Roast Chicken, Three Ways

Dietsch here, guest-posting for Jen while she cooks up some stocks and beans.

One of my favorite things to eat, ever, has always been roasted chicken. Crispy skin, moist dark meat, gnawed bones, crunchy wings–I love it all. I’ve even said that if I could be assured someone would prep it correctly, and source a good bird, I’d want a roasted chicken as my Death Row meal.

But roasting a chicken correctly takes a few tricks, and not everyone agrees on the best method. I, in fact, stopped roasting them at home for years, because supermarket birds always dried out in the oven, no matter what I did, and the results were just heartbreaking.

When Jen and I started hanging out together, she shared one of her techniques–thinly slice a lemon and slide the slices under the skin of the breasts and thighs, with herbs, to baste the meat while it cooks. The rind breaks down enough during the roasting that you can bite through it and get a rich, lemony burst of flavor mingled with the chicken taste.

When I started grilling for us, I adapted that technique for grilled chicken. But my first attempts didn’t work out so well. I grilled the birds whole, which took way too long. One night, we were forced to eat at 10pm, after I finished the bird in the dark, and another night, we gave up and brought the chicken inside to finish in a hot oven.


Around this time, I found the first of the chicken methods I want to review today–spatchcocking. I saw this on an episode of Good Eats. You remove the backbone and then open the chicken like a book. (I drop the backbone into a stock bag in the freezer, and I usually trim off some of the excess skin and place that in a schmaltz bag for later rendering.)

Aside from that, I prepped the bird the way Jen taught me–lemon and herb under the skin, olive oil brushed on the surface, and salt and pepper liberally sprinkled, front and back.

This method is perfect for grilling. It takes much less time than grilling a whole bird, and you can flip it skin-side down, midway through cooking, to crisp the skin further. Plus, the grill marks are more even on the surface of the bird. I’ve done it this way many times–some with barbecue preparations and some with the simple prep of lemon and herb.

I love this method for roasting, too, for many of the same reasons–it takes less time and the skin browns evenly all over. It takes about 30-45 minutes on 450ºF. However, it has some disadvantages for roasting. You lose the tasty chicken butt, so crispy and unctuous; and the process of spatchcocking is a bit of a hassle.

Y’know What? Chicken Butt!

Some time ago, I saw a link to Thomas Keller’s Favorite Roast Chicken. He leaves the bird whole, rinses it, and pats it very dry. He then likes to “rain the salt down” over the bird to coat evenly. The salt helps the skin to dry out in the oven so that it gets really crispy. He uses no oils or juices on the chicken because they’ll steam in the oven and soften the skin. This method takes about 50-60 minutes on 450ºF.

This method is brilliant. It doesn’t take dramatically longer in the oven than the spatchcock method does, and if you count the time you spend removing the backbone, it’s really about even. However, you get the yummy chicken butt with this method. Keller even rhapsodizes about that nugget of joy, while reminiscing about his childhood in the process. (The recipe’s a charming piece of food writing and worth a read if you’ve never seen it.)

Disadvantages? I don’t think there are any disadvantages to this method. It’s my new favorite chicken prep.

Smoke Me!

I know, however, that another method has its fervent partisans, and that’s the Zuni Cafe method developed by Chef Judy Rodgers. This one takes some time. You have to start getting your chicken ready a few days before you plan to serve it. You season the chicken with a generous amount of salt, all over the bird, and  put it in the fridge for 1 – 3 days. Not only will this dry the skin out and enhance the crisping process, but Rodgers also says it develops the flavor of the bird and locks moisture in the flesh, where it belongs.

She suggests that a larger bird needs more seasoning time, and since ours was just over 3-1/2 pounds, I seasoned ours for the full three days. Now, I have some experience with this idea, so I get what she’s going for. I often take steaks from the freezer a couple of days before I’m planning to cook them, thaw them, salt them generously, and set them in the fridge to “dry-age” so the surface sears crisply. (I stole this method from Marlow and Daughters butcher Tom Mylan.)

About an hour before cooking, I removed the bird from the fridge so it could reach room temp and finished prepping Rodgers’s bread salad recipe. I cooked the bird at varying temps, starting at 450ºF, cranking up to 475º, and then backing it down to 425º. The bird cooked just under an hour. Notice something here. In all three methods, I roasted the chickens at around 450ºF. This will be important in a minute.

