The ultimate guide to achieving roast chicken greatness, with tips from three of America's top chefs

"A roast chicken dinner is a complete explanation of why we cook," according to The New York Times food editor

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published January 16, 2021 5:35PM (EST)

Lemon and herb whole chicken on wooden board (Getty Images)
Lemon and herb whole chicken on wooden board (Getty Images)

New York Times food editor Sam Sifton starts his cookbook "See You on Sunday" with an entire chapter on chicken. He writes that "a roast chicken dinner is a complete explanation of why we cook." And he has data to back that claim up: "Chicken" tends to be the most-searched term on The New York Times website. It's also one of the easiest meals you can cook in the comfort of your own home, no matter your skill level.

Undoubtedly, that's the reason why roast chicken has also been a popular topic of discussion here at Salon Food since our inception in 2019. Road chicken is the ultimate comfort food — not only because it tastes so delicious but also because it is "the world's easiest dinner," as Ina Garten aka "The Barefoot Contessa" wrote in her debut cookbook.

There's arguably no better time to turn on the oven and pop a beautiful bird in than during the winter months to heat up the house as you wait on a home cooked meal that tastes like it came from a restaurant. Before you do pop a chicken into the oven, we want to set you up for success. From tips for achieving roast chicken greatness to what to pair with your bird, here is our ultimate guide to roast chicken. 

Why you should learn how to roast chicken — and keep it on rotation

It explains why we cook. When Sifton stopped by "Salon Talks" on his book tour, he expanded upon his philosophy of a roast chicken dinner as "the complete explanation of why we cook" by calling to mind Thanksgiving. 

"No matter where you're from, no matter how long you've been in this country, no matter how young or old you are, when you take that roast turkey out of the oven at Thanksgiving, you're connected to a cultural history of the holiday that runs back to the unfortunate birth of this country, but specifically to the 1940s and that Norman Rockwell ideal of grandmother taking the bird out, the kindly grandfather looking over her shoulder and the kids looking up at the bird, with their apple cheeks and it's a picture of white privilege," Sifton said at the time.

"But it is available to everyone, right? The roast chicken is a version of that, but it's much less freighted with political history," he continued. "It is this fragrant, crackly, sweet, salty, easily devourable, easily doubled or tripled meal that you can serve to family and friends. At once rustic and sophisticated because it's a whole bird. And boy it tastes good, too."

If you can roast a perfect chicken, you can cook almost anything else. There is one food that's the ultimate comfort food for James Beard Award winner Michael Symon. A different recipe for this singular dish has made it into all six of the Food Network Iron Chef's cookbooks, including his most recent: "Fix It With Food."

"There's nothing like a roasted chicken. I always tell if there's one thing you need to learn how to cook, you need to know how to make great eggs — and you need to be able to roast a perfect chicken," Symon previously told us on a "Salon Talks" episode. "And if you can do those two things, you can do most anything else."

It's the perfect date-night dinner. Garten literally makes roast chicken every Friday night for her husband, Jeffrey. We dare you to name a more dynamic duo in the food world than this pair, whose love spawned the cookbook "Cooking for Jeffrey."

"This is my husband's favorite Friday night dinner. It's a tradition with us. He has to drive 3 1/2 hours to get home every weekend, and there's nothing like the smell of a fresh roast chicken to make him feel that the trip was worth it," Garten wrote in "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook." "Of course, I would never tell him that it is also the world's easiest dinner. I love to get the chickens at the Iacono's farm in East Hampton. The chickens are plump and flavorful, the way I imagine they were before 'fast' food was discovered."

Tips for achieving roast chicken greatness, according to three top chefs

A dry skin is the best skin. Sifton tells Salon, "If you've got time to pat that bird down and get it into the refrigerator with a shower of salt over it a number of hours before you cook, moving cold air in the fridge is going to help. And that salt is going to help dry out the skin so that when the bird goes into the hot oven, the heat doesn't have to first evaporate liquid on the skin. It can immediately start to render the fat, the sebum that's under the bird's skin, and give it that crispy, golden, delicious exterior that we all love.

Season the bird inside and out. "One of the easiest ways to achieve roast chicken greatness is to season the bird inside and out, and let it marinate with the rub for as long as you can, ideally overnight (but 2 or 3 hours will do)," Symon writes in "Fix It With Food."

Use a hotter oven for crispy skin with less butter. "I know most recipes say to cook chicken for a while at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, but I prefer a hotter oven for a shorter amount of time, because it makes incredibly crispy skin without needing to rub the skin with butter," Symon adds. 

Bake the chicken over vegetables for a complete one-pan meal. "If you want to roast vegetables with the chicken, place 8 whole red potatoes, 4 carrots, cut diagonally into quarters, and add them with the onions," Garten writes in "Barefoot Contessa." "Place the chicken on top of the vegetables for roasting." (That's one cup of thickly sliced Spanish onions, for the record.)

Think outside the box about sides and desserts to pair with your bird

Michael Symon's Roasted Vegetable Mac and Cheese 

The secret is well out: This is the best mac and cheese recipe ever (that doesn't actually have cheese). That's why it finished as one of Salon Food's top recipes for 2019.

"Even hardcore mac and cheese lovers are very satisfied with the richness and the creaminess. And it still has decadence to it, even though you've eliminated all the dairy," Symon said on "Salon Talks." "And, really, that's what ["Fix It With Food" is] supposed to do. It's like —  there's not a recipe in this book that you'll eat and you'll say, 'I miss something.'"

Sam Sifton's Quick-Cooked Collard Greens

Sifton tackles one classic of southern cuisine in "See You on Sunday": collard greens. Though preparing this green is labor-intensive, few things are as rewarding as when you finally take a bite and taste the flavor inside each and every leaf. They're the perfect thing to make when you have extra time on your hands at home, but Sifton also developed a quick version for when you want a collards fix in a hurry after spending time with the famed Alabama chef Frank Stitt.

"He was perhaps Alabama's greatest chef," Sifton told us about Stitt. "He quickly blanches collard greens and then gets them in cold water to stop the cooking, so that they're soft but they haven't gone on forever. There's no potlikker situation going on. You squeeze all that water out, you just cut them into strips and then toss them in a hot pan with oil. It works really, really well."

Ina Garten's Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars

As with both roast chicken and Sifton's quick greens, the name of the game is easy. "If you have PB&J in the pantry, you can make my Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars! Who wouldn't want one of these?? What do you have in your pantry that you can't figure out how to use? Maybe I can help," Garten once offered fans

Check out these books for more inspiration about roast chicken — and beyond

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By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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