method, simply tie the chicken’s legs together at the ankles with one piece of twine, and then use another piece of twine to tie the wings to the breast.
If you’re planning to stuff your chicken, you may want to truss it in the traditional style. Or you can get away with just tying the legs together to keep the stuffing mix from falling out.
Seasoning and Aromatics
Seasoning the chicken ahead of time is a good idea, so that the flavors penetrate the flesh all the way to the bone. This is true whether you’re rubbing the bird with salt, spices and aromatics — a dry brine — or using a more traditional wet brine. Then add other flavors if you like, stuffing the cavity with aromatics (like lemon or herbs) or rubbing the skin with fat (like oil or butter), or both.
Dry brine is a combination of salt and spices or aromatics (or both) that you use to season a chicken. It’s both easier than submerging a chicken in a traditional wet brine, and it produces a more crisp-skinned bird. And like a wet brine, a dry brine will yield a tender, juicy result.
For a dry brine, it’s best to season your bird at least 1 hour ahead and let it rest, uncovered, in the fridge (keeping it uncovered dries out the skin, which encourages crispness). But if you have time, up to 24 hours in the fridge is even better.
The general rule is 2 teaspoons kosher salt for a 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pound bird. Add pepper, grated garlic, grated lemon or other citrus zest, herbs and spices to taste. And don’t forget to rub the seasonings all over the cavity of the bird in addition to the exterior.
That said, though we generally recommend a dry brine, there are some times when you will want to use a wet brine, which is a basic salt-and-aromatic solution in which you submerge the chicken.
For the crispiest skin, pat the chicken dry with paper towels after brining. Then place it on a rack set over a plate or baking sheet, uncovered, and let it rest in the fridge for least 2 hours and up to 24 hours before roasting. This will allow the skin to dry out a bit.
Adding Aromatics to the Cavity
Another way to add flavor to chicken is via its cavity, stuffing it with whole sprigs of herbs, smashed and peeled garlic cloves, quartered onions, halved and squeezed-out lemon, and the like. Do so just before roasting. The aromatics will permeate the flesh of the whole chicken while it cooks. However, some cooks say it compromises the crispness of the skin, so bear that in mind.
Burnishing the Bird With Fat
Although you don’t need to add any fat to a roast chicken, a drizzle of oil or slick of butter before roasting can help brown the skin. Or, stuff the skin with compound butter, made with herbs or whatever else you’d like. Use your fingers to gently pull the skin away from the breast, loosening it just enough to smear butter between the meat and the skin. Take care not to tear the skin.
Another way to add both fat and flavor at the same time is to drizzle the bird with olive oil, or a combination of olive oil and lemon juice during the last 20 minutes of roasting. You can spike this with the likes of grated or mashed garlic, fresh ginger, red chile flakes or powder, dried oregano, thyme or mint. (Don’t use fresh herbs here; they will burn.)
Brushing the Skin With Glaze
Glazing a chicken adds flavor, a rich dark color, and shine to the skin. The key is to use a mixture that combines some kind of sugar with an intense condiment or seasoning. The sugar adds a caramelized brown color and shine, while the condiment adds flavor and mitigates the sweetness.
Some possible combinations include: honey, lemon and soy sauce; maple syrup, hot sauce, and black pepper; brown sugar, lime juice and mustard; hoisin and rice vinegar. Mix and match as you see fit.
To glaze the bird, brush on the sweet mixture during the last 10 to 20 minutes of cooking, and watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. If the glaze starts to burn before the bird is done, simply cover it with foil to finish the cooking.
A note for crisp-chicken-skin fanatics: glazing a bird moistens the skin, making it shiny and flavorful, but less crisp.
It’s time to put the bird in the oven. Here is what you need to know about the pan, temperature and timing.
Pans for Roasting
Different pans yield different results, though many different types work well.
A roasting pan with a rack allows air to circulate under the bird and helps brown the skin all over. Plus, you can add potatoes and other vegetables to the pan under the bird, which will catch the flavorful drippings. If you have a roasting pan but no rack, use vegetables (carrots, celery, sliced onion) to prop the chicken off the pan. Or place the chicken directly in the pan, where it will roast up perfectly well, though parts of the skin may stick to the bottom of the pan.
You can also use a rimmed sheet pan to roast a chicken, either with a rack or without one. A sheet pan has the advantage of lower sides, which lets more of the chicken skin crisp.
Or try roasting in an oven-proof skillet, cast-iron or otherwise. If you preheat the skillet (either in the oven or on the stovetop) and lay the bird into the hot pan, the dark meat will get a head start while the white meat cooks more slowly. This gives you a very evenly cooked bird. But you can also roast in a skillet without any preheating, in which case it acts as a roasting pan, but smaller and more compact. (One great thing about roasting a chicken in a skillet is that it makes it super easy to make a quick pan sauce. Just deglaze with wine or water, and whisk in some butter or cream or crème fraiche and simmer until thickened.)
You can successfully roast a chicken at pretty much any oven temperature, though the timing and results will vary. Go low and slow for a very tender, falling-off-the-bone flesh and softer skin (say, 300 to 350 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours or so). Or roast it fast and furiously for less time for crisp, dark brown skin and firmer, chewier flesh (between 375 and 500 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours).
Checking for Doneness
The safest and easiest way to check for doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. (Take care not to touch the bone with the thermometer.) It should read 165 degrees.
If you don’t have a thermometer, use a paring knife to make a small cut into the thigh going all the way to the bone. If you see any red flesh, put the bird back into the oven. You can also pierce the thigh with a knife to see if the juices are running clear, which indicates that it’s cooked through. But this tends to be less reliable than cutting to the bone.
Here’s a method for carving the chicken so that everyone gets a little skin along with their meat. If you have the wherewithal, heat up a platter for serving. The easiest way is take it hot out of the dishwasher, or run it under very hot tap water for a few minutes, then dry. Placing the just-carved meat on a heated serving platter is the most elegant way to go.
Transfer the roasted chicken to a cutting board, tent it with foil, and let it rest for 5 to 15 minutes.
Begin carving by removing the legs. Pull a thigh away from the chicken and then cut it off by slicing through the joint. If you want, you can pull down on the thigh until the joint pops before you cut; this makes it even easier to cut through (you’ll be able to see exactly where to position the knife).
Once the legs are off, cut through the joints that connect the drumsticks to the thighs. The joint will be soft and not offer much resistance to the knife. If you’re having trouble locating it, move the knife around a bit, wiggling it slightly until you find it.
Next, cut the wings off by pulling down the wings and cutting down through the joints. You can use the same popping maneuver as with the thigh if you like to make the cutting easier.
Now remove the breasts. Slice along the breast bone on one side, going as deep as you can with the tip of the knife so that it hits the cartilage. Cut around the breast meat so that it comes off the bones of the rib cage, then cut through the skin attaching it at the back. Be careful not to rip the skin. Repeat on the other side. If you’d like, you can slice the breasts crosswise, across the grain, into pieces.
Finally, turn the chicken over and find the “oysters,” the small, succulent knobs of meat next to the back bone behind where the thighs used to be. Use the tip of your knife to pry them out. You can also slice off the tail if you like.