There’s something wondrous about a whole roasted chicken sitting in all its golden glory on a carving board. To the eye or the camera lens it’s an icon of culinary perfection, the stuff of food magazine covers, usually surrounded by a colorful assortment of roasted vegetables.
What else can explain why home cooks persist in the pursuit of the perfect roasted chicken, even when they know it’s more elusive than the perfect golf swing?
In the 52 years I’ve been playing golf I’ve made several perfect swings. But in some 40 years of trying, I don’t think I’ve ever turned out the perfect roasted chicken, no matter how pretty it might look on the carving board.
Each of these two activities – playing golf and roasting chickens – is a definition of the ultimate optimism. The difference is that I know if I keep playing the game I probably will make more perfect golf swings every once in a while. But I have no such illusions when it comes to roasting a whole chicken. No matter how many times I fail at either, I’ll still believe the next time I might get it right. Optimism.
So, just like all of you, I’ll keep trying.
I get a yen for a whole roasted chicken at least once a month, no matter the season. What’s strange is Jennifer and I each prefer the dark meat of the chicken thigh and leg to the white meat of the breast. When I roast a whole chicken, someone is going to have to eat the white meat. It won’t be the cats, so that means it’s me. Jennifer likes the white meat even less than I do.
I asked Jennifer the other day why, in the face of all this, I continue to roast whole chickens. Her answer, “I don’t know. It’s just what you do.” Easy for her to say. She gets both thighs and both legs. I get the breast, although that includes the wings, which I love.
I’ve never understood why chefs consider the breast the prime part of the chicken. Unless it’s covered in sauce, most often it’s dry and without much flavor. I think the number one reason we go through so many gyrations to brine, rub, or season a chicken before we roast it is because we hope to coax some flavor and moisture into the breast. Why else rub butter on or under the skin? Why pierce a whole lemon and stuff it into the chicken cavity? When I roast a whole chicken I make some kind of dry or wet rub that goes under the skin and brings added flavor to the bird. It might be Chinese style, or Greek style, or Italian style, or faux barbecue.
Consider this: if you took a chicken breast and a thigh and put them in a roasting pan in an oven and cooked them together for the same length of time at the same temperature, what would happen? Either the breast would be overcooked or the thigh would be undercooked. When you cook a chicken breast by itself don’t you cook it for a lot shorter time then you cook a thigh by itself?
So, why do we think we can put a whole chicken in the oven and cook all its parts at the same temperature for the same length of time?
The result may well be worthy of a magazine cover photo. But there’s no chance in the world the breast and the thigh can be cooked to perfection at the same time. Underneath that golden skin there has to be either an overdone breast or an underdone thigh.
There are other barriers to perfection in the roasting of a whole chicken, things like what the bird might have been fed, how free it was to roam around the ranch, whether it’s been frozen. Even some of the great chefs of our time and earlier years can’t agree about the correct temperature for roasting a chicken. Sometimes they even disagree with themselves from year to year.
In the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook published in 1985 Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins tell us to roast a whole chicken at 375 degrees for 20 minutes to the pound. Four years later in The New Basics the same pair calls for roasting at 350 degrees and advise that the time depends on the size of the chicken. In the first recipe they instruct us to use garlic, salt, pepper, butter and parsley to flavor the chicken. In the second one it’s lemon or orange juice with salt, pepper and paprika.
Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame in the Napa Valley roasts his whole chicken, according to the recipe in ad hoc at home, for 25 minutes at 475 degrees and then reduces the heat to 400 degrees for an additional 45 minutes. He writes: “Knowing how to roast a chicken perfectly is one of those great basic skills because it gives you an infinite number of dishes … You can season it in any number of ways, or make a great sauce to go with it, or simply top it with some butter and serve it with some mustard on the side. There’s a huge amount of variety with just this one technique.”
Josiah Citrin, owner and chef at Melisse in Santa Monica CA, published his first cookbook, In Pursuit of Excellence, early this year. No roast chicken recipe here. Instead it’s a rotisserie chicken with 12 ingredients that cooks for 50 minutes on a pre-heated rotisserie and then 15 minutes in a 450-degree oven.
If these big time chefs can’t decide how long a chicken should cook and at what temperature what hope is there for us home cooks. It’s like watching a world class golfer have his swing go south as he unleashes an array of poor shots. He or she does little else all day every day but practice under the watchful eyes of a team of coaches. If they can’t get it right, what hope is there for us amateur hackers?
I know all these things; I know how difficult it is to execute a perfect golf swing and I know the futility of turning out a perfect whole roasted chicken. That I persist, I think, defines me as one truly great optimist. Maybe someday I’ll reach the pinnacle of optimism. I’ll go out and play 18 holes of golf in the morning and then roast a whole chicken for dinner that night. And maybe that day I’ll make one or two swings on the golf course that are near or at perfection. But the chance that the chicken will be perfect is an illusion. Just as a golf club is ill designed for the task of knocking a ball into a small hole from hundreds of yards away, a chicken is just not constructed for roasted perfection. So why not play golf in the morning and roast just the chicken thighs for dinner? Less photogenic, but it’s a way for Jennifer and me to each be happy at the dinner table.