Julia was always fond of saying that a perfectly roasted chicken was the sign of a good chef, and this declaration is inarguable. One reason for this is that a whole chicken is like a blank canvas: all one needs to complete a masterpiece worthy of da Vinci, Seurat, or Kahlo is imagination, talent, taste, and time.
There are many marvelous recipes for whole roasted chicken, but one of my favourites is also one of simplest, perfectly easy to make. It begins with a compound butter, a simple mixture of 4 T softened unsalted butter, 2 T finely minced shallots, 1.5 T minced fresh tarragon (try to find fresh tarragon, any reputable grocery store should stock it, but if it’s out of season, 2 t of dried tarragon are an acceptable substitute), kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bunk all the above ingredients into a bowl and mix them together until they’re well blended and the butter is creamed.
The chicken you choose will affect the quality of your finished product. If you have a reputable butcher in the neighbourhood who can provide you with locally sourced poultry, it’s worth the expense. A chicken who lived a happy life, killed humanely, and quickly sent to market is an ideal source for roasting.
If you’re resigned to the supermarket, purchase a fresh, not frozen, bird, preferably one that is free range and organically raised. Select a roasting chicken of no more than 4.5-6 pounds. Remove it from the refrigerator 30 minutes before roasting, and pick it over for any pin-feathers missed when the bird was slaughtered. You will probably need to remove the offal; sometimes it is kept in a bag, at other times it is left loose in the cavity. If you favour the organs, they freeze well and can be saved for sauteing or to be used in stock, or if you have pets, you may boil or roast them and mince them for a special treat. Once you have completed these tasks, rinse the chicken inside and out in cold water. Jacques Pepin scoffs at this extra step, citing that any bacteria surviving the intense heat of the roasting process deserve to live, but I think a nice shower will remove any detritus remaining on the bird. Dry it thoroughly, and rub the cavity with 1 tsp of the compound butter. Sprinkle it with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. If you choose, you may stuff the cavity with an onion, leafy celery and a washed, but unpeeled carrot. With your impeccably clean hands, gently run your fingers between the flesh and skin of the breast, loosening the skin up to and around the thighs. Use 1/2 of the remaining compound butter to massage it under the skin.
At this time, you will want to truss the bird: her legs should be demurely crossed like Jackie Kennedy, not spread open for anybody like the Wife of Bath.
Place the chicken breast down into a 450 degree preheated oven, and roast for 15 minutes. At this time turn her onto her side, she should recline, like Livia in Rome, or Miriam at the first Passover. Baste her with any drippings that have accumulated in the pan. Allow the bird to roast another 15 minutes, then turn her onto her other side, baste her with pan drippings, and return her to the oven to roast another 15 minutes. It is a good idea to toss in some dry white wine or stock to the pan somewhere around in here, to help prevent scorching from the fat dripping into the pan. At this time, the chicken will begin to brown.
Now, reduce the heat of the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and rest the chicken on her breast once more. Turning the bird in this manner replicates the motions of a rotisserie, and ensures that the juices are distributed as the chicken roasts. It is little enough trouble to ensure a succulent breast upon your tongue. Baste her with pan drippings. She will thank you for a mild sprinkling of Kosher salt. Once again into the oven.
After 15 minutes, turn the chicken breast up, and baste her with the pan drippings and anoint her with another light sprinkling of salt. Return her to the oven.
You will roast the chicken breast up for the rest of her time in the oven. Continue to baste her with pan drippings every 15 minutes, and occasionally sprinkle her with Kosher salt. Add fresh ground pepper to the final 2 sprinklings, as if you pepper the bird to early, she may acquire a bitter taste, akin to Elaine Stritch. You will want to roast the chicken until it is perfectly delicious. I recommend always using a thermometer to test for doneness. A chicken will be well roasted when a thermometer plunged into the meatiest part of her thigh (not touching the bone) reaches a temperature of 165-172 degrees Fahrenheit.
A digital, insta-read thermometer is easily purchased at any reputable housewares store (Crate&Barrel sells a marvelous one) or you may choose a leave-in thermometer, though I recommend the former. If you refuse to use a thermometer, a chicken is done roasting when its leg moves easily (sometimes a feat if you have bound it properly) or when you can pierce it and its juices run clear. A thermometer is best. Invest in one.
Once the chicken is out of the oven, you may feel tempted to fall upon it like a jackal, but preserve your soul in patience, for you must rest the bird breast down, under a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil for twenty minutes, so that the juices may redistribute themselves. Take a moment for a cocktail, if you choose, but do not get too squiffy, because you must still create the sauce.
If you choose, you may make a simple pan sauce. Spoon the fat out of the roasting pan, leaving its juices, and deglaze the pan with the juices and some added wine, add more stock and reduce. You may leave it as simple as seasoning the sauce with salt and pepper, or you might choose to toss in some fresh tarragon. It’s always good to fortify the sauce with a little butter, beating it in until the sauce has a silky, smooth consistency.
Or, if you want gravy–and I usually do–you must begin with a roux. Pour the contents of the roasting pan into a fat separator, and deglaze the pan with wine and a roux whisk or wooden spoon. Deglazing will help to separate the bits left on the bottom of the pan–the aforementioned fond.
You are now ready to create the roux, which is perfectly simple, but does require attention and quickwittedness. If there is little fat left in the roasting pan after the deglazing, add some from the fat separator, along with a quarter cup of flour, over low heat.
Whisk it, with patience and fortitude, until it turns a colour somewhere between peanut butter and The Jersey Shore’s “Snookie” after a trip to the tanning salon. This will give you a good scald. At this time you will slowly pour the juices from the fat separator into the roasting pan, until the fat begins to merge in the spout, whisking all the while. The chicken will not provide enough juice to make sufficient gravy, so add stock until you are satisfied with the volume, and allow to simmer over lowest heat, adding stock and whisking as needed. At this time, you may finish any accompaniments to the dinner as you have chosen to create.
Perhaps you want to serve the chicken with a simple, verdant salad and thin cut, golden crisp pomme frites. (The fries soak up the pan juices effectively, and the chicken is best served halved with a pair of poultry shears, should you choose this method.) Or, carve the bird, and serve it with fresh vegetables of the season and mashed potatoes. Asparagus is marvelous in the spring, haricots vert are lovely year round, and you may choose to substitute the mashed potatoes with a puree of winter squash in the latter months of the year. Regardless of how you choose to serve it, roasted chicken must be a part of any home cook’s repertoire.