Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Just how many ways are there to roast a chicken? I can think of a lot of skinned cats that might have a good guess. So while it may not be possible to go over every conceivable way to roast a chicken, this article and recipe will review the essential steps that apply to all roasting techniques as well as my three favorite methods: the absolute easiest “no-recipe” way, spatchcocking, and, finally, what I can only describe as the platonic ideal of roast chicken. That last method, which produces a bird as perfectly cooked, evenly browned, and magazine-cover-worthy as could ever be imagined, is the recipe I’m sharing below.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Our goals for a roast chicken are simple, but achieving those results isn’t quite as easy. We want both the white and dark meat to be juicy, even though they cook at different rates and reach their respective stages of perfection at different temperatures. We want skin that’s well browned all over, even though the three-dimensional geometry of a bird makes that difficult. And we want it evenly and deeply seasoned, despite it being a whole bird with a lot of meat that’s hard to access prior to carving.

Let’s start by looking at all the techniques we can and should use to help deliver those results no matter the cooking method, then we can move on to a breakdown of my three preferred ways.

A Matter of Temperature: Knowing When The Bird Is Done

The most common question food writers like me receive about any large roast is, “How long does it take to cook?” It’s an understandable question, but also the wrong one. Sure, there are ballpark ranges one can offer to give the cook a general sense of timing—no, your roast chicken will not be done in 15 minutes, nor will it take 3 hours—but cooking by time is far more likely to lead to bad results, not good ones.

This is because there are too many variables to make answering the time question accurate enough. Chickens come in different sizes, different weights, and different body shapes. An industrially-bred, six-pound “oven stuffer” with a massive amount of breast meat will not cook in the same time as a three-and-a-half pound bird from the farmers’ market. And that doesn’t even taken into account how hot the oven is, both in terms of the actual setting chosen by the cook as well as whatever temperature the oven is actually running at (because lord knows, many are poorly calibrated and not cooking at the selected temp).

None of this should be news to even the most casual Serious Eats reader—it’s why we’ve prioritized internal temperature over time for years. If you want to know when your bird is properly cooked, the question isn’t how long, but how hot.

While the USDA recommends cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F, which pretty much instantly eliminates any risk of foodborne pathogens like salmonella, we advise most home cooks to not go that high, at least not for the breast meat. The white meat is most juicy and tender when it reaches 150°F, a good 15 degrees lower than the USDA recommendation. It’s also a good 15 degrees lower than the ideal doneness on the legs, which is around 165°F. The dark meat has more fat and connective tissue, which means it not only remains juicier at higher temps, but also develops a better, more tender, less chewy and slimy texture.

Let’s start with the first part: Why do we recommend cooking the breast to a lower temperature than the official guidance? Well, as Kenji explained to Serious Eats readers long ago, 165°F is the temperature at which unwanted bacteria die almost instantly. But you can safely cook your meat to a lower temperature and still achieve the same bacteria-killing effect as long as you hold it at that temperature long enough. Chicken cooked to 150°F, for example, is safe to eat after the meat has remained at that temperature for just under three minutes, which is more or less guaranteed given the size of the bird—pull a chicken out of the oven when the breast meat is 150°F in the center of its thickest part, and it will actually get hotter as it rests, a phenomenon known as carry-over cooking. By the time you carve and eat it, the bird will be safe.*

* That said, your health is your responsibility so if you have any concerns, or are feeding a person who may have specific health risks, please err on the side of caution. Remaining healthy is more important than perfect chicken breast.

The one lingering issue is how to cook the bird such that the breast reaches its desired internal temperature of 150°F while the legs have had a chance to get even hotter for their ideal doneness. There’s no one way to deal with this, though, as each method I describe below approaches it from a different angle. So more on that later.

How Hot Should You Set Your Oven?

When it comes to cooking a roast so that the meat is tender and juicy throughout, we often turn to techniques like the reverse-sear, where a longer period of low-and-slow cooking gets the meat to its ideal internal temperature as gently as possible before a final high-heat cooking step slaps a roasty browned exterior on the whole thing. This can be done with chicken, but experience has taught me that with chicken you’re best off just going with a fairly hot oven, somewhere between 400 and 425°F.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

A roast chicken is a bit of an outlier compared to, say, a prime rib or even a larger bird like a turkey. It’s a small enough roast that it really doesn’t take long at all for the meat to cook through. At the same time, the skin takes time to brown properly, which is inhibited at lower temperatures. Spend too much time cooking the chicken in a lower oven, and you risk overcooking it in an attempt to rapidly brown the skin at the very end. While some recipes flip this sequence, calling for a high-heat stage to kick off the skin browning and then a longer cook at a lower temperature to finish it off, I’ve found that all this really accomplishes is extending the cooking time without much reward in terms of texture, juiciness, or browning.

