Seasonal Flavors: Perfect Roast Chicken

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Roast Chicken isolated on white.

Which do you think would taste better: a fresh strawberry from your June garden, or one grown far away, picked before it is quite ripe so that it can be shipped several thousand miles to your grocery?

And do you prefer a locally grown summer tomato, or a tomato bought this month at the store?

Is a Chesapeake Bay crab in the shell, freshly boiled with Old Bay seasoning and dipped in butter, better tasting than what you get from a can of crabmeat?

Do you suppose it’s healthier to eat a diseased plant or animal, or one that has been provided what it needs for growth?

This brings us to chicken. There is no comparing a factory- farmed chicken to a fresh, local, pasture-raised bird. I’ll save my rant about caged cruelty to animals for another column, but I will say that if you choose to eat meat, you ought to make sure that what you eat has been given a good life. This goes for your vegetables too! 

Commercial chickens never see the light of day, and they get an enriched diet designed for weight gain but not necessarily for health or flavor. A pasture-raised bird is healthier. Its meat and fat reflect the fact that it has lived its life outside as a chicken ought. It’s been allowed to eat fresh plant material and insects that it loves. It’s had a great chicken life.

All this leads me to reveal that there are many people who believe that I have some sort of magic when it comes to roasting a chicken. One of my sons thinks it. One of my friends announced at a dinner party, “I can’t cook chicken like Denise can, so I bought this already cooked from El Carbon Restaurant.”*

So, this month, I’ll give you the tricks of the trade to produce a roasted chicken that has crispy skin, delicious flavor, and is not dried out. But the most important ingredient is the chicken. I urge you to find a locally produced bird. The Charlottesville area has at least two vendors selling local chicken: Timbercreek Farm and the Free Union Grass Farm (full disclosure: I live on the latter, and my son is the owner; after I wrote this column, I learned that he had just sold out of chicken, so please call Timbercreek!)

If you don’t use quality ingredients, you can’t expect a quality result. Words to live by.

The Perfect Roast Chicken

  • One 4-5 lb local chicken
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil
  • Optional commercial spice mix—choose cajun, Old Bay, Mrs. Dash, our own local Peg’s Salt, or any favorite herb or spice blend.

Trick #1 Locally grown chickens have the neck still attached. Cut it off and put it in the freezer for later use in stock or soup. You’ve paid a lot for this chicken; don’t waste anything.

Trick #2 Dry the chicken with paper towels, inside and out.

Trick #3 Rub the inside and the outside of the chicken with olive oil, then with the kosher salt. Lots of salt. Then if you prefer, use a spice rub of your choice.

Trick #4 Employ trick #3 and then refrigerate the chicken overnight.

Trick #5 Remove the chicken from the refrigerator about an hour before roasting it. Place the prepared chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, breast up, and put it into a preheated 400°F oven.

Trick #6 Invest in an instant-read thermometer; and use it. 

Trick #7 A chicken generally must roast for 30 minutes per pound. Pull the chicken out 30 minutes before you expect it to be done and look to see if the juice that has collected inside the chicken is running clear. If it is, it’s done or nearly so. Use the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and the thickest part of the thigh. Avoid touching the bone. If it reads 165°F, it’s cooked. If it doesn’t, or those juices aren’t clear, put it back in the oven for 30 more minutes and try again.

Trick #8 Rest the chicken for 20-30 minutes. It will be juicier. Trust me.

Trick #9 I find the best way to cut and serve a chicken is to simply quarter it. Cut directly through the breast bone so that you have two, identical chicken halves. Then cut the leg/thigh quarters off and leave the wing with the breast. This chicken is so delicious that people will be happy to eat a quarter of it. Let them cut off less when it comes to the table if they insist that they can’t eat that much chicken.

Final note: You can shortcut just about any of the above tricks. But if you want THE BEST CHICKEN YOU EVER TASTED, you’ll take my advice: buy a local chicken and use the tricks I listed above.

*That chicken was truly delicious! It was marinated and then cooked over charcoal on a rotisserie. 

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