Finding The Courage To Roast A Chicken

by | Aug 8, 2012

Photo by Ms. Glaze

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a foodie proclaim that roasting a chicken is the easiest thing in the world and the perfect place for new cooks to start.


I can think of at least a hundred things easier to cook than roasted chicken, with salad being the undisputed champion (and eggs being the runner up).

Buying and cooking a whole chicken requires a number of steps that can make a new cook uncomfortable. First you have to know where to get the chicken—and if you want a pasture-raised, antibiotic-free bird (as you should) this isn’t always straight forward. To make the purchase you must also be comfortable talking to the butcher even though there’s a good chance you have no idea what you’re talking about. You also have to be willing and able to deal with raw meat, which makes many people queasy in and of itself. Lastly, cooking meat requires special equipment such as a meat thermometer and roasting pan, which newbies might not have access to.

So no, roasting chicken is not the easiest thing on earth. But if you can get over all those things, it really isn’t that hard either.

Being a food writer, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I roasted my first chicken last month, and my second last night. I have a zillion excuses for why I hadn’t done it before. I think the main one is that a whole chicken just sounds so big, like too much work and too much food. But I was inspired by Ruth Reichl’s recipe in her book Garlic and Sapphires, so I finally built up the courage to make it happen.

I’m happy to report that both birds turned out amazing. The difference in flavor between a real farm fresh chicken and the massive “boneless skinless” breasts I grew up eating is truly phenomenal. That alone is reason enough to try the recipe, in my opinion.

I don’t want to poach Ruth’s entire recipe for chicken and roasted potatoes, but for the bird you basically just preheat your oven to 400 degrees, put the excess fat under the skin on top of the breast meat, put a fork-punctured lemon into the cavity, coat the skin with salt, pepper and olive oil and cook for one hour or until the temperature is 170 degrees in the thigh. I improvised a little since there wasn’t much excess fat on my first chicken and added a pad of butter on each side as well. I also chopped some fresh rosemary and rubbed it under the skin. The second time I forgot the lemon and it turned out fine.

Sure it’s simple, but I know I’m not the only one intimidated by the idea of buying and cooking an entire chicken. I was at the park last night when I decided to run to the store and pick up something for dinner. When a friend asked me what I was planning to make, her response was pure shock, “You’re going to cook a WHOLE chicken! Darya, can I please take cooking lessons from you?”

She seemed so impressed I couldn’t bring myself to admit it was only my second attempt and I had no idea if I could pull it off again. Then I realized she would probably like to know.

Thanks Elle for the reminder that even the “easy” stuff takes some courage if you’ve never done it before.

UPDATE: Since writing this post in 2011 I’ve roasted at least 50 chickens and used the bones to make stock. The first step really is the hardest.

What “simple” dish intimidates you in the kitchen?

Originally posted July 6, 2011.

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35 Responses to “Finding The Courage To Roast A Chicken”

  1. Iain D says:

    I’ve seen a similar recipe for beer-can chicken. It has to be a big enough chicken to fit a beer can in the cavity. You slice a lemon in half and jam both halves under the skin, under the breast. Once it’s stood up on the beer can it looks pretty funny. Good for parties.

    I continue to be psyched out by hollandaise. I’ve never even tried to make it, and I consider myself an above average cook.

  2. Brian says:

    Your method sounds easy enough, but is still way more complicated than it needs to be. When we roast a whole chicken we do it in 4 easy steps:
    1) place chicken in pan
    2) put chicken in oven
    3) take chicken out of oven
    4) strip off all meat, cook meat+veggies with the fatty skin, and make stock from the carcass for later

  3. lunaKM says:

    Pie crust intimidates me to no end.

  4. Epicurea says:

    thanks for sharing the story and congrats to getting over your fear of whole chicken!
    i used to be afraid of cooking fish. where i come from, there isn’t a lot of fish available besides fish sticks (!), so when i first moved to coast, i was struck by the variety available at every plain old supermarket.
    i enjoy fish a lot and once i overcame my anxiety (raw fish also isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world…), was astonished how easy and fast it is to prepare: wash and pat dry, rub in some salt and pepper, put the fish in a pan with olive oil and lemon and in 10 minutes you have a healthy and delicious meal.