A roast chicken comes out great simply by letting it ride in that higher temperature zone from start to finish. And it happens quickly too: You can have your bird on the table in under an hour, including the time it takes to rest it.

The Secrets to Crisp, Brown Roast Chicken Skin

I’ll start with an acknowledgment: “Crisp” is a relative term. Roast chicken skin, even the best roast chicken skin, is not crisp in the way the golden batter on fried chicken is, or even as crisp as the skin on pan-roasted chicken can be. Pan-roasted and fried chicken both take advantage of the much higher heat possible via convection and conduction when in contact with hot oil and/or hot metal, and the result is something one could describe as truly crisp. Roast chicken skin is a little different. Crisp, yes, in a way, and to a point, but it won’t shatter and crunch quite so dramatically. That’s okay, it’s still one of the most delicious things on this planet.

The key to perfect chicken skin? Well, the main one is heat, as I described above. Even if you do nothing else, simply cooking the chicken in a nice hot oven will yield a beautifully browned bird.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

But we can do things to help further improve browning, if we have the time. One of the most effective techniques is to “dry-brine” the bird, which describes a process in which the chicken is salted all over and then left to sit, in the refrigerator and exposed to the air, until the salt penetrates into the meat and the skin dries out. This does two important things. First, it ensures more juicy, well-seasoned results, thanks to a little magic the salt works on the chicken’s muscle proteins (it lessens the degree to which the meat contracts during cooking, ensuring more juice retention). Second, it gives the skin time to dry out, and water, as we all know, is the enemy of browning any food.

Another trick you can throw at the chicken skin is to add a little baking powder to the dry brine. Baking powder helps create micro-bubbles in the chicken skin as it roasts, which further enhance browning and crisping. Plus, it’s alkaline, which speeds up the browning process known as the Maillard reaction.

Should You Baste the Bird?

No…and yes. Well, kinda. It depends.

Here’s what you should not baste the bird with: Any drippings that contain water, whether liquid exuded by the chicken as it cooks, or any other water-based fluids that have found their way into your roasting pan. Wetting the skin will only serve to slow down browning and lead to a less golden, more flabby result.

Fat, though, is another story. You can brush the chicken with oil or clarified butter (remember: regular butter contains water, so you don’t want to use that), or rendered chicken fat, or any other fat you have available. But actual basting throughout cooking isn’t necessary and it may actually impede the roasting process. Every time you open the oven to baste your bird, the oven is rapidly loosing heat, which will slow down to cooking process. The chicken will end up roasting at a lower temperature than intended, and have a greater risk of drying or overcooking before it browns evenly.

Giving the skin a good rubdown with oil or another fat before or shortly after popping it in the oven will help the skin to glisten and will improve how evenly it browns, since fat conducts high heat so well, without needing to open the oven during cooking to baste the bird.

This is also why mayonnaise can be an effective ingredient to lightly rub all over a bird before roasting, since it’s almost entirely oil with just a touch of egg, vinegar, and seasonings.

So, to review: Oiling the skin (which is partially a thing basting does) is good, but actually basting during cooking is potentially bad both due to the risk of unwanted water on the skin and also dropping the oven temperature too much.

Adding Flavor: Ideas and Variations That Go Beyond the Basic

I have long contended that a roast chicken, like so many other roasts, needs no more than salt to be dazzlingly delicious (as long as you make sure to salt it generously all over, inside and out). I stand by that claim, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to do just a little more, if you’re so inclined. Here are some good options:

