A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

The brilliant colors of the turning leaves have given way to bare branches in just a matter of days, and everything around us is turning into ugly shades of gray and brown. Sunday morning greeted us with blustery winds and plummeting temperatures, the kind of cold that makes you glad it’s not cloudy, because anything that comes down out of the sky would likely take the form of snow.

On a day that so definitively announces the onset of fall weather, I needed a strong counter, something that warms the kitchen and the soul, something that provides a reassuring counterpoint to the bleakness of the coming cold season.

I decided to roast a chicken, hardcore. And by hardcore, I mean going beyond just a sprinkle of salt and pepper and treating the bird as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey. Doing it this way adds a nice dose of complexity to an otherwise humble chicken recipe.  It also makes it taste awesome.

Rather inadvertently, my vegetable garden has transformed itself into a nice perennial herb garden. While the basil may have died off a long while ago, I still have thriving patches of thyme, sage, and rosemary that have taken very well to the cooler weather. I slipped into the backyard and snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a few leaves of sage, and some rosemary to go with the roasted potatoes that would be served as an accompaniment. It was good to run back into the house and take off my jacket, returning to the kitchen with a fistful of herb clippings.

When it comes to roasting chickens and turkeys, I’m a big proponent of under-skin seasoning. If you think about it, most of the seasonings that you apply to the outside of a chicken or turkey will be melted off into the roasting pan as the fat in the skin renders. If you’re a baster, you’re accelerating this process each time you ladle more liquid over the skin, although admittedly you are basting the roast with the seasoned pan drippings.

Applying seasonings under the skin avoids this problem, and makes for much more flavorful meat. To do this, I mash softened butter with a mishmash of chopped herbs, sea salt, and black pepper. Using a gentle touch, you can loosen the skin from the chicken and use a spoon or fork to push clumps of the flavored butter underneath – use your fingers to massage the skin to ensure even distribution.

As for the outside of the chicken, I apply a thin coating of olive oil to the entire bird, front-back-top-bottom, and then a liberal application of salt and pepper. The oil helps to crisp the skin while the seasoned butter flavors the meat beneath it. As you may have suspected, I don’t baste – on one account, because I’m lazy, and on another, because I think it washes away the surface seasonings.

One thing to keep in mind about roasting anything is that there’s no reliable way of estimating weight/time/temperature – this is what screws most people up at Thanksgiving, because they consult some guide that tells them they should roast the bird for 15 minutes per pound or some other rule of thumb. Everyone’s oven is different, and the true temperature of an oven can vary widely from what the setting on the dial reads. Also, the weight of a roast is less important than its temperature as it goes into the oven – it may not be fully thawed, or have a chunk of ice in its cavity.

For all of these reasons, the only way I will ever roast chicken is by using a probe thermometer. The probe goes into the chicken, provides a constant read on the internal temperature, and allows me to pull the chicken out of the oven as soon as it reaches doneness, and not a minute longer. Chicken is free of any salmonella at 160 degrees, and as the roast rests, the internal temperature will climb a few degrees higher. By taking the chicken out of the oven when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, it guards against drying the meat out. By relying on the internal temperature of the chicken, you can have a little bit of leeway in terms of your oven temperature – if you have time, you can roast at 350 degrees, if you are in more of a rush, you can push that to 425 degrees or more.

A Roast Chicken Recipe for a Cold Autumn Day

1 chicken, rinsed well, patted dry, and allowed to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, softened
3 Tbs assorted herbs, chopped (thereabouts)
1 Tsp salt (coarse, if you grind it yourself)
1 Tsp fresh ground pepper

1 onion, peeled and halved
4 cloves of garlic, peeled

Olive oil

Wine (red or white)
1 Tbs or so of additional chopped herbs
Chicken stock (canned is fine)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mash together the butter, herbs, salt, and pepper until uniformly mixed.

Set the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, and use your fingers to loosen the skin from the breast (be careful not to tear or otherwise poke a hole in the skin). Pull out and discard the pop-up timer because it is literally worthless to the cooking effort.

Using a spoon, scoop the herb butter and slide the spoon under the skin of the chicken, using your fingers to push the butter off of the spoon onto the meat. Massage the butter so that you achieve an even coating of butter underneath the loosened skin.

Using the same spoon, drizzle some olive oil over the chicken and use the spoon to smear it around to coat. You may elect to do this to the back of the bird as well, or you can skip it.

Apply a liberal coating of salt and pepper to the outside of the chicken. Insert the onion halves and garlic cloves into the cavity.

Insert the probe thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, parallel to the bone. Other recipes may have you take the temperature of the thigh, but by the time the thigh meat is done, it is likely that your white meat is dry. When in doubt, I’d rather put the dark meat back into the oven later. Place the roasting pan, with the chicken and probe in place, into the oven.

When the internal temperature of the breast meat has reached 165 degrees, take the roast chicken out of the oven and set it on the stovetop to rest, for at least fifteen minutes. At this time, you may pull the probe out of the chicken and spot-check temperatures in the thigh and throughout – all temperature readings should be at least 160 degrees. If you are preparing a pan sauce, move the chicken to a platter and remove the rack from the pan.

Drain all of the liquid from the pan into a measuring cup. If the liquid is mostly fat, you can discard it – if there are some non-fat pan drippings, you can add this back to the sauce later.

Set the pan over one or two stovetop burners set to high, until the contents begin to sizzle. Pour about a cup, cup and a half, of wine into the pan and scrape up all of the sticky bits with a wooden spoon – let that simmer for a minute or so. Add about a cup of chicken stock and stir to combine, then throw in the remaining chopped herbs. Turn the heat down and let that simmer for about five minutes.

Sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the sauce, and whisk, making sure to break up any lumps, until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Taste for salt (it probably won’t need any).

Carve both breast halves off of the chicken by slicing lengthwise down the bird, parallel to the breastbone – angle the knife slightly so that you can carve each half off in one piece – and set aside onto a serving platter. Check the thigh meat – if the juices are not running clear, put the legs and thighs back into the oven for another fifteen minutes while covering the white meat with foil. Otherwise, carve the dark meat and set onto the serving platter.

Serve the roasted chicken with the sauce in separate ramekins for dipping.