Ever tried looking up a roasted chicken recipe on the Internet? Well, the search isn’t easy. Not because of the lack of postings, but rather because the options are seemingly endless. From ethnic to gourmet to home-style seasoning options and endless “ideal” accompaniments, it’s hard to tell a great recipe from one that’s middle-of-the-road. Whether it’s slathered with garlic and rosemary or sprinkled with salt and paprika, the ultimate roasted chicken usually reminds us of our mom’s version, served in the comfort of our childhood kitchen. A chef’s biggest challenge in mastering this dish is to emulate the homespun expectations that we formed early in life. In fact, the art of converting this humble bird into a delicacy with flawlessly crisp golden skin and tender juicy meat–both the dark and white–is recognized within the industry as a sign of culinary mastery.
When getting to the meat of the matter–leg, thigh, or breast–everyone has a favorite. The dark meat of the legs and thighs is notorious for its rich flavor and sweet juiciness. Others say that the pristine white meat has its own delicate appeal and competes with its counterparts taste for taste. Both schools have a point when the chicken is roasted to perfection, but achieving this is no easy task. The naturally compact breast cooks and, then, dries out faster than the fattier thighs and legs, which remain pink and rubbery when undercooked. This unevenly shaped roast is an enigma to many who struggle to find the right cooking time and temperature for tender, juicy breast meat and fully cooked legs and thighs. Solving this puzzle is certainly worthwhile, as a truly mastered chicken will yield delicious slices of meat wherever you carve it.
The meat of the bird can only take you so far if the skin isn’t perfectly browned and crisp. When undercooked, the skin is limp and pale; when overcooked, it pulls away from the meat, skimping us out of its intrinsic golden goodness. Coverage is important, but only worth mention if evenly cooked. Sometimes those yearning for perfection will ensure even browning by keeping a close eye on their roasters and rotating these birds as needed. Other chefs know that as long as the chicken has been placed on a rack which allows for air circulation, this “peek-a-boo method” is unnecessary. With even heat surrounding the bird, the skin will be evenly crisped and tanned, clinging to the meat for maximum flavor with every bite.
From exotic herbs and spices to simple salt and pepper, the modest chicken can host a variety of seasonings in our quest for the ultimate roast. Unless it’s an ethnic adaptation, most chefs stick with the rustic flavors of a traditional American family kitchen, skipping most spices in favor of herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage. Simplicity seems to be the finest treatment, as the bird bastes itself with the flavor of its own natural juices when left alone. In fact, great seasoning works by complimenting, rather than masking, the fundamental flavors of the chicken meat and its savory skin. Attempting to create the perfect roasted chicken, the best chefs season with familiar flavors and inevitably connect us with those comforting memories of childhood meals.
Preparations of these ever-present birds are often heavily debated, but one thing’s for sure–the humble roasted chicken is the “King of the Comfort Foods.” When roasted to perfection, it can be elegant enough for special occasions, but still remains ideal for weeknight meals. In either situation, each bite triggers a culinary journey back to simpler times.