chickens grass field white


Chicken choices

Home cooks have many options when preparing roast chicken, a simple and satisfying meal.

By Catherine Walthers
excerpted from Martha’s Vineyard Magazine

My aunt Ellen Blue loves to cook. She favors simple dishes, and we often discuss and exchange recipes. So when Aunt Ellen, now in her eighties, visited last summer, I was shocked to learn she had never roasted a chicken, one of the simplest meals I can think of.

Nothing could be easier, I told her. Season a whole bird with a little salt and pepper, and place it in the oven. After an hour or so, mouth-watering aromas fill the house, and fifteen to twenty minutes later, dinner is ready to serve.

Admittedly, while roasting a chicken is easy, getting tender, juicy, evenly cooked white and dark meat with a crispy golden skin can be a challenge. Even experts can’t agree on the best methods. I explored a few respected recipe sources, including the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Fine Cooking, and cookbook authors Ina Garten and Molly Stevens. I also tried online recipes such as Perfect Roast Chicken and Best Ever Roast Chicken.

Recommendations vary widely. Oven temperatures range from a moderate 375 all the way up to 450 degrees. Some have you brine the bird, or claim butter under the skin ensures moister white meat; others fill the cavity with fresh herbs and lemon halves; some place the chicken breast-down first or turn the bird from side to side. You get the picture.

Though I had hoped one method would stand out, a sentence I read in Molly Stevens’s All About Roasting cookbook rang true. After she had roasted chicken exhaustively, she wrote: “In the end, I can now honestly say that with few exceptions, every method turned out a tasty roast chicken. What I discovered ultimately is that there is no single ‘best’ way to roast a chicken. Instead, there are different ways, each with its own benefits.”

I found, after roasting chickens for three weeks, certain important elements became clear.

Taste starts with the bird itself

For taste and texture, Island-raised chicken and Bell & Evans (a brand available at Cronig’s Markets in Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury and at Edgartown’s Shiretown Meats) have more flavor than supermarket counterparts from Tyson or Perdue.

A recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine explained why some brands can taste better than others, as it tested twenty-one supermarket brands and recommended Bell & Evans as the tastiest. The testers learned that most chicken brands are water-chilled (often in chlorinated water for killing bacteria), and the meat absorbs water, which can dilute the real chicken flavor. Some brands, including Bell & Evans, use the European method of air chilling, in which chickens hang in a cold room instead of soaking.

chicken coop white field grass

Most supermarket chickens today are industrially raised: The birds are crammed together in windowless buildings, and they receive hormones and antibiotics, Benadryl, Tylenol, and Prozac, even yellow dye – all of which affect the end product. Locally raised chickens have a huge head start in this aspect.

“They’re outside running around in the sunshine and the wind,” explains Richard Andre, owner of West Tisbury’s Cleveland Farm, which is responsible for approximately one-third of the ten thousand chickens raised on the Island this year. “They’re moving every day. It’s outside and natural, where animals should live. All of that stuff makes the product that much better. It’s common sense when you think about it.”

Richard, who also raises turkeys, cooperates with other chicken farms on-Island, such as Edgartown’s FARM Institute and the Good Farm in Vineyard Haven. He’s actively lobbying for a Vineyard slaughterhouse. “What you notice in a lot of supermarket chickens, there’s no flavor,” he says, adding that the taste of Island chicken often sells itself despite the higher price per pound. “Our hardest sale is always the first one,” he says.

Salt is key

Seasoning a chicken is important, and salt is one of the simplest ways to bring out the flavor. I explored other options: I tried roasting chickens stuffed with herbs such as thyme and rosemary, smearing herb-studded butter over and under the skin, and massaging them with dried spices and herbs. I loved that idea, but the flavors never really seemed to penetrate the meat.

richard andra Farmer chickenFarmer Richard Andre highlights taste over price.

The most flavorful chickens turned out to be the ones where salt penetrates the meat. One method is to brine a chicken before roasting – placing the bird in a bowl of water seasoned with salt for an hour. The salt breaks down tough muscle fibers so they don’t tighten up so much during cooking. And the salty water bonds to the protein of the chicken for a juicier, more flavorful meat. The reference book The Science of Good Food explains that meat can lose nearly 20 percent of its moisture during the cooking process; brining can cut that moisture loss nearly in half.

