After the baked potato and toast, the roasted chicken may be the simplest of all foods to cook, and the hardest to screw up. Like the baked potato, you stick it in an oven for an hour, wait ten minutes, and then eat it. It’s really as simple as that.
How is it possible, then, that the roasted chicken has been for many generations of cooks a near-universal test of cooking skill? Possibly because, while there are so few ways of doing it wrong, there are a correspondingly large number of ways to do it right. Roasted chickens are good with lemons and without lemons, on low heat and on high heat, trussed up or left splayed. They can be stood upright (the real secret of the “beer can chicken”) or cooked conventionally. In almost all cases, they will basically be good, but how you cook a chicken says much about the way you feel about food, and hence the way you work with it.
Take, for instance, trussing up the legs. This basically means tying the chickens ankles together so that the dark and white meat will cook more evenly. It doesn’t, of course; it just looks nice. But it gratifies anal-retentive types like Thomas Keller, who love control over every aspect of the chicken (and the person who eats it.) A more loosey-goosey, intuitive cook like Jamie Oliver makes a chicken that looks like it fell into the roasting pan by accident. But there is no reason to think that the latter is any worse tasting; interestingly, Oliver’s has much more going on by the time it’s plated – it’s all cut up, there’s vegetables, a gravy, and so on. Keller’s chicken is stark and simple – which is one reason he tries to make it so perfect, I guess. I don’t say that either approach is wrong. They just represent different personalities.
Personally, I fall more in the Jamie Oliver camp. I like the chicken to more or less cook itself. In my mildewed bachelorhood, when bitterness and Cinemax were my only companions, I would sometimes punish myself by throwing an unwashed chicken into a cold oven, throwing a handful of salt at it barely as an afterthought. Most of my chickens in those days were afterthoughts; I would buy them as impulse purchases during my stoned, solo expeditions to Shop Rite, and then they would sit in the refrigerator until I got around to making them. Because, really, who wants to eat a chicken by themselves? It’s practically an admission of failure at life. It was only my stinginess and gluttony that made me cook it at all, and when I did so I punished myself by cooking it badly.
The only problem is that it was still good. It’s hard to screw up a chicken. An undercooked one will still have juicy breast meat on the outside, and an overcooked one will have juicy thighs. Both will have tasty skin, and that’s the best part of all. But as I got older and happier, I began to find a way to cook chickens better without changing who I was. I got a woman, I got a job, I had a house with an Xbox and a humidor and plenty of counter space. I still wasn’t going to do something as effeminate as trussing a chicken, or for that matter even remember to brine it, which is always a good idea. But I did learn rub the breast with butter or olive oil, so it would essentially fry as it roasted, and so that the salt would be more likely to stick when I threw it, as an afterthought, at an already-roasting chicken. The bird didn’t need to be cooked, because it hadn’t sat in the refrigerator until it was ready to expire; I had somebody to eat it with me. And I learned to put some butter in under the breast skin, to make the white meat, if not juicier, at least better tasting. (Undercooking a little helped, too; so did figuring on how long the chicken would continue to cook after it was taken out. Which is more than you would think.)
Roast chickens are not the best measures of a cook’s skill, but that’s OK. You’re not a chef or a would-be line cook, I am guessing, and neither am I. We are just regular people who go to regular supermarkets, and like to see a chicken on the table. It looks like something that requires more than one person to eat it, and less than one person to cook it: a formula for happiness if ever I heard one.
Watch how Josh roasts a chicken!