  5. Kat says:

    I’m going to agree with roasting a chicken being hard. I tried to roast one for my mom for Mother’s Day. In the end, it was a success but that was after four hours in which Mom came home, showed me what I did wrong, and finished cooking the chicken herself.

  6. E. Foley says:

    Crock pots are great for newbies to the whole chicken. My favorite recipe is simply: chicken, 1 cup soy sauce, handful of sesame seeds. 🙂

  7. Rainier Wolfcastle says:

    Thank you for admitting what many of us know: roasting a chicken to even close to perfection is no easy task. Recipes vary from 300F to 500F, with all sorts of rubbing/tucking/tieing/turning/basting suggested. I think the recipe you provided is an ideal middle-of-the-road, and should make any chicken lover quite happy.

    For my next chicken I’m going to try to adapt a wildly successful heirloom turkey cooking technique. You cook at 350F the whole time, but you start with the breast down and submerged in stock with sautéed mirepoix, and finish with the breast up and out of the stock. I did this with an heirloom turkey and it was the best turkey I’ve ever made, and I’ve cooked a lot of heirloom turkeys and done turkeys in all kinds of ways, including deep-frying and smoking whole.

  8. Alex Felts says:

    Kinda gross but, any tips on “cleaning out” the chicken?

    I bought my first bird from the farmers market a few weeks ago and it doesn’t come with one of those neat and tidy packets inside like the processed ones.

  9. I love roast chicken! Luckily no one ever told me it was hard! Actually, I use a recipe from the first cookbook I ever bought, called “Easy Basics for Good Cooking” (seriously, I still use this book even though it’s falling apart and published by Sunset in the 1980s). Take the whole chicken (I get mine from local farmers), remove giblets and whatnot from the middle, rub it down with butter and herbs (I like herbes de Provence), stuff some garlic cloves and bay leaves in the middle, and cook at 375 for about an hour and a half. It comes out perfect every time.

  10. erika says:

    I mess up roasted chicken every time I cook it. Inevitably, I take it out of the oven too early when part of the chicken is still fairly raw.

    The other “easy” food that I can’t seem to make is eggs. They always stick to the pan no matter how teflon the pan or how much oil I use.

  11. Rachel says:

    I agree it’s not the easiest, but once you get used to it, it seems so simple and you can do so many different things with it. My favorite recipe is actually called “psycho chicken” (you have to stab the chicken a la the shower scene in psycho) but it made the most tender flavorful bird I’ve ever had. Here’s a link to the recipe:

    The other great thing about roast chicken is how many meals you can get out of it. Eat the dark meat for dinner for a day or two, and take the skin off the breast and cut it up to make chicken salad with peapods, grapes, toasted walnuts and a mustard vinaigrette.

    I save all the odds and end bits of all the veggies I prepare, like carrot peels, onion skins etc. Everything and throw it in a bag throughout the week, then I just throw it in with the carcass of the chicken and simmer on low for a few hours, and then I have stock!

  12. I’m not a big meat eater (probably once every couple of months), and part of the reason is just not wanting to deal with it all–the raw meat, the mess, the responsibility of it all. It just feels like a big deal to roast a chicken. When I do, it feels like a very special treat, and I use every bit of it, right down to the bones (for stock). I love the lemon idea…I’ll be trying that!

  13. Richard says:

    Try ‘spatchcocking’ a whole chicken. Cuts the cook time to about half of what it would normally be. The basic procedure is to use poultry shears to cut out the backbone, then flatten/butterfly the chicken, brown it in an oven-safe skillet on the stovetop, flip and add vegetables, place a cast-iron skillet on top, then finish in the oven. The little bit of extra prep time to butterfly the chicken pays off in a much shorter cook time, typically only about 40 minutes. Here’s a good step-by-step:

  14. Jules says:

    I agree wholeheartedly! I have always been an excellent cook, but always struggled with roasting a chicken. I may have cracked the code though- last week I let one sit out for a few hours to come to room temp before roasting; it came out PERFECT! It was the best one I’ve ever made!