Cook’s Illustrated is a big proponent of brining chickens. I tried its Simple Roasted Chicken, and it was the best of the three chickens I roasted that day, juicy and flavorful with crisp, browned skin. But I was happy to discover an easier salting technique in All About Roasting: For a four-pound chicken, rub two to three teaspoons of salt over the entire bird and inside the cavity the day before roasting (you can also add pepper, spices, and/or herbs) and let the pre-salted bird sit in the refrigerator uncovered for twenty-four to thirty-six hours.

“The one constant I found, in all my testing, is the huge benefit of pre-salting chicken a day ahead of roasting,” Stevens writes. “I can’t stress enough how much this simple step improves the flavor and texture of the bird.”

I had read that for turkeys, exposing the skin overnight draws out moisture from the skin, helping it crisp up as it cooks. My pre-salted chicken had crispy skin and tender, flavorful breast meat. This method requires some advance work, but it’s easier than brining.

Tips for cooking

Before roasting, let the chicken sit at room temperature about thirty minutes. If you don’t have a roasting rack, improvise by placing thickly sliced onions or lemon slices under the chicken to lift it off the roasting pan. This allows heat to circulate under the chicken and promotes even cooking.

There’s no need to truss or baste. Trussing makes for a tidy-looking bird but may prevent dark meat from cooking evenly by having the legs tied closely against the breast meat. Basting doesn’t necessarily make the chicken juicier or tastier, and it lessens the skin’s crispiness. Opening the oven door lowers the heat and prolongs cooking time too.

An instant-read thermometer is very helpful in determining when the chicken is done, before the white meat is overcooked. Early in testing, my instant-read thermometer was broken and I relied on instructions such as “when the juices run clear” or “when the drumstick is somewhat loose at the joint.” They’re not always easy to figure out.

When I bought a new thermometer, the chickens tasted better. I was pulling them out at just the right time, when the thermometer, inserted in the thigh, read 165 to 170 degrees. My favorite thermometer is Thermapen from ThermoWorks, though it’s a bit pricey – about $80. Another good (and less expensive) thermometer is the CDN Proaccurate Quick Tip Cooking Thermometer, about $20.

After roasting, let the bird rest outside the oven for ten to fifteen minutes to allow the juices to recirculate in the meat. If you cut too soon, the juices will run out onto your cutting board and the meat will be less moist.

Three weeks and fourteen chickens later, armed with a new set of techniques, my own roast chicken has improved. But for the real test, I sent the recipes to Aunt Ellen. I’m happy to report her first roast chicken ever was a success.

“The dinner I just had was sumptuous,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think the salting and leaving it open in the refrigerator all night is what made it so juicy [and] tender.

“It was so easy, I couldn’t believe it,” she added. “I truly mean it when I say it was the best-tasting chicken ever.”



Chicken and sauce recipes  | Basic roast chicken


Inspired by cookbook author Susie Middleton of West Tisbury, who starts her chicken breast-side down on a roasting rack before turning it over, I came up with this recipe that combines my favorite salting technique with Susie’s cooking method at a high heat.

Sliced roast chicken with a lemon-herb sauce is served with carrots and parsnips, kale, and squash.

roasted chicken lemon herb sauce kale squash

Serves 4

• 1 whole chicken, 3 1/2–4 1/2 pounds

• 2–3 teaspoons kosher salt

• Black pepper, to taste

• Olive oil or butter to rub on chicken


1. The day before roasting the chicken, remove packaging and giblets. Place chicken in a large bowl and sprinkle all over with salt and black pepper, including a bit of salt inside the cavity. Place uncovered in the refrigerator overnight or until ready to roast. The salt will be absorbed into the chicken; you’ll find no traces on the skin the next day.

2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rub chicken with a little olive oil or softened butter and place breast-side down atop a roasting rack in a roasting pan. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn chicken over and roast for an additional 25 to 30 minutes (it will have marks from the rack, but those will disappear). After 55 to 60 minutes total, insert a thermometer into the thigh (without touching a bone). When thermometer reads about 170 degrees, the meat is cooked. Remove bird from oven.

