Roasting a chicken is the last threshold to full coming of age. Before you have done it, you are a fledgling. After, you are an elder.
Not that roasting a chicken is all that hard, mind you. Quite the opposite, actually. It's straightforward, easy, and—so long as you hew to the instructions—pretty much foolproof. In fact, this is precisely what makes it a rite of passage. What bars the teens (and the overgrown teens) from doing it well is their adolescent preference for showier, more extravagant shit, for being impressive, for proving themselves. The grownup cares not for impressing you buncha jerks! The grownup cares only for getting some good damn food on the table and not having to do two loads of dishes before bed. This is the inner clarity of mind which one must have, to accomplish a well-roasted chicken. This is what it means to be a grownup. To recognize the real threat: dishwashing.
What say you? Will you take up this challenge? Will you roast a chicken to succulent, uh, near-perfection, probably, I mean let's be realistic here? Will you crank out an extraordinarily satisfying dinner with like four total ingredients, one cooking vessel, and maybe 10 minutes of actual work, and then describe it in your internet food column as though it is an actual achievement and not the easiest goddamn thing? Of course you will. We'll do it together.
To begin, acquire a whole chicken. (Not a living and clucking chicken, of course, I mean why would you even ask me that, are you going to jam a living chicken in the oven or what.) Many supermarkets will have a mildly intimidating assortment of chickens, labeled with words like "broiler," "fryer," "roaster," "turkey," and "dishwasher detergent," but you may ignore these words and focus on the size of the chickens. Let's talk about the size of the chickens.
You may think you want a huge chicken, but you do not. A huge chicken will require a lot of cooking, and additional steps and maintenance along the way to prevent its white meat from turning into compressed wood pulp. Also, the bigger chickens are likelier to be the sad hormone-suffused industrial chickens, engineered in hellish chicken-prison to be large and chesty with nary a concern for whether they will taste like anything, or whether this is a monstrously cruel practice, or whether dining on these pharmaceutically enhanced chickens will cause you to grow a scrotum on your forehead. Really, all in all, the bigger chickens aren't worth the trouble; even if you're planning on feeding a lot of people, just get multiple smaller chickens.
This leads rather neatly into the next point, which is that holy goddamn shit man, humanely-raised free-range chicken is so much more flavorful and good to eat than the other stuff that it might as well be some whole other animal. (The flavorfowl. Shut up, it's a cool name.) The gap between the two is astonishing. The raw meat even looks different: the breasts are a lovely light pink, rather than the wan beige of the factory-farmed stuff; the thigh and leg meat is a vivid, flushed-looking reddish-pink color that makes you slightly uncomfortable to think about. The bonus, here, is that these chickens tend to be a bit smaller than their roided-up brethren, so they're easier to cook and won't leave you wondering what to do with a cubic acre of leftover chicken.
What I am saying here is that you should get a lil'-ass organic chicken, two-and-a-half or three pounds, and then maybe another if you're feeding more than three or four adults. Yeah, it'll cost a bit more by weight, but it's absolutely worth the extra money. Take your chicken(s) home, and preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
Now, the next thing to do is do not wash your chicken. All the recipes tell you to wash your chicken under a cold tap before you cook it, but that is some bullshit. You are not going to render a goddamn chicken carcass free from harmful bacteria by hosing it down with your weak-ass kitchen faucet. All you are going to do is splatter salmonella all over your kitchen and self. It is a waste of time.
The way to render your chicken germ-free is to cook it in a hot oven. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is pretty much the entire reason why the human race invented cooking. Do not wash your chicken. Don't do it!
Do unwrap your chicken, though. Lay it on a cutting board or cookie sheet that you smartly covered with plastic wrap or aluminum foil (so as to limit the spread of its nefarious chicken germs). You didn't wash the chicken, but it's wet anyway, so go ahead and pat the sucker dry with a paper towel. A drier chicken will have crispier skin when it's done cooking. While you work on that, I will tell the story of the time I roasted a chicken not long after the birth of my eldest son.
The year was ... whatever. 1914. Who cares. Anyway my son was only a few months old at the time. I had gotten a chicken and was going to roast it, so I unwrapped it from its packaging and laid it on the cutting board. And I patted it dry, gently, on the up-facing side, and then it was time to flip it over and dry the reverse, so I set the paper towel down and wrapped my hands around the chicken's body, right under where the legs met the trunk, and lifted, and ... oh God, it felt almost exactly like hooking my hands under my son's arms and lifting him up for a hug, except that now it was a dead chicken even smaller than him that nobody loved or wanted to hug and we—it and I, we, like it was a participant in this thing, I mean Jesus—we were performing some sad and pitiful mockery of nurture and care that would end with this wretched thing being devoured, and oh God what if this was what I had brought my son into, too, what if a single step back for a wider view would reveal that he was the chicken and all my care and ministrations were just me delivering him to The Oven That Is America Or Humanity Or Whatever—and suddenly I was actually goddamn crying, standing in the kitchen with a raw chicken in my hands and trying to crane my face into my shoulder so that I could kinda hide this sickening display without bringing my salmonella-coated hands to my face. Who was I even crying for? For the chicken? For my son? For the human condition? Who the fuck knows. You really don't sleep much when your kids are new. Shit can get wacky!