    • That’s a really good point! I’ve heard the same about other kinds of meat — but so easy to forget, in this day and age when we’re obsessed about keeping food cold for safety’s sake. Thanks!

    • Rainier Wolfcastle says:

      I absolutely agree. My rule of thumb is 1 hour sitting out at room temp for small things (steaks, chops, chicken pieces), and 2 hours for larger things (roasts, whole chickens/turkeys). That seems to be enough time.

  15. Adriana says:

    I find it funny that eggs are your runner up in the ‘undisputedly easy to cook’ items. I feel I cannot poach an egg correctly to save my life without the aid of plastic wrap.

  16. Rainier Wolfcastle says:

    OK, I did my experiment as promised, based on this Weber grilling recipe but doing everything on the stovetop and in a 325F oven instead of the grill: How to BBQ a Turkey (PDF)

    Since I was cooking a 5-lb bird instead of a 10-lb bird, I simply cut all amounts and all times in half. I used a 7-qt Staub enamled cast iron coquette (sans lid) because I didn’t have a small roasting pan with high enough sides.

    I made the brine on Wednesday so it would be completely cold when I put the bird in it the next day (I’m a bit of a food safety wonk). Thursday night I put the bird and the brine in an oven bag. I removed the bird on Friday after 20 hours in the brine, and let it sit out at room temp for about an hour or so before it went into the oven.

    The result was not what I would call a roast chicken. It didn’t have the character or the crispy exterior of a roast chicken.

    It was, however, the most delicious moist braised chicken ever. And the gravy was sublime. The only time I’ve had a better bird/better gravy was when I made this on a grill with a heritage turkey.

    If you want to serve a chicken that will make your friends/family wonder how the heck you got even chicken breast meat to be so moist and so flavorful, this is a great way to go. You can also cheat and when you strain the pan juices, serve the veggies instead of tossing them out. Although they’ve given up a lot of flavor to the pan, they’ve also been cooking in those wonderful juices, and they are darned tasty.

    But if you want that special wonder that is a roast chicken, stick with Darya’s method.

  17. Phil Butcher says:

    I was intimidated by rice and pasta for the longest time. I can cook somewhat complex recipes, but I would always under or over cook them. I have pasta down now, but still suck at rice.

    If you want a great roast chicken recipe, here is my go to from a Rachel Ray magazine. I suggest mincing a jalapeno, serrano, or habanero and working it into the mix. Delicious!

    Peruvian Roast Chicken

    6 cloves garlic, chopped
    Salt and pepper
    2 teaspoons dried oregano
    1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/2 teaspoon paprika
    1/2 cup white wine vinegar
    One 4-pound chicken, rinsed and patted dry

    Spanish Lesson
    The traditional way to cook Peruvian chicken is a la brasa, or over an open flame, on a rotating spit. If you’ve got a rotisserie on your grill at home, dust it off and put it to use.

    Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, smear together the garlic and 2 tablespoons salt on a cutting board to form a paste; transfer to a small bowl. Stir in the oregano, ginger, cumin, 1 teaspoon pepper and the paprika. Stir in the vinegar.

    Slide your fingers between the chicken skin and breast and loosen the skin from the meat, working your way to the legs. Spread the marinade under and over the skin and inside the cavity. Transfer to a gallon-size resealable plastic bag; refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

    Preheat the oven to 400°. Remove the chicken from the bag and place breast side up on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced with a knife between the breast and the wing, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before carving.

  18. Mary says:

    I just finished reading Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat, and I’m curious whether you eat the skin on poultry. I eat a mostly plant-based diet and, for the last six months, virtually no refined carbs. I’m considering adopting a more animal-based diet in order to increase my HDL level, but am still worried about increasing my LDL. It’s all so confusing.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I eat the skin (love it!) but only of animals from farms I trust. My biggest worry is that environmental contaminants tend to concentrate in animal fat, so I don’t eat industrial meat if I can avoid it. Do you have high LDL even on a plant-based diet?