The results of this method were delicious. The chicken was perfectly crisp and yet succulent and moist inside. The bread salad was a revelation, and probably our favorite thing about this meal.

The disadvantage? The entire house filled with smoke. The cats had tears streaming down their faces and we had to crack open a window in the kitchen and open one upstairs so that we could all breathe. On a 15º day, we had to open the windows. Luckily, we had already removed the smoke detectors, so we didn’t have to worry about continually setting them off.

The chicken is the same stuff from the same purveyor we’ve used for nearly a year now–Pat’s Pastured Poultry at the farmer’s market. The oven temperature is the same–450º. The only variable is the fridge aging, and it turned disatrous. In skimming the comments on Deb’s post at Smitten Kitchen, I can see that we were not alone in having this problem.

And, ultimately, neither of us thought the flavor surpassed that of the Keller method. I noticed some subtle differences in flavor; it was perhaps a bit richer to my palate, but Jen didn’t really notice much.

Although the chicken didn’t work out that well, the bread salad was fantastic. Some pieces were tender, others crunchy, but all were intensely flavorful and rich. We used half a durum loaf from Seven Stars and for the leafy component, a winter mesclun from Simmons Farm. We originally had planned to serve sauteed kale, too, but the salad mix was such a strong component of the bread salad that we decided against it.

Verdict: Disappointed with the Zuni chicken, not the flavor, but the method. Totally delighted with the bread salad. I might make the Zuni chicken again, but it simply will have to wait for a day when we can open the door and all the windows to let the air circulate.

Until then, I think the Keller chicken and the Rodgers bread salad is the combo for us.

22 thoughts on “Roast Chicken, Three Ways

  1. I don’t know which one tasted the best but the roasted chicken looks absolutely wonderful.
    I am sure that they were all good but I appreciate the effort you made in this post to show us so many options.

    Sharona May

  2. I roasted a chicken for the first time ever last week using the Zuni method. Not only did it smoke the entire house up, but it left splatters of grease all over the oven that were not fun to clean. Our house still smells. I am curious to try it again since it was deemed Truly Delicious but want to do it with less mess and fuss. Thanks for the comparisons. The Keller method is next!

  3. Lisa says:

    I seem to have been having a simultaneous chicken roasting experimentation as you guys! I started with my mothers recipe, moved to Keller, then moved to Zuni.

    My favorite part of the Zuni recipe was that it was where I learned the “slip some herbs under the skin” trick. I personally haven’t had problem with the smoke but everyone I have recommended the recipe to has! And I adore the Keller recipe for its crispiness and simplicity.

  4. Very interesting comparison of chicken roasting techniques, Mike! Years ago i heard somebody on NPR go into rhapsodies about a chicken roasting method where you start the chicken at very high temperatures to seal in the juice, maybe it was even Marcella Hazen…but for me it was an unmitigated disaster because the whole house filled with smoke and like you, i had to open doors and windows on a cold winter night. And then i had a stinky greasy blackened oven to clean up afterwards. Yuck! Thanks for the link to Smitten Kitchen…now i’ve got another blog to follow!

  5. md says:

    Great job. The chicken “butt” is the best part. When I spatchcock (for grilling or when I’m short on time for roasting) I cut only along one side of the backbone and roast the entire thing. It’s no hassle and takes a few seconds. And you get all the delicious backbone bits! Also, thanks for revealing the Zuni method as excessive and unnecessary. I ate the chicken and bread salad at the restaurant years ago and it is still one of my most memorable meals but I think a simpler roasting method is equally delicious, especially at home.