Anyway I wound up dropping that chicken into the sink and sobbing next to it for 20 minutes, then ordered some Chinese delivery. That is a startlingly literal representation of my entire approach to parenting. Hey, who's pumped to roast some chicken? I know I am. Let's get back to that.
Your chicken has a body cavity; that body cavity likely contains a bag of giblets, which are organs; likely you are not psyched to chow down on these. Remove the bag of giblets from your chicken's body cavity. You can save these for stock-making or chuck them or poke them with a chopstick and make crinkle-nosed faces at them. The important thing is, that body cavity is empty, now. Root around in there with a fistful of paper towels to dry the cavity, too.
Now, put some stuff in the chicken's empty body cavity. Specifically: salt, half of a lemon, some sprigs of fresh thyme, and a couple peeled cloves of garlic. Sprinkle the salt in first, rub it around with your hand oh yuck this is gross, then just cram the rest of the stuff in there. These additions won't make a huge difference in the finished product, but you'll notice the work they did, and you'll like it.
Next, do some stuff to the outside of the chicken, too. First, kinda gently prod and massage and pull the skin on the chicken's breasts until it comes loose from the flesh beneath it, then push a generous pat of good butter beneath the skin of each breast. Next, wet your fingertips with some vegetable oil and rub them over the outside of the chicken, specifically the skin of the legs and breasts. This'll help the skin get browned and crispy. Finally, season the outside of the chicken with a lotta fuggin' kosher salt. Like, an entire tablespoon. Try to coat it pretty evenly.
Finally, do not truss the chicken. Many people truss the chicken, which is to say that they wrap kitchen twine around it in such a way that the wings are pressed closely against the chicken's body and the ends of the legs are bound together and the whole thing is neat and compact. Good for those achievers. The rest of us go Oooh, look at me, I'm Mister Twine-Haver! I have twine! I'm allowed to use the computers at the library! Ooooh! and then we don't truss our chickens because we do not have twine, and we get our chickens into and back out of the oven 10 minutes earlier than those bondage freaks.
That's really all you have to do to the chicken before you cook it. Now, you just need to put the chicken in a cooking vessel and sock it in the oven. But first, we need to figure out what kind of cooking vessel you've got.
If you have a fancy roasting pan with a rack that fits into it, this is ideal; you put the chicken on the rack so that it'll be elevated and the lower part of it won't stew in its juices during cooking. And then maybe you also toss some quartered red potatoes and thickly sliced yellow onion with some olive oil and salt, and stash those under the rack to cook along with the chicken, and there you've got an entire meal in that one roasting pan.
If you don't have a fancy roasting pan with a rack (you don't, I don't, possibly no one does), that's still perfectly OK. Do you have an ovenproof casserole dish, or, hell, even just a deep-sided cast-iron or stainless steel skillet? Sure you do. Dump those potatoes and onions across the bottom of this vessel, set the chicken on top of them, and—hey! wouldja lookit that!—they're holding the chicken up off the bottom kind of like a rack, so that the lower part of the chicken won't sit in its rendered juices during cooking (but the potatoes and onions will, which I think we can all agree is a good fate for potatoes and onions).
In any case, whichever kind of vessel you've got, pop it in that preheated oven, set a timer for one hour, and go find something to do. There will be intensely wonderful smells emanating from your oven during this time, and these smells will fill you with an overwhelming desire to open the oven door and check on the chicken—hey, it could be done after six minutes, man, stranger things have happened—but please, leave it alone. Don't check on it, don't baste it, don't play flamenco guitar at it. Just let it cook.
Eventually the timer will go off, precisely 0.0000000004 seconds before your head crashes into the oven door at the speed of light. With an oven mitt, haul the chicken out of the oven—golden-brown skin and oh God the smell, the smell, ohGodohGodohGod—and let it sit for 15 minutes. If you want to baste it now, you can do that, but it won't make much of a difference, and anyway, if you did the potatoes and onions thing, they've likely absorbed most of the juices that drained out of the chicken as it cooked.
And then, at last, it will be time to eat some chicken.
Listen. Section the chicken into its various parts if that is your custom. Personally, I think successfully completing the roasting part is enough adult behavior for one day. Get a load of this thing! The skin! The smell! The perfection of it. Who can be an adult at a time like this. Pull it apart with your fingers, eat it with your hands, roll your wide eyes around and make subhuman ecstasy sounds in the bottom of your throat. Frisbee the empty cooking vessel into the night sky and howl after it like a werewolf.
You've made it! You roasted a chicken. You're a grownup, now. And there are no goddamn rules anymore, so if you make a move on this chicken skeleton before I have sucked the last atoms of flavor off of it so help me I will eat the part of you that comes closest to touching it, Aunt Mabel.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.