  19. Mary says:

    I last had my cholesterol checked in February, only a month and a half after I cut out refined carbs. My levels hadn’t improved at that point. LDL is normal (can’t remember the number), but my HDL was like 34. Pretty poor. My doctor wanted to put me on niacin to raise the number, but I wanted to try to change my diet first.

  20. Carol Jimerson says:

    Probably the 5th time I’ve tried to roast a chicken and thanks to your blog I tried ONE LAST TIME. Guess what – it was PERFECT. Thanks to a quick YouTube video on properly trussing that little bird and one hour in the oven at 450 with nothing but salt and pepper – OMG – delectable! Thanks again for this post. I’m a new fan of Summer Tomato. Carol in South Carolina

  21. Dee says:

    🙂 sweet story!

    Making anything with flour intimidates me – pizza dough, dumplings, bread, cookies, souffles …. (guess that could be a good thing)

    Also Big chunks of Red meat in oven … Steaks, ribs, lamb, pork

    And whole chicken too! Lol

    I try new things from time to time…. I’ll let you know, when I roast my first chicken…..

    • Dee says:

      I recently roasted my 2nd turkey. Did one for Christmas which turned out ok… Then one for Easter which was super delicious fabulous, I’m getting braver by the day… Now to my repertoire , I ventured into breads and muffins, flatbread etc because of my family….not the most healthful for me though…

  22. simba says:

    Student roast chicken:

    Heat oven until it feels hot when you put your hand in. Get chicken. Pull bits out of chicken. Put a stabbed lemon or three, or half an onion, or a handful of some kind of spices/herbs/garlic (really, anything will work) inside chicken. If they look like they’ll burn block the arse with half an onion.

    Rub chicken with salt. Put in oven. Stab it when it looks crispy and see if the juices run clear- if not (if they’re pinky-cloudy), put it back in until they do. If it starts to go too brown cover it with tinfoil and keep going.

    There, roast chicken! I’ve known people make it from that recipe who couldn’t cook pasta. I can’t cook fried eggs if my life depended on it, but I can do this. You can do it on any kind of flat surface that you can shove in an oven (that will not melt/burn). If you have an oven, a chicken, salt, and a knife or skewer you can do this.

    The only problem is that this isn’t an exact method of telling how hot your oven is, so cooking time is 1.5-4 hours.

    What simple dish intimidates me? Soft-boiled eggs. I can never get the damn things exactly how I like them. It just requires too much timing and care.

  23. Gretchen N. says:

    You couldn’t be more right. Since I moved from the US to Germany, I have found myself in many situations where I had to “do things from scratch” that seemed so daunting–but turn out to be ridiculously easy. From a Chicken perspective, I had never roasted a whole chicken either. Dorie Greenspan’s “Chicken for Lazy People” from Around my French Table got me over that fear. Now I realize how easy it is. Among other things I have have dared to try and was shocked to see how easy it is (and won’t likely go back to the store-bought/processed shortcuts) are: Baking Cakes, Making Chicken Broth, Making Eggnog, Making Refried Beans (and most mexican food in general), making pie crust and making homemade salsa.

    It is amazing how the short-cuts really don’t save that much time and how much better everything tastes. While there are still many foods on my “that’s too hard” list, the next one I want to attempt is homemade pasta. We have had this great little pasta maker for years that has never been used. Maybe a project for a rainy weekend at home.

  24. Angela says:

    I recently roasted my first chicken. I left it in the oven too long, so the skin on top was stiff and cracking, but I’d put so much liquid in/on it (lemon juice), that with the chicken juices, left the rest of it nice and edible. 🙂

    The worst part for me, was pulling something out of it, and having to clean the inside – I felt like I was violating it. I’m 39, by the way; it was just after my birthday, and I thought it was about time I did it. 🙂

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