  6. I love to spatchcock my chickens for a few reasons. First of all, if you brown the chicken first in a cast iron skillet, you can stick it in the oven (in the same skillet) and it’s ready in 30 minutes. Also, this really ensures some seriously crispy skin without compromising the juiciness of the meat by overcooking. Also, I get a perverse pleasure out of cutting through the rib bones to remove the backbone. And, finally, the juices and fat drip down into the skillet to cook whatever you want– I’ve set the chicken on top of shallots, fennel, and root veggies, and everything comes out delicious (duh, it’s chicken fat). Yes, it’s sad to miss out on the chicken butt, but a spatchcocked chicken is an easy weeknight meal. Here’s mine:

  7. I have the same qualms (qualm?) about the spatchcocking – I can’t stand losing the butt!
    So I’ve taken roasting whole chickens and chicken parts in a hot oven with nothing applied but kosher salt earlier in the day, giving the salt time to work its magic. This is my default method and it’s worked well, though I will try the lemon and herb thing in the future.
    I’m also intrigued by your steak-salting technique. I’ll give that a roll this week as well.

    Great post, and beautiful looking chickens!

  8. Oooh, I have a hankering for roast chicken now! I have a clay chicken brick which is by far the most perfect way to cook a chicken that I’ve found. .. although it’s a bit lacking in crispiness; maybe I should try salting it first.

  9. I roast my chicken the Keller way. Lots of kosher salt and high heat.
    The only problem is that my smoke alarm goes crazy everytime!

    Sometimes I sneak an onion in there and a lemon and do it Ina’s way, either way, it’s always our favorite weeknight meal.

  10. This whole thing about the Zuni method being smoky and messy is surprising to me. I’ve not heard that, although I’ve never roasted a chicken using the method. However this past weekend I roasted a chicken using a technique that I got from Sunset magazine. It’s similar to Zuni but not nearly as fussy. It involves salting, but in this version, you salt under the skin covering the breast and thighs, as well as on the skin and in the cavity. Then it only needs to sit for 3 hours to overnight, not 3 days. The cooking temp is not as high either, only 375. It takes longer, about 1 hour 45 min for a bird that weighs about 4.5 to 5 pounds, but I have to say, I’ve never made a juicier chicken, and I’ve roasted many. That bread salad on the other hand is something I need to explore.

  11. Jennifer Hess says:

    Okay, I know I’ve said this before, but did I marry well or what? Gotta love a guy who still makes chicken butt jokes (and who has had me saying “chicken butt!” at completely random and inappropriate times all week).

    Anyway, just a couple of comments.

    Chicken size: We buy our chickens from Pat. We buy what he has available. We love his chickens. He’s our guy. We tend to bring home 3.5-4 pounders pretty consistently, which I don’t think is overly-large for the Zuni method. I don’t think either of us are willing to change where we source from.

    Cooking vessel: We use our well-seasoned cast iron skillet for everything we can in our kitchen. Roast chicken is no exception. It’s the best tool for the job, and if we’re so inclined to make a pan sauce, we can, easily.

    Smoke: We have hard-wired smoke detectors which, if plugged in, go off from steam if we indulge in a too-long shower. We pulled them down in anticipation of a little action, but what we ended up with was really unpleasant – for us and the cats. We’ll try the Zuni method again when we can more comfortably open things up for ventilation, but frankly, we have a little low-powered, un-vented to the outside exhaust fan, and it really doesn’t do the job for people who like to cook the way we do. But hey, we love where we live. So, you know, we’ll adapt. 🙂

    And finally,

    Zuni bread salad: OMFG. Dudes. Seriously. I am practically drooling just thinking about it.

  12. Dietsch, I agree with the 450-rain-the-salt-down-done-in-50 minutes method. Only addition would be lemon juice 🙂

    …and herbs inside…or a bit of bacon, or…aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

  13. I think the Zuni method will be my go-to for a long time, but thanks to your post I have a serious craving for chicken, so I’ll try Keller’s version tonight. I know you wouldn’t steer us wrong!

    And the sheer length of the bread salad recipe put me off, but maybe when I have some time on my hands I’ll give it a go. Thanks for the inspiration!

  14. Anna says:

    To clarify, do you not get the smoke problem with the 450 degree method? Was it just an issue with the chicken you stored in the fridge? I really want to try the 450 degrees for ~an hour but I worry about the house being filled with smoke. Thank you!

  15. Hi Anna,

    I don’t normally get that amount of smoke with any other method but the Zuni. The Keller method doesn’t put off much smoke at all. I suspect the Zuni method dried the skin out so much it started to smoke in the oven, but I still don’t really know what happened there. It’s why I want to try it again some time, to figure out where I went wrong.

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