3. Place chicken on a cutting board or dish, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Make gravy or a pan sauce while it’s resting.


Roast chicken gravy

This gravy uses the defatted chicken juices and any bits left in the roasting pan. Before removing the chicken from the roasting pan, tilt the chicken and let any juices inside the bird flow into the pan. If you strain the fat, it’s healthier and you don’t sacrifice any flavor, which is in the juices and the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. A fat separator is not essential, but if you like to make gravy, it is an inexpensive tool that lets you easily pour off fat and keep the chicken juices – and it’s quicker and easier than using a spoon.

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 2 tablespoons flour

• Chicken pan drippings, or defatted chicken liquid

• 1–2 cups chicken stock

• Salt, to taste

1. Remove chicken to a platter to rest, and pour pan juices into a gravy separator or a small bowl.

2. Place roasting pan on stove (if it can go on burner), add butter, and melt over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk together. Add defatted pan juices and about 1 cup stock, whisking to incorporate flour-butter mixture and any brown bits left on the bottom of the pan.

3. Bring to a boil over high heat, whisking occasionally. When it boils and begins to thicken, add more chicken stock if needed to achieve desired consistency. Taste before adding salt, then season. Turn to medium-low heat till ready to serve, whisking occasionally.


Lemon herb sauce

Tarragon and chicken go together nicely, and you can make the sauce while the chicken is resting after roasting.

Serves 4 to 6

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallot

• 1 tablespoon flour

• Chicken pan drippings, or defatted chicken liquid

• 1/2–1 cup chicken stock

• 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley leaves

• 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves

• 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

• 1/4 teaspoon salt, if needed

• 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. In a medium skillet on medium-low heat, add the butter and shallot and cook 2 to 3 minutes until shallot begins to brown. Add flour and mix in well. Whisk in any pan juices (minus the fat) and brown bits scraped from the chicken pan. Add 1/2 cup chicken stock to start, and bring the whole mixture to a boil. Depending on the amount of pan juices, add additional stock to reach desired consistency.

2. Mix in the parsley, tarragon, and lemon juice. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.


Roast chicken with vegetables

Make your dinner even simpler by adding some vegetables to the chicken roasting pan. (You will likely have less pan juices, so if you’re making a gravy you may need to use more stock.) Serving the onion slices, used primarily to elevate the chicken, is optional. You can also follow the same recipe using a larger chicken for a bigger group; it will simply take longer to roast, approximately 15 to 18 minutes per pound. For a larger roaster, you may need to remove the vegetables a bit earlier or cut them into larger pieces.

Serves 4

chicken roasted carrots parsnipsChicken roasted on a bed of carrots and
parsnips gives the veggies rich flavor.

• 1 whole chicken, 3 1/2–4 1/2 pounds

• 2–3 teaspoons kosher salt

• Black pepper, to taste

• Olive oil or butter to rub on chicken

• 1 large onion, cut into thick slices

• 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths

• 4 parsnips (or potatoes to substitute), peeled, and cut into 2-inch chunks

• Olive oil for vegetables

• Salt, to taste

1. The day before roasting the chicken, remove packaging and giblets. Place chicken in a bowl and sprinkle all over with salt and black pepper, including a bit of salt inside the cavity. Place uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. Take chicken out about 30 minutes before roasting.

2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rub chicken with a little olive oil or softened butter. Arrange onion slices in the center of a roasting pan or glass baking dish, and place chicken, breast side up, atop the onions (this allows air circulation under the chicken).

3. In a large bowl, lightly coat carrots and parsnips with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and toss. Place vegetables around chicken and put in oven to roast. After 30 minutes, stir the vegetables.

4. After approximately 70 to 80 minutes total, insert a thermometer into the thigh (without touching a bone). When thermometer reads about 170 degrees, the meat is cooked. Remove bird from oven.

5. Place chicken on a cutting board or dish, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Remove vegetables to a bowl and reheat if necessary when ready to serve.