Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken

There was a time when I didn't like roasted chicken. I'm not really sure why, but perhaps I had eaten only bland and unexceptional specimens up to that point. Or maybe what changed my mind was the common food writer's musings about roasted chicken as one of the litmus tests, like omelettes, that indicate a chef's skill.

Roasting a chicken, like making an omelette, is one of those things that anyone can do, technically, but it apparently takes some skill to do well--thus, the litmus test theory. Here's one of the many articles that ponder this eternal question in a much more eloquent fashion than my skills will allow.

Plus, a lot of chefs and food writers claim that a well-roasted chicken is the perfect meal, one that they'll take any day over fancier fare. I don't know about that, but I do know that a roasted chicken sometimes hits the spot, it makes for nice leftovers, and it's nice to have the carcasses for making stock.

When I decided that it was time to set out on the quest for the holy grail of the perfectly roasted chicken, I figured that Thomas Keller was a good place to start. In fact, he amusingly talks about learning to roast a chicken in the French Laundry Cookbook (it involves knife throwing).

This recipe, which has become my go-to recipe, came from Epicurious courtesy of Thomas Keller. Key points to note are the importance of trussing the chicken (the pictures show an improperly trussed chicken, so don't go by that), the importance of getting it really, really dry, and cooking it on high heat. 

Some recipes will tell you to stuff the bird with all kinds of stuff, rub all kinds of tediously chopped-up herbs under its skin, or to start at one temperature in one position, and later change to another temperature while flipping that really hot hunk of protein into another position. Ignore all that--simple is oftentimes best, as demonstrated by the Master Thomas Keller.

  • Thomas Keller's Favorite Simple Roast Chicken

  • One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Optional:
  • 2 teaspoons minced thyme
  • Unsalted butter
  • Dijon mustard

      Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

      Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it's a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

      (Here, here, and here are some web pages that explain how to do this. Pay no attention to my pictured trussing, as it is incorrect--it just works for me.)

      Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it's cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

      Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don't baste it, I don't add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don't want. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

      Note: Make sure that your ventilation system is working well, as this cooking method can create a good deal of smoke. If you have an old potato laying around, you can slice it and put it in the bottom of the pan. This will result in lessening the amount of smoke, and you'll get some delicious but fatty roasted potatoes.

      Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I'm cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook's rewards.

      Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You'll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it's so good.

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