Roast chicken is one of those dishes that has a storied place in our culinary consciousness. If you type the phrase “roast chicken” into Google, you will get 201,000,000 results. Well, as of this writing, 201,000,001. There are literally millions of articles called “best” or “easiest roasted chicken.” If you ask famous chefs what they want for their last supper, a large percentage of them will say roasted chicken. And last year, Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk brined roasted chicken went globally and rightfully viral, and if you have a chance to make it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This is not that roasted chicken.
This is not Thomas Keller’s impeccable roasted chicken, or the chicken crapaudine that is David Lebovitz’s Parisian poultry madeleine. This is not Ina Garten’s Amish-bred roast chicken seasoned with salt mined from the foreheads of Sardinian virgins and bathed in olive oil pressed just this morning between the thighs of sporty Martha’s Vineyard polo players. It’s not Martha Stewart’s roast chicken made with a chicken she raised from conception, cheekily served to Snoop Dogg on a silver platter from the 1800s.
This is your super basic, fairly last-minute, get-some-dinner-on-the-table roast chicken. This is good roast chicken, not transcendent roast chicken, but let’s be honest, you have to crawl before you run, so good roast chicken is the first step on the path to transcendence.
This is a three-ingredient chicken that will make you feel a sense of self-efficacy. You CAN make this chicken.
Buy a chicken
Whatever chicken you like, preferably between 3-4 pounds. It can be from your local grocery store or your local butcher. Pre-packed in plastic, or freshly wrapped in paper. It can be fresh or frozen. It’s just a chicken. (If it is frozen, thaw for 1-2 days in the refrigerator before proceeding.) Remove the chicken from the packaging and pat it dry with paper towels. Do not wash it (this just spreads chicken juice all over your sink and is pretty useless); just make sure it isn’t wet.
Heat your oven
For this method, 425 degrees is hot enough to get cooked chicken with browned crispy skin in a rational amount of time and without fear of burning.
Get a pan
You can roast a chicken in a roasting pan, a cast-iron skillet or other skillet, in a Dutch oven, on a rimmed sheet pan, or in a disposable foil pan. You cannot roast it directly on the rack of your oven without making a mess and risking fire. So, find an oven-safe vessel that will hold the chicken with some airspace around it for heat flow. Oil it or spray it with non-stick spray. Can you use a rack? Yes, if you want. Won’t hurt a thing. But if you do, oil or spray the rack as well or it is a pain to clean. I rarely bother.
Salt your chicken, really well
If you are using Kosher salt, which is preferred, make it sort of snow all over the chicken. You might use a full tablespoon for one chicken. If you are using sea salt or fine salt, use half as much. Can you salt it up to a day in advance? Sure you can, fancypants, if you are a plan-ahead kind of cook, it doesn’t make it less delicious. Can you salt it 2 hours ahead to get a little advanced seasoning? Yep. But at least 87% of the time I salt it right before I put it in the oven, and guess what? The chicken is delicious. Place the salted chicken in the middle of your oiled vessel.
Yes, chicken skin is pretty much made of fat, but in order for it to get nicely browned and give it a jumpstart on rendering to keep your chicken moist, it needs some lubrication. Back when we had an ozone layer and we used to tan, you always got better color when you used suntan oil, no? Same principle. Pretty much any oil will do, olive, canola, sunflower, melted butter, coconut… you get the picture. Don’t use WD-40. If your oil is marked for food consumption, you are good to go. Drizzle the oil over the exposed areas of the salted chicken (the bottom will be fine with the oiled surface of the pan).
Add any bonus bits
You are about to put a chicken into a hot oven for between 45 and 75 minutes, which will create both yummy juices and fat, and also an excellent cooking environment for other stuff. Stuff that is delicious to eat with chicken. So, if you have any kind of potato, from fingerling to sweet, cut it up if it needs to be broken down, or keep them whole, and place them around the chicken. Salt and drizzle oil on them. Same is true for things like wedges of onions, chunks of carrots or parsnips, pieces of hard squashes, cauliflower florets… things that are made yummy by roasting are made yummier by roasting with chicken. Fact. Do you have a piece of citrus like a lemon or lime or orange around going a bit sad? Quarter it and drop it around, it will make the juices extra nice, and you can squeeze the roasted citrus over the chicken meat for bonus moisture and flavor.
Or you can totally cook the chicken by itself! Roasted chicken is not required to be served alongside other roasted stuff, so again, don’t worry if you don’t have any bonus bits to strew about.
Roast the chicken
Yes, there are plenty of recipes that say you start the chicken breast side down and then flip it over halfway through, or turn the chicken a quarter turn every ten minutes, or spin the pan around in the oven. This is not one of those recipes.
I put the pan with the chicken (and extras or not) on the center rack in the middle of the oven and close the door. In 35 minutes (for a smaller chicken) or 45 minutes for a larger one, I go into the kitchen armed with an instant read meat thermometer. I open the oven and take the temperature of the chicken in the thickest part of both thighs, and in the thickest part of both breasts, being careful not to touch bone.
Take the chicken’s temperature
I am looking for an overall temp of 165. If some areas of the chicken are at that temp, but others are lower, then I will turn the pan around so that the less cooked areas will now be resting in the part of the oven the more cooked parts were sitting before, and then I close the door. Then I will check every 8 minutes until I am satisfied that the whole chicken is fully and safely cooked. Sometimes parts of the skin are browner than others, but even if it is more pale straw than mahogany, it should be pretty well-rendered and a bit crisp on top. Check to be sure your extra bits are also cooked through to your desired tenderness. If the chicken is done and the potatoes (or whatever) are not? Remove the chicken to a sheet pan or cutting board to rest and return the pan to the oven. Juices of the thick part of the thigh should run clear and not pink.
Rest the chicken
A whole roasted chicken needs to rest, tented with foil, for at least 20 minutes—25 is better, 30 is amazing, especially for a larger chicken. This allows the juices to redistribute in the meat and means they won’t all run out when you cut up the chicken, making it dry. The one thing that is most likely to take your competently roasted chicken into dry, sad chicken territory is carving too early. Err on the side of ten minutes too long versus ten minutes too few, because chicken that is warm instead of piping hot is still delicious but chicken that is dry is not.
Cut up your chicken
If you want to become some sort of chicken carving guru, this is what YouTube is for. Go down the rabbit hole of chicken carving videos if you like. For my money, on a random weeknight? Use poultry shears (really sharp bird scissors) and cut apart the bird into its six major pieces: legs, thighs, and breasts with wings attached. If people want to dissect further, let them negotiate that. If you roasted any citrus with the chicken, this is a good time to squeeze it over.
Eat your chicken
This chicken is super simple, so it is not wrong to serve with a condiment or two. From barbecue sauce to Dijon mustard to hot sauce or sriracha, a little dip is not a bad thing if you are so inclined. But more often than not I serve it with a salt and pepper shaker.