Stuff the Cavity: I don’t mean with stuffing, as one might with a turkey, though that is an option (as with turkey, it just complicates things from a food safety perspective, since the meat will overcook by the time the stuffing is properly heated through, unless you take certain precautions). What I’m really referring to here are aromatics that can shoved into the chicken cavity before cooking to delicately season the meat, especially the parts closest to the cavity itself. I love jamming a bird full of fresh tarragon springs, for example, but rosemary, sage, and thyme are all great in their own way. Cloves of garlic never hurt a roast chicken, nor has sliced or quartered lemon.Spice it Up: While salt is all you really need, spices won’t hurt. Black pepper is the most obvious of all, but you could reach for funkier white pepper, or rub the chicken down in any number of ground spices or spice mixes. Smoked paprika, ground coriander, cumin, and a slew of other possibilities, alone or in combination, are great. The only thing to watch out for is that you don’t scorch the dry spices; this is easily avoided by giving the bird a good rub with oil in addition to the spices, which will help protect them from the dry heat of the oven.Rub With Herbs (Under the Skin): Rubbing the chicken down with a rough or smooth paste of herbs (which can also include oil, spices, and other flavorings) is another great direction for roast chicken. In this case, I recommend taking the slightly fiddlier road of pushing the minces herbs under the chicken skin and not just rubbing them on the exterior, since I’ve too often seen an herb rub burn when applied to the exterior of the bird. Some may wonder why you can’t just rub an herb paste on later in the cooking process, but I’d warn against that as well, as the cool, water-rich mixture of herbs risks to impede browning at a critical moment in the chicken’s path to perfect.

Roasting Method 1: The Easiest

This method is so basic, it doesn’t even warrant a recipe, and yet I want to include it because the truth is that even if you do nothing special at all—no dry-brining, no trussing, no spatchcocking—you can still make a delicious roast chicken. All this method requires is seasoning the bird with salt inside and out and tossing it in the oven until done.

There have been plenty of nights in my life when I’ve done exactly this because I’ve been tight on time, or just not in the mood to do anything more than the bare minimum, and I’ve never regretted it. I want you to know that there’s no shame in doing this at home too.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The biggest downside to this method is it does nothing to address the classic roast chicken dilemma, leaving you trying to split the difference between lightly overcooked breast meat or slightly undercooked leg meat (I mean, it’d still be safe to eat, just not quite as well done as most of us like it). That doesn’t make this a method unwelcome, since I think you can absolutely hit a sweet spot that’s really not bad—between 155 and 160°F for both the breast and legs gets you to a place that is not overly dried out for the white meat nor overly pinkish for the dark meat.

The other downside of this method is that it will likely leave you with under-browned skin on the thighs, due to their lower position on the bird, where steam tends to build and juices run down.

It’s not perfect, but it can certainly be good enough.

Roasting Method 2: Spatchcocking

Spatchcocking the bird has long been Serious Eats’ preferred method, and I continue to recommend it wholeheartedly. By cutting out the backbone and pressing the chicken into a flat shape with the legs splayed out and the breast in the center, a spatchcocked bird cooks quickly and browns evenly all over. Since the legs are positioned on the outer sides, they get exposed to more heat compared to the breast in the center, which helps even out cooking.

Another huge benefit to this method is that you can then use the cut-out spine, along with wing tips and any other trimmings to make a quick jus while the chicken roasts.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

All in all, it’s a wonderful way to cook a bird.

As for downsides, the main one I can think of is presentation. A spatchcocked bird can be a beautiful sight, but it doesn’t quite hit that textbook image of a roast-bird. I also find a spatchcocked chicken to be marginally more difficult to carve, since the flattened position means you have to work at more acute angles when slicing the breast meat off the breastbone and rib cage. It’s not difficult, just a little more awkward.There’s also a bit more labor involved with the spatchcocking process than the other cooking methods. Cutting through the spine does take a bit more arm strength and effort.

For a more in-depth look at why spatchcocking is such a great method, read Kenji’s article and recipe here.

Roasting Method 3: The Picture-Perfect Classic Bird

This method is the main reason I wanted to write this article and recipe, because until today, we didn’t have a rock-solid way to cook a chicken that wasn’t spatchcocked. I get it folks, sometimes you just want a classic roast bird, the kind of thing French chefs spend careers trying to perfect. I know I do. And the truth is that while spatchcocking is one great way to address the challenges of roasting chicken, it’s not the only way.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Just look at the bird in the picture above and tell me it’s not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Some of you are probably thinking your newborn child was the most beautiful thing you ever saw, but let’s be real, only parents can’t see how funny looking their kids are at first (I’m proud to say my dad’s first words upon seeing me were, “Not too pretty, is he?” I appreciate the honesty).

This method is the most time-consuming of the three, with the added step taking place on the stovetop to drive heat into the legs ahead of roasting in the oven. Earlier, I had written that a whole roast chicken doesn’t develop skin as crisp as, say, a pan-roasted piece of chicken, since the latter has the advantage of more extreme browning and crisping thanks to direct contact with the hot pan. Well that’s exactly what we’re going to take advantage of here.

The first step, though, is to truss the bird. Trussing does a couple things: First, it turns the chicken into a tidy little package that’s easier to handle, which is useful when you’re trying to pan-roast it before putting it in the oven. That tidy little package is also a key to the bird’s aesthetic appeal: It looks a lot nicer than the easiest-version bird above with its legs hanging out to the sides.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Trussing also helps compress and plump up the breast, which some claim slows down the time it takes the breast meat to cook and thus helps even out the cooking. I don’t know if I buy that, I’ve seen plenty of other equally compelling arguments that by pressing the legs tightly into the body of the bird, they cook more slowly, and honestly, that aligns more with my own experience. But it doesn’t matter, because we’re going to counteract that anyway.

As you can see in these photos, the cool trick with this method is to set the bird on its side in the pan so that a leg is in contact with the metal (the wing will be too). This drives heat into the legs without significantly warming the breast, getting a jump start on their cooking so that they’ll hit their ideal final temperature more or less at the same time as the breast. Once you brown one side, you simply flip the bird and cook the other side the same way, then position the chicken upright and pop it in the oven to fully roast.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

This searing step also browns and crisps the skin on the chicken legs enough that when the finished bird comes out of the oven, it will be perfect all around, even in the spots that typically don’t brown well in a more basic roasted bird.

The Setup: The Gear for the Best Roast Chicken

You don’t need much to roast a chicken, but the following equipment is all essential for some or all of the methods described here:

Rimmed baking sheet: A basic rimmed half-sheet pan is our go-to piece of gear for roasting most things, including chicken. Its low walls ensure steam isn’t trapped, which leads to better browning all over the roast, plus it’s an affordable and durable piece of gear. If you want to upgrade, don’t buy a classic roasting pan. Instead, I specifically recommend the roasting pan made by Misen, which addresses most of the complaints we’ve ever had about traditional roasting pans. You can read more about that in my article here.Wire Rack: Air circulation is key when roasting a chicken, whether during the dry-brining stage, or in the oven. A wire rack that fits a half-sheet pan is therefore a must-have.Stainless-steel skillet: When I’m cooking chicken following my “most perfect” method, I usually just do the whole thing in a skillet, since I start by browning the chicken in a skillet on the stovetop. At that point, there’s no harm in just tossing the chicken into the oven in the same skillet, as long as the skillet is oven-safe. If you switch to a baking sheet and wire rack before going into the oven, you’ll just have more washing up to do later, with little to no benefit (the skillet is so hot that even the underside of the bird will brown and crisp in the oven, negating the need for a wire rack, though it’s still useful to have that rack and baking sheet for the dry-brining step).
Instant-read thermometer: This is the tool you need to spot-check doneness on anything you’re cooking. Just stick the thermometer probe into the middle of the thickest part of your roast, making sure not to let it touch bone, which will throw off your reading, and see what it says.Probe thermometer: While you can do just fine with an instant-read thermometer alone, a leave-in probe thermometer is a real pleasure to use when roasting a chicken. Stick the probe into the bird, making sure to position it near the middle of the thickest part and then monitor the chicken’s internal temperature as it slowly climbs to your ideal doneness. Some probe thermometers come with additional ambient probes that can be used to simultaneously track the oven temperature, which is very useful for determining whether your oven is running properly on temp or not.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the salt with black pepper and baking powder (if using). Season chicken all over, inside and out, with salt mixture (or just plain salt if not using pepper and baking powder).

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Set chicken, breast side up, on work surface and tuck wings behind back. Using butcher’s twine, run the center of the twine under the tip of the tail end and truss chicken by tying drumsticks together at their bony ends, securing the legs and the tip of the tail together in a bundle. Criss-cross the twine and pass along the crevasse where the legs meet the breast; pass twine over wings to hold them into place, then tie securely around the stump of the neck. Place chicken, back side down, on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). In a 10- or 12-inch stainless steel skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Rub chicken lightly with oil, set set it on its side in the skillet so that the full thigh and drumstick are in contact with the pan; the wing will also be touching, but the breast should have little to no contact with the skillet. Cook until leg is well browned, 8 to 10 minutes, then flip bird so other leg is touching pan and repeat; lower heat at any point if chicken skin begins to burn.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Using hands and spatula if needed, rotate chicken so it is breast side up in the skillet and transfer to oven. Roast until breast registers 150°F (65°C) in the center of its thickest part and thighs register 165°F (75°C) near (but not touching) the bone, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer chicken to a carving board. Let rest 10 to 20 minutes, then carve and